Stranded at 18,000 Feet: An Alaska Tragedy

Jan. 16, 2003 -- Last April, John Griber made a remarkable choice for a mountaineer: just 100 feet from the summit of the United States' second-highest peak, he turned back. It probably saved his life.

Griber, a 36-year-old adventure snowboarder, was on a quest with three other experienced climbers to climb Alaska's 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias and ski from the summit right down to the sea, setting a world record for a vertical ski descent.

For many climbers, reaching the summit is the paramount goal, the reason they climb in the first place. But Griber decided that pushing ahead — he estimated it would take him 20 minutes to reach the top — could sap the strength he would need for the rigorous snowboard descent, so he decided to go down.

He had let two of his teammates, Aaron Martin, 32, and Reid Sanders, 30, go ahead to the summit. (The fourth member of the team, photographer Greg Von Doersten, 38, had stayed below after losing a crucial piece of equipment and suffering frostbite.)

Griber strapped on his snowboard and began the descent, using two ice axes to help him slowly sideslip down the icy, crevasse-ridden, 50-degree slope. After half an hour, he looked up and saw Martin and Sanders about above him on their way down. The wind was blowing so he could not hear their words, but he could tell from their waving and hooting that they had made the summit.

Then, after another 15 minutes, Griber felt some ice and snow fall on him from the slope above. He looked around and — to his horror — saw something flash by in the periphery of his vision.

It was Martin, sliding uncontrollably fast down the slope on his side and without his skis. He did not cry out, and as he flashed by — just 40 feet away — all Griber remembers hearing was the sound of Gore-tex fabric sliding across the ice.

"As I turned my head and watched him slide from view I just started screaming 'No!' because that was the only thing I could think of," Griber remembers. "After he slid by, it was just absolute silence."

Griber yelled out to Sanders, but when he got no response, he realized the other climber must have fallen, too. He began to understand the situation facing him. He was alone at nearly 18,000 feet, and the temperature was -5 degrees Fahrenheit and falling with the fading sun. Much of the equipment he would need to get off the mountain alive — including the team's satellite phone — had disappeared in the backpacks of his two teammates. "I'm on the face by myself, and it's an enormous place to be," he remembers thinking.

A Bad First Day

The foursome had been planning the trip for months, and when they arrived on the mountain three days earlier — dropped off by a small plane on a ridge at 10,500 feet — the conditions were perfect: cold but not too cold, and a blue sky with no sign of bad weather.

The team had dubbed the trip the 2002 Ultimate Vertical Ski/Snowboard Descent, and had attracted sponsors including The North Face. Although another team had skied from the summit of Mount St. Elias in 2000, they had not gone all the way to the ocean. The run to the sea, with its 18,000-foot vertical descent, would qualify Griber and his teammates for the world record for an uninterrupted vertical ski descent. Griber planned to make the run on a snowboard; the others on skis.

The expedition ran into problems on the first day, April 5, when Von Doersten, 38, lost a crampon on a steep, 3,500-foot ice face. With one foot virtually useless, he was unable to climb, and his teammates had to haul him up the face, tiny step by tiny step. In the hour it took them to get him up the face, his hands had developed signs of frostbite.

The four climbers decided to spend the night at 14,500 feet, and built an igloo to protect them from the cold and wind. The next morning Griber, Martin and Sanders decided to go on, leaving Von Doersten to wait until their return two days later.

The next two days of climbing went smoothly and the three climbers reached 16,000 feet — close enough for a summit attempt the next morning.

Alone at 18,000 Feet

Nobody will ever know what happened to Martin and Sanders the next day, April 8, as they began their descent from the summit. They were alone when they fell, and their bodies were later located in crevasses high up on the mountain.

Griber was stunned by their disappearance. "I just sat there and just beat the snow and I started sobbing uncontrollably," he recalls. He began thinking how he would break the news to the men's families, then realized he couldn't bear the thought of his own wife Becca, at home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., getting similar news about him. He decided he had to survive.

He unhooked his snowboard and let it slide down the mountain. Then, using a headtorch to guide him, he descended to a flat spot on a nearby ridge where he thought he could find shelter for the night. He lit his stove to heat some water, but a huge gust of wind toppled the stove and — even worse — blew the top of his backpack off the mountain. It contained film and a small video camera —luxuries in an extreme situation — but also two crucial items: his goggles and a fleece neck warmer.

He climbed into a bivi sack — a thin bag designed to provide emergency shelter — but soon began shivering uncontrollably. Knowing he would not survive on the ridge, he set off again, this time managing to locate the tracks he and his teammates had made on the way up. In the pitch-dark, moonless night, he picked his way down the route, eventually finding a crevasse around 17,000 feet that would protect him from the wind.

A Night Fighting the Cold

In temperatures approaching -40 degrees F, Griber spent a harrowing night forcing himself to keep awake so he would not freeze to death. He recognized the signs of hypothermia — uncontrollable shivering, thigh muscles twitching and seizing, vomiting. At one point he began hallucinating, seeing the stars "almost like fuzzy orbs in the sky."

But when dawn came, Griber was still alive. The weather had worsened, with high winds and cloud, but he managed to climb down to the snow cave where Von Doersten was waiting at 14,500 feet. With Von Doersten unable to climb, they settled in to wait for help — and hope that someone would spot them on the vast mountainside.

High-Altitude Rescue

The next day, April 10, they heard a plane and Griber went outside to try to attract the pilot's attention. He crossed two skis in an "X" to show that they were having problems, and the pilot — the same one who had dropped them off five days earlier, spotted him. Griber used his ice axe to spell out a message in six-foot-high letters: "2 DEAD."

The pilot, Paul Claus, radioed for help, and within minutes a sergeant with the National Guard's 210th Mountain Air Rescue, 275 miles away in Anchorage, was giving his men the command: "Climbers. 14,500. Go get 'em, boys!"

The only helicopter available was a Pave Hawk, which normally is used only below 10,000 feet. At higher elevations, the air becomes thinner and the helicopter's rotors get less lift.

After the two-hour flight to Mount St. Elias, the helicopter crew located the stranded climbers and prepared to land on the slender ridge near their igloo. But as they came in to land, a gust of wind suddenly slowed the rotors, reducing power and meaning the pilot no option but to land. Just at that point, the crew noticed Von Doersten approaching, just eight feet away from the tip of the rotors. The helicopter touched down, then skidded 10 to 15 feet to the very edge of the ridge, the rotors missing Von Doersten's 6-foot form.

The crew pulled Griber and Von Doersten on board, telling them to ditch their packs because weight was crucial. Sensing that the snow under his craft was unstable and that he did not have enough power for a vertical takeoff, the helicopter's pilot, Maj. Rick Watson, took off by "skiing" down the 9-degree slope. The tail wheel did not leave the snow for around 150 feet.

Griber and Von Doersten were transferred to a hospital in Anchorage, where they were treated and discharged without serious injury. Von Doersten would later fully recover from the frostbite, and both men plan to continue climbing.

On April 12, Griber and Claus flew over Mount St. Elias and saw the two bodies from the plane: Martin in a crevasse at 16,000 feet, and Sanders at 17,000 feet, also in a crevasse. There were no signs of life, and, considering the extreme danger, no attempt was made to recover the bodies.