Unforgiving Mountain Four seasoned adventurers had a bold vision: to set a record by skiing from the peak of Alaska's Mount St. Elias to the sea. But after two of them reached the summit, something went terribly wrong

April 28, 2002

He looked like a phantasm. John Griber's face was blank and
covered with tiny icicles. The zippers on his jacket were frozen
solid. As he approached an igloo on a ridge 14,500 feet up
Alaska's Mount St. Elias on the afternoon of April 9, his steps
were heavy with fatigue. Inside the shelter his friend Greg Von
Doersten was nursing his fingers, black with frostbite. When Von
Doersten heard just one set of crampons raking the snow outside,
he knew immediately: The two other members of the expedition,
Aaron Martin and Reid Sanders, were dead.

Griber entered the igloo, and he and Von Doersten--without
exchanging a word--embraced and broke down in tears. They
allowed themselves some time to recount what had happened and to
grieve. "Then," says Griber, "we turned to each other and were
like, We need to get out of here."

But they couldn't. Griber was so exhausted he could barely move,
and Von Doersten's frostbitten hands were useless. A day later
the two men heard the buzz of a plane's engine overhead. They
bounded out of the igloo and tried to get the pilot's attention.
Griber waved wildly. He then grabbed an ice ax and wrote a
message in the snow in six-foot block letters: 2DEAD. After
contacting authorities by satellite phone, the pilot and his
passengers dropped a note in a weighted bag: HELICOPTER CAN COME.
IF YOU NEED RESCUE, RAISE BOTH HANDS IN THE AIR. The note missed
the igloo, but Griber scrambled along the ridge in his down
booties, an ice ax in each hand, and retrieved it. When he read
it, he raised both arms to the heavens and then collapsed to his
knees.

Only a few days earlier the gods had been smiling. Or so it had
seemed to Griber, Martin, Sanders and Von Doersten. After months
of intense planning and training, the four prominent expedition
skiers and mountaineers had arrived at 18,008-foot Mount St.
Elias, the second-highest peak in the U.S. The sky was a broad
canopy of blue. The temperature was brutally cold but bearable.
A high-pressure system was shielding the mountain from storms.
Using a satellite radio, Martin contacted a nearby weather
station and was told that he had timed the trip perfectly.

Mount St. Elias, a glistening pyramid tucked away in southeast
Alaska--the hinterlands of the hinterlands--is not known for
suffering hubris gladly. In most years fewer than five teams
attempt to climb the peak, far less traffic than the more famous
Denali gets. A year ago Martin and three friends attempted to
ascend St. Elias only to be repelled at 15,000 feet by a fierce
snowstorm. But now the omens were as favorable as they could be.
"The conditions were bomber," says Griber. "We were all thinking
that we were about to get on a roll and make history."

The historic feat the team would attempt was astonishing even to
hard-core powder hounds, a breezily imprudent species with a
vertiginously high threshold of awe. The four adventurers planned
to summit the mountain from a base camp at 10,500 feet and then
slide down to the Pacific Ocean, Griber on his snowboard, the
others on skis. If they pulled it off, they would set a world
record for a vertical ski descent.

"It was a cool idea," says Doug Byerly, a Durango, Colo.,
adventurer who in 2000 used the Mira Face route to complete the
first ski descent of Mount St. Elias. Martin's team would be
using the more exposed Southwest Ridge. "But I'm not sure
summit-to-sea was reasonable on that route," says Byerly. "We're
talking about a savage, unforgiving mountain."

Not that these were four heedless thrill-seekers plucked from a
Mountain Dew commercial. Each had a wealth of experience and was
prominent in the skiing-mountaineering subculture. The team
comprised two sets of longtime friends. Martin and Sanders, both
30, had met in the sandbox in Los Gatos, Calif., when they were
two and had been as close as siblings ever since. Martin, a
world-renowned adventure skier who claimed several first
descents--including some in Alaska's Chugach Mountains in the late
'90s--cut a larger-than-life figure, standing 6'5" and sporting a
mane of blond hair. Sanders was a stoic whose poise and
levelheadedness complemented Martin's exuberance. Sanders owned
Hellroaring Ski Adventures in West Yellowstone, Mont., and his
greatest pleasure was educating others about the riches of the
outdoors.

