Two missing, presumed dead on Mount St. Elias

Posted: Friday, April 12, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two climbers on Mount St. Elias are missing and presumed dead after they attempted to descend the mountain on skis, according to the National Park Service.

Aaron Martin of Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Reed Sanders, of West Yellowstone, Mont., disappeared Tuesday on Tyndall Glacier.

A third climber, John Griber, of Jackson Hole, Wyo., descending on foot, saw Martin slide about 4,000 feet before going out of sight.

''He went right by him on the glacier,'' said park spokeswoman Jane Tranel.

After Martin disappeared, Griber searched for Sanders higher on the mountain but could not locate him.

Mount St. Elias, at 18,008 feet, is America's second tallest peak. It stands near the Canada border at the northern end of Alaska's Panhandle within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest unit of the national park system.

Searchers on Thursday were waiting for weather to clear to fly over the area. Snowfall limited visibility and made flying impossible near the search area, Tranel said.

Griber and a fourth climber, Greg Von Doersten, also of Jackson Hole, were rescued Wednesday.

Paul Claus, owner of Ultima Thule Outfitters, a company that outfits expeditions and trips into the park, dropped the four climbers off April 4 at Hayden Col, a ridge on the mountain slightly higher than the 10,000-foot level.

While scaling an ice wall on the way to the summit, Von Doersten lost a crampon. He remained in the ice face for several hours and suffered frostbite on his hands. The other three climbers had to lower a rope for him from the top of the ice wall and he could not continue on. He stayed at a forward camp at about 14,500 feet.

The other three reached the summit late Tuesday.

Their plan was to ski or snowboard to sea level, said Hunter Sharp, park deputy superintendent. Griber, a snowboarder, changed his mind and decided to walk but Martin and Sanders stayed with their plan to ski, Sharp said.

Griber started out first.

At about the 17,000 foot level, Martin slid by Griber, out of control.

''He said Martin had lost his edge and he was on his hip,'' Sharp said.

Griber watched Martin slide about 4,000 feet, then disappear.

Griber turned around and searched for Sanders. Griber told Sharp that Sanders was missing in an area of unstable ice columns and crevasses.

After searching for three hours, Griber bivouacked for the night at 16,000 feet. On Wednesday morning, he searched for three more hours, then descended to 14,500 feet and met up with Von Doersten.

Claus, the outfitter, flew back to the area Wednesday morning to check on the climbers' progress.

As he flew over Griber and Von Doersten, he spotted a message stamped in the snow that said, ''two dead, two need rescue.'' He called Sharp, who notified the Rescue Coordination Center.

The Air National Guard responded with an HC-130 Hercules rescue tanker and an HH-60 Pavehawk with the Guard's 210th Mountain Air Rescue. The rescuers picked up Griber and Von Doersten at the 14,500-foot forward camp.

The normal ceiling for the Pavehawk helicopter is 10,000 feet, said Staff Sgt. Jeff Wells, a National Guard spokesman.

''They went up higher than they're accustomed to,'' Wells said.

Because the air is thinner, ''It takes a lot more power to fly at that altitude,'' he said.

The helicopter was able to land on the ridge. Griber and Van Doersten were flown to Yakutat, transferred to the HC-130, and flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Both have been released.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is adjacent to Canada's Kluane National Park.

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