Finnish skier Ikka Uusitalo had a beautiful wife and a young son, but they did not dull hisdesire to go big. On Wednesday, the 36-year-old paid the price forhis attraction to huge mountains and steep slopes. He plummetednearly 2,000 feet to his death while trying to ski the OrientExpress on North America's tallest mountain. A security consultant, talented photographer and sometimesfreelance journalist, Uusitalo was one of four Finns on a Denali2012 expedition to 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, according to a website the group established. Officially named McKinley, theglacier-shrouded peak north of Anchorage in Denali National Parkand Preserve is known to many as Denali, one of several namesoriginally given it by Alaska Native tribes. |
It is unclear whether the Finnish group reached high camp at 17,200feet on Tuesday or early Wednesday, but the National Park Servicesaid that it was Wednesday afternoon that Uusitalo started down the"Orient Express.' The couloir was long ago named, in a politicallyincorrect way, for the many Japanese and Korean climbers whoslipped at the top and fell to their deaths in the 1970s. Despitethat danger, the lengthy, sometimes smooth, near-45-degree slopehas 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 fewdeaths.
An icy, rough ski A couloir off McKinley's West Buttress, the Express tops out near19,300 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-footcamp on the mountain. The terrain in the couloir varies from 30 to45 degrees in pitch, and if the snow is good, it is quite skiable.The snow, however, is often icy and the sastrugi -- wind-sculptedsnow -- can make it extremely rough. Extreme skier Ed Maginn from Salt Lake City encountered the latterconditions in the gully six years ago. He hit a rock hard drift ofsnow and fell, then bounced and cartwheeled for 2,600 feet. Helater told Anchorage reporter and playwright Peter Porco that hisonly thought as he tumbled downward was that he wanted to die so itwould all end.
"Countless times he smacked into the hard snow, often with hisface,' 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 topieces.' Maginn was seriously injured in the fall, but eventuallyrecovered. No rescue possible Uusitalo was not so lucky, though he fell nowhere near as far asMaginn. He was near 17,800 feet in the couloir, skiing with two ofhis climbing companions, when he fell about 1,950 feet.
"Uusitalotumbled through snow, ice and rocks, coming to a stop in a crevasseat 15,850 feet,' the park service's Maureen McLaughlin reported. One of his teammates skied down to the park service s ranger campat 14,200 feet for help, but it was too late. While a rescue wasbeing organized, Uusitalo s other teammate rappelled into thecrevasse with help from some other climbers on the mountain. "Theydetermined that Uusitalo was likely deceased,' McLaughlin said.
A park service team confirmed his death about an hour later. RangerTucker Chenoweth was lowered 60 feet into the crevasse by threevolunteer rangers. He found Uusitalo's body. It was hauled to the surface, airlifted to base camp on theKahiltna Glacier and then flown to Talkeetna. His death comes lessthan a week after a Germany climber grabbing for a backpack near16,200-feet slipped and plummeted down the Headwall to his death.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.
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