Through various expeditions together the world over Martin and
Sanders had made two pals from Jackson Hole, Wyo.: Griber, 36, a
world-class snowboarder, and Von Doersten, 38, a well-known
outdoor photographer. Through a series of calls and e-mail
exchanges, the four agreed to form a team. But, says Von
Doersten, "we didn't just say, 'Let's ski this thing.' We
specialize in extreme terrain."

What's more, the expedition had plenty of buildup. The 2002
Ultimate Vertical Ski/Snowboard Descent, as Martin named it, had
its own website and a smart-looking official logo. Sponsors such
as The North Face agreed to help defray costs that totaled
roughly $20,000. Steven Siig, a cinematographer friend of
Martin's, would shoot some footage for a documentary. "From the
start Aaron was out-of-his-brain excited about the endeavor,"
says Griber. "By the time we left, he had infected us with his
enthusiasm."

On the morning of April 5 a local pilot, Paul Claus, transported
the team one by one in his Super Cub aircraft to Hayden Col base
camp, at 10,500 feet, roughly 7,500 feet from the summit. Martin
had predicted that the first day's climb, from base camp to
14,500 feet, might be the most difficult of the entire ascent. It
would include a sheer ice face that ranged in slope from 45 to 60
degrees. But given the near-ideal conditions, the climbers opted
for Alpine-style mountaineering, forgoing ropes and making a
quick, aggressive assault. Although each lugged more than 65
pounds of gear, they made rapid progress for most of the day. A
few hundred feet from their destination they hit their first
snag.

In the gathering twilight Von Doersten, who was below his three
teammates, felt an awkward sensation in his right foot. Reaching
down to check his crampon, he heard the sound of metal clanging
down the slope. Somehow, over thousands of steps, the crampon had
come loose and fallen off. Von Doersten alerted Griber and Martin
that he was "having an issue." Martin dropped a rope to Von
Doersten. "Right then and there Aaron saved my life," says Von
Doersten. As Martin spent more than an hour tugging his harnessed
partner to safety, Von Doersten developed frostnip on his fingers
that quickly progressed to frostbite. Without a crampon and with
damaged hands, Von Doersten was in no shape to continue
ascending. As the climbers stopped for the night at 14,500 feet
and built an igloo--they had brought no tents--they hatched a plan.
Von Doersten would tend to his fingers in the igloo for the next
few days. He would then reconnect with Martin, Sanders and Griber
as they descended.

The following day was blissfully uneventful. Martin, Sanders and
Griber continued to 16,000 feet and dug out a snow cave. The next
morning Martin called Siig on the team's satellite phone and got
Siig's answering machine. "You better get your butt up here,"
Martin said. "We're going to the summit!" With the weather still
clear, they went full bore. By early evening on April 8, just
three days after they'd started, they reached the pinnacle.

Except for Griber. Barely 75 feet from the top, just before the
last cornice on the ridge, he stopped to admire the view, bathing
in a breathtaking sunset. Above him he could hear Martin and
Sanders rejoicing. He decided to stop and turn back. He's still
not altogether sure why; perhaps he simply listened to a sixth
sense. He says, "I know it doesn't make sense for a lot of
people: 'Why would you go and spend months of preparation, spend
thousands of dollars and stop less than 100 feet from the
summit?' At that point I was content, I was totally cooked, and
something was telling me, 'You've done enough.'" This premonition
may have saved his life.

Griber removed his crampons and neoprene overboots and climbed
onto his snowboard for the descent. He grabbed an ice ax with
each hand and, ever so slowly, slide-slipped through icy and
runneled snow, negotiating the crevasses of all shapes and sizes
that dotted the terrain like so many trapdoors. "I wouldn't
exactly call it snowboarding; it was more of a survival
technique," he says. "But at this point it wasn't anything I
didn't think I could get myself out of."

By the time Martin and Sanders had taken a short rest, changed
into their skis and pushed off from the summit, Griber was a few
hundred feet beneath them. Martin and Sanders, proceeding
cautiously, made occasional verbal contact with Griber. Suddenly
Griber heard the tinkling of falling ice chunks overhead and
maneuvered to the right to get out of their way. There weren't
enough to signal an avalanche, but he knew they augured ill.

