Stranded at 18,000 Feet: An Alaska Tragedy

ByABC News
January 15, 2003, 5:02 PM

Jan. 16 -- 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.