AVALANCHE—BACKCOUNTRY SNOWBOARDING, POOR POSITION
Alaska, Mount St. Elias
On April 7, John Griber was carefully working his way down a 45-degree ice face on Mount St. Elias. He turned at the sound of a “swish” above. Forty to 50 feet away, he saw companion Aaron Martin (32) off his skis on his side and sliding. Griber watched for 30 seconds as Martin slid hundreds of feet and out of sight. Then the snowboarder yelled for the second skier in the party, Reid Sanders. There was only silence.
Pilot Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Outfitters in Chitina on Friday reported spotting a body about 3,000 feet below the peak, with a string of equipment tracing the route of a fall. Claus, a noted Alaska Bush pilot, planned to return to see if a body recovery was possible. Griber and a fourth climber, Greg Von Doersten, were rescued by a National Guard helicopter Wednesday.
Below is part of Griber’s conversation with The Associated Press by telephone.
Griber said the men intended to climb the mountain, then become the first to ski or snowboard to sea level from such an elevation. Martin and another team had tried the same thing a year earlier only to be turned back by blizzards. This year the weather was sunny, calm, and relatively warm in the days after Claus dropped the men off at Hayden Col, a pass just above 10,000 feet, on April 4.
The next day the climbers tackled their first hurdle, a sheer 3,500-foot ice face. Climbing with 65-pound packs stuffed with food and gear for a higher camp, the four ran into a problem when Von Doersten lost a crampon on the last pitch, preventing him from climbing. By the time Martin pulled him up on a rope, Von Doersten had frostbitten his hand. The climbers dug a camp into the snow near 14,500 feet. Von Doersten decided to stay there while the others went on.
Griber, Martin, and Sanders set off the next day and by Sunday had reached 16,000 feet. The next morning, they were ready to go for the summit but faced another ice wall. It was not as steep as the first, Griber said, but the surface was lined with channels a few inches to 15 inches deep caused by water melting, flowing, and freezing. By late afternoon, though, the men were above that headwall and within 600 to 700 feet of the summit. Griber rested there while the others pushed forward.
“I just felt really drained,” he said. “I wanted to let them take advantage of not pulling me up.”
Griber estimates he paused 10 minutes, then followed the footprints of the two skiers. At 6:15 p.m., 150 feet from the summit, he decided he could go no farther. He worried that it would take another 20 minutes to the top, and darkness was coming.
Griber took off his crampons and neoprene overboots and locked into his snowboard. In severe conditions, Griber said, he often snowboarded with an ice ax in his hand. This time, he had one in each hand. “This wasn’t snowboarding,” he said. “This was absolutely survival technique.” Still, he noted the conditions were the same or better 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.’”
Griber started down. He paused occasionally, he said, to wait for Martin and Sanders. Within half an hour or less, he spotted his companions about 800 feet above. Griber slowly continued down the mountain for another 15 minutes, looking for good snow, occasionally able to make a turn. When a few ice balls rained down, he figured Martin and Sanders must be directly above. Griber said he felt it was “a little dangerous.” He traversed across the slope to be out of the way if anyone fell. A few minutes later, he heard the sliding sound, and over his right shoulder saw Martin. Martin had self-arrest grips on ski poles for braking to a stop on steep snow, but he could not stop.
Griber yelled for Sanders, but heard nothing. Sanders had yet to clear an area of unstable ice columns and crevasses, Griber said. As darkness fell, Griber put on his headlamp and made his way into a band of talus and rock, 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 his 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 provide shelter from the bone-chilling wind.
“I was feeling cooked at this point,” he said. “I was beyond tired.”
He woke at 5:00 a.m., searched again for Sanders, then descended to the old snow shelter at 16,000 feet. He stayed long enough to warm up in a sleeping bag, then descended to 14,500 feet to tell Von Doersten of the tragedy.
A day later, Claus flew over to check on the climbers. Griber and Von Doersten waved to him, and Griber used his ice ax to carve out a message in six-foot letters: “TWO DEAD.” Claus dropped a weighted bag with a note saying 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.
A HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter from the National Guard’s 210th Mountain Air Rescue group in Anchorage came to get them. The crew had to lighten it to safely climb to 14,000 feet. Griber and Von Doersten abandoned their camp and equipment on the mountain to scramble aboard the flight to safety. (Source: Associated Press and Anchorage Daily News reporter Craig Medred)