Moments later Griber heard a whoosh and turned to see an image
that he suspects has been burned into his mind's eye for life:
Martin hurtling by, out of control, on his right hip. He wasn't
struggling or kicking his legs. His normally bellowing voice was
silent. All Griber could hear was Gore-Tex on ice. He stared in
disbelief as his teammate and friend slipped out of sight and, as
Griber puts it, "off the edge of the planet." When Griber finally
came to the realization that he'd just watched his buddy sliding
to his death, he called out to Sanders, whom he had seen a few
hundred feet above him not much earlier. No response. Griber
could draw only one conclusion.

Daylight, meanwhile, was fast losing its grip on the sky, and a
searing wind battered the side of the mountain. Griber decided to
disengage his board, letting it slide down the mountain into
darkness. He then put on his headlamp and climbed down in search
of a flat spot where he could seek shelter. At one point he
bivouacked on the rocks and began to melt snow to drink. A strong
breath of wind blew out his stove's flame and blew away the top
of his pack, which contained a hat, neck gaiter, binoculars and a
video camera. Griber continued his descent on a steep couloir
until he finally found a narrow crevasse into which he climbed
for the night. "It felt like a tomb," he says.

With temperatures hovering around -40[degrees] F, the exhausted
and traumatized Griber, unprotected from the elements except for
a modest Bivi Sack, became hypothermic. He vomited twice,
hallucinated as he looked at the stars above--"They were giant,
fuzzy yellow balls floating around," he recalls--and
hyperventilated. When his stomach muscles weren't seizing, his
hip flexors were in spasms or his legs were cramping.

While Griber fought for his life, his wife, Becca, back at their
house in Jackson Hole, shot out of bed at 1 a.m. She says she was
jarred awake by the feeling that her husband was in trouble. She
never made it back to sleep.

After a night of fitfully sleeping and waking, Griber strapped on
his crampons and looked for the bodies of Martin and Sanders, to
no avail, before continuing downward. At 16,000 feet he reached
the snow cave he had helped dig out two nights earlier. He rested
in one of the sleeping bags that the team had left there. After
an hour or so he climbed down to the igloo at 14,500 feet, where
Von Doersten was still nursing his damaged fingers. "We'd both
had our close calls over the years," says Von Doersten, "but
there was a sense of, Are we going to make it this time?"

They had plenty of food and a reasonable supply of gas for their
stoves, but they had either lost or jettisoned much of their
gear. As Griber tried to regain his energy, Von Doersten quietly
prayed. He first asked God to take care of Martin and Sanders.
Then he prayed to the mountain, pleading with the behemoth to
release him and his friend.

Siig was shooting film from Claus's red Turbo Otter the next day
when they spotted a pair of skis forming a cross in the snow. A
few days earlier Claus had teased the team, "I'm not picking you
up, so don't ask for it." But now he and Siig knew that something
was amiss, and they started looking for the climbers. It wasn't
long before they spotted the igloo and read Griber's haunting
etching in the snow.

Claus contacted Wrangell-St. Elias National Park headquarters and
relayed Griber's message. The park's deputy superintendent
notified the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) at Fort Richardson
Army Base outside Anchorage. Members of the Air National Guard's
210th Rescue Squadron, one of the country's elite rescue
divisions, began exploring options for assisting Griber and Von
Doersten. Capt. Rick Watson, 34, and his copilot, Maj. Darrin
Slaten, 33, were aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter on a
training mission when the RCC radioed them to return. Within 10
minutes the pilots, two of the youngest airmen in the 210th, were
in a situation room being briefed. A lieutenant colonel told them
that the climbers were stranded at 14,500 feet, an elevation from
which no pilot in the 210th had ever attempted a rescue.

The Pave Hawk was only the third choice of aircraft for such a
mission, as it seldom maneuvers above 10,000 feet. A Lama
helicopter or a more powerful Chinook would have been preferable,
but neither was available. Watson, Slaten, engineer Jim Gwin and
two parajumpers, Sgt. Skip Kula and Sgt. Mike Wayt, loaded rescue
gear into the Pave Hawk and headed for Mount St. Elias at 3 p.m.
Kula, seated in the back, knew the pilot would be forced to land
the chopper directly beside the climbers.

