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Skier falls 2,000 feet to his death on McKinley's Orient Express

Craig Medred

Finnish skier Ikka Uusitalo had a beautiful girlfriend and every reason to live, but they did not dull his desire to go big. On Wednesday, the 36-year-old paid the price for his attraction to huge mountains and steep slopes. He plummeted nearly 2,000 feet to his death while trying to ski the Orient Express on North America's tallest mountain.

A security consultant, talented photographer and sometimes freelance journalist, Uusitalo was one of four Finns on a Denali 2012 expedition to 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, according to a website the group established. Officially named McKinley, the glacier-shrouded peak north of Anchorage in Denali National Park and Preserve is known to many as Denali, one of several names originally given it by Alaska Native tribes.

It is unclear whether the Finnish group reached high camp at 17,200 feet on Tuesday or early Wednesday, but the National Park Service said that it was Wednesday afternoon that Uusitalo started down the "Orient Express.'' The couloir was long ago named, in a politically incorrect way, for the many Japanese and Korean climbers who slipped at the top and fell to their deaths in the 1970s. Despite that danger, the lengthy, sometimes smooth, near-45-degree slope has long attracted extreme skiers. It was first skied in 1996, according to the American Alpine Club. There have been many successful descents since -- and a few deaths.

An icy, rough ski

A couloir off McKinley's West Buttress, the Express tops out near 19,300 feet on the summit ridge, about 1,000 feet below the peak. It drops from there for about 3,500 feet to near the 14,200-foot camp on the mountain. The terrain in the couloir varies from 30 to 45 degrees in pitch, and if the snow is good, it is quite skiable. The snow, however, is often icy and the sastrugi -- wind-sculpted snow -- can make it extremely rough.

Extreme skier Ed Maginn from Salt Lake City encountered the latter conditions in the gully six years ago. He hit a rock hard drift of snow and fell, then bounced and cartwheeled for 2,600 feet. He later told Anchorage reporter and playwright Peter Porco that his only thought as he tumbled downward was that he wanted to die so it would all end.

"Countless times he smacked into the hard snow, often with his face,'' Porco wrote at the time. "He somersaulted over two crevasses. But he never got his wish, apparently missing a band of rocks that could have torn him to pieces.'' Maginn was seriously injured in the fall, but eventually recovered.

No rescue possible

Uusitalo was not so lucky, though he fell nowhere near as far as Maginn. He was near 17,800 feet in the couloir, skiing with two of his climbing companions, when he fell about 1,950 feet. "Uusitalo tumbled through snow, ice and rocks, coming to a stop in a crevasse at 15,850 feet,'' the park service's Maureen McLaughlin reported.

One of his teammates skied down to the park service’s ranger camp at 14,200 feet for help, but it was too late. While a rescue was being organized, Uusitalo’s other teammate rappelled into the crevasse with help from some other climbers on the mountain. "They determined that Uusitalo was likely deceased,'' McLaughlin said.

A park service team confirmed his death about an hour later. Ranger Tucker Chenoweth was lowered 60 feet into the crevasse by three volunteer rangers. He found Uusitalo's body.

It was hauled to the surface, airlifted to base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier and then flown to Talkeetna.  His death comes less than a week after a Germany climber grabbing for a backpack near 16,200-feet slipped and plummeted down the Headwall to his death.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

CORRECTION: This story was corrected on May 25 to reflect the status of Ikka Uusitalo's relationship and the fact the photos on his website are not of him and his family.