Surviving climber describes tragedy on Mount St. Elias

Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Inching his way down a 45-degree ice face on Mount St. Elias, choosing his route carefully to avoid what would be almost certain death if he fell, John Griber turned when he heard a swishing sound above.

About 40-50 feet away, he saw companion Aaron Martin off his skis and on his side, sliding with no way to stop.

''All I heard was Gortex on ice,'' Griber said. ''He was sliding on his right hip.''

There was no scream, no flailing.

''I can't tell you why he was so calm,'' Griber said.

Griber watched for 30 seconds as Martin slid hundreds of feet and out of sight. Griber immediately yelled for the second skier in the party, Reid Sanders. His calls were met with silence.

Martin, 32, of Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Sanders, of West Yellowstone, Mont., were presumed killed from falls on the Tyndall Glacier. A searcher in an airplane Friday spotted a body and gear about 3,000 feet below the peak. The pilot could not identify the body but planned to return later in the afternoon to assess if a recovery could be attempted, said National Park Service spokeswoman Jane Tranel.

Griber and Greg Von Doersten, both of Jackson, Wyo., were picked up in a daring helicopter rescue by the National Guard on Wednesday.

The park service initially reported Martin and Sanders disappeared Tuesday, but Griber said his fellow climbers fell Monday.

Recovering Friday afternoon in Anchorage, Griber recalled by telephone the deadly expedition in an interview with The Associated Press.

His voice at times cracking, Griber said the party of four intended to climb to the summit of the 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias, the second tallest peak in the United States, and be the first to ski or snowboard to sea level from that height.

All four in the party were experienced mountain skiers. Martin and another team had attempted the descent last year but were turned back by a snowstorm at about 15,000 feet.

This year, the weather was sunny, calm and relatively warm, Griber said.

Paul Claus, owner of Ultima Thule Outfitters, the pilot who spotted the body Friday, dropped the climbers off April 4 at Hayden Col, a ridge just above 10,000 feet.

The next day the climbers began their ascent. The first hurdle was a 3,500-foot ice face that varied in steepness from about 45 degrees to 60 degrees. Climbing with 65-pound packs full of enough food and gear to establish a forward camp, the four ran into a problem at the last pitch. Von Doersten lost a crampon and could not ascend or retreat.

By the time Martin pulled him up to the top of face by rope, Von Doersten had suffered frostbite on his hands. The climbers dug a snow cave at 14,500 feet and Von Doersten decided to stay behind because of his injury.

Griber, Martin and Sanders set off the next day and by Sunday reached the 16,000-foot level. The next morning, they decided to try for the summit, but faced another ice wall, though not as steep as the earlier one. Griber described the surface as ''runneled'' -- lined with channels varying from a few inches to about 15 inches deep caused by water melting, flowing and freezing.

They roped up, encountered some crevasses, but by late afternoon, were 600 or 700 feet from the summit.

Griber decided he would rest while the others pushed forward.

''I just felt really drained,'' he said, and he untied himself from the rope that linked them.

''I wanted to let them take advantage of not pulling me up,'' he said.

Griber rested about 10 minutes while Martin and Sanders went ahead, then followed their footprints.

At about 6:15 p.m., 150 feet from the summit, Griber decided he could go no further. He was growing concerned that reaching the top would take at least 20 more minutes, and darkness was falling.

Instead, he took off his crampons and neoprene overboots and fit his feet into his snowboard to start down the mountain.

In severe conditions, Griber said, he often snowboarded with an ice ax in his hand. As he started down St. Elias, he picked up one in each hand.

''This wasn't snowboarding, this was absolutely survival technique,'' he said.

Still, it was the same or even better conditions than the three had encountered on previous trips.

''This is what we were used to doing,'' he said. ''We specialize in high angle, extreme terrain. We're not just a couple guys who went out and said, 'Let's go ski this thing.'''

As he started down, Griber occasionally paused to wait for Martin and Sanders. After a half hour or less, he spotted his companions about 800 feet above him. They were close enough to call out to each other.

''That was a relief,'' Griber said. ''I thought, 'Man, it's getting late.'''

He slowly continued for another 15 minutes, looking for good snow, occasionally able to make a turn.

When a few ice balls rained down on him Griber realized Martin and Sanders were directly above.

''I said, 'Man, this is a little dangerous','' and he traversed to the right to get out of the way.

A few minutes later, he heard the sliding sound. Over his right shoulder, he saw Martin falling.

Martin carried self-arresting ski poles, sort of a pickax attached to the top of the pole, but did not stop.

''It seemed like an eternity of a fall,'' he said.

Griber yelled for Sanders, but heard nothing. Sanders had not yet cleared an area of unstable ice columns and crevasses to the skiers' left.

As darkness continued to fall, Griber put on his headlamp and made his way to the right, an area of talus and rock debris, where he jettisoned his snowboard.

He tried climbing on the rocks, calling for Sanders, and looked for a flat place to bivouac.

Eventually, concerned with his own safety, he put crampons back on, located the footprints the climbers had made that afternoon, and walked on ice in the dark until he found a crevasse to get out of the bone-chilling wind.

''I was feeling cooked at this point,'' he said. ''I was beyond tired.''

He arose at 5 a.m., searched again for Sanders, then descended to 16,000 feet, where he found the snow shelter from Sunday night. He stayed long enough to warm up in a sleeping bag, then climbed down to the 14,500-foot level to tell Von Doersten of the tragedy.

A day later, on Wednesday, Claus flew over the area to check on the climbers.

Griber and Von Doersten waived to the pilot and Griber used his ice ax to carve out a message in 6-foot letters: ''two dead.''

Claus dropped a message in a weighted bag. The note said a rescue was possible, and for the climbers to raise both arms if they needed help.

''I fell to my knees and raised both hands,'' Griber said.

Griber and Von Doersten were picked up by the National Guard's 210th Mountain Air Rescue, which normally has a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet. The crew lightened their HH-60 Pavehawk rescue helicopter and were able to land to pick up the men.

Griber and Van Doersten left behind all their gear and were flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Both have been released.

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