By 5 p.m. the Pave Hawk had arrived on the southwest side of the
mountain. The igloo was on the widest section of the ridge, so
the pilots would have to squeeze the Pave Hawk onto a very thin
swatch. The 60-foot aircraft would have a 70-foot landing zone.
Watson twice passed over the site, sizing up a landing. As Von
Doersten and Griber emerged from the igloo, Watson noticed that
the Pave Hawk's fuel level was sinking perilously close to the
800-pound limit at which refueling for this mission was required.
Unlike the cinematically acclaimed Black Hawk helicopter, the
Pave Hawk is not only equipped with skis but can also refuel in
midair. Watson radioed to an HC-130 aircraft that was
accompanying the rescue and spent 10 minutes circling at 9,000
feet, taking on fuel.

Watson returned to 14,500 feet and again circled twice. On a
third pass he told his crew, "Looks like this will be the one."
As he eased the Pave Hawk down, Griber and Von Doersten began
running toward the landing area. That made Watson's job more
difficult. He worried that the men were too close and might run
into the spinning rotors. Then, when the Pave Hawk got within 20
feet of the ground, the aircraft experienced rotor droop, which
meant that the engines weren't powerful enough for Watson to stop
the descent even if he'd wanted to do so and reapproach. When the
Pave Hawk touched down it skated 10 to 15 feet before coming to
rest on the edge of the sloped ridge. "All I could see," says
Slaten, "was blue sky and the drop down the west side of the
ridge."

Von Doersten reached the Pave Hawk and threw himself inside.
Griber was still so exhausted that he stumbled a half-dozen times
while negotiating the 30 feet to the landing zone. With both men
safely aboard, Watson lifted the front of the Pave Hawk off the
ground, but the back ski was still touching the ridge. In one
final bit of irony, the aircraft skied off the mountain before
Watson could take it higher and bank away.

After another midair refueling, the Pave Hawk landed in Yakutat
and transferred Von Doersten and Griber to the HC-130, which
would take them to Anchorage. With that, one of the most
challenging rescues ever attempted by the 210th was complete.
"They were total heroes," Von Doersten says of the airmen. "We
were leaving two friends dead on the mountain, but this was like
the hand of God taking us away."

On April 12 Claus again flew up Mount St. Elias, this time for
the Park Service, to locate the bodies of Martin and Sanders. At
17,500 feet he spotted Martin's gear. Passing a crevasse at
16,000 feet, he saw Martin's prone body inside. The next day
Griber accompanied Claus, and they located Sanders's body in a
crevasse at 17,000 feet, on a different fall line from Martin's.
Retrieving the bodies was prohibitively dangerous, so the corpses
of both Martin and Sanders will, perhaps fittingly, forever
remain on the mountain. "They're completely cradled by this
magnificent tabernacle," says Martin's mother, Glenda. "It's
O.K."

How did two such experienced skiers and resourceful outdoorsmen
die? In all likelihood both Martin and Sanders simply fell while
side-stepping on their skis and, without substantial tools in
their hands, offered scant resistance as they hurtled to their
deaths. Some observers believe that the two men were ultimately
victims of outsized ambition. "I respected Aaron's judgment and
ability, but he had a single-minded obsession to be the first
person to ski from the summit to the ocean," says Claus. "Anytime
you get these extreme things where people are trying to be the
first, you have to wonder."

The top 1,000 feet of the mountain are essentially a 45-degree
pitch of rock and ice. A respected skier-climber who requested
anonymity questions why Martin and Sanders were using skis, given
the conditions. "I know that making it down on skis was the whole
point," says the outdoorsman, "but when you're on rock and ice
that close to the summit and it's already dark, it just doesn't
make sense."

Claus also believes that the team went too quickly. "It should
take 10 days to two weeks to summit from where we dropped them
off," he says. "The sad part is, they didn't need to push as hard
as they did."

Griber doesn't really disagree. "Going too fast was definitely an
issue," he says, "but we were strong and motivated and thought we
had a weather window. Taking chances is a game you play with
mountains."

Von Doersten still feels a range of emotions: utter relief,
gratitude to the rescuers and profound grief over the loss of his
two friends. His ordeal has done nothing, however, to blunt his
passion for the outdoors, for skiing and mountaineering.
Expecting to recover fully from the frostbite, he is already
planning a return trip to southeast Alaska next spring. He's
unsure whether he'll renew his acquaintance with Mount St. Elias
or, instead, sea-kayak in Icy Bay. But he wants to pay tribute to
Martin and Sanders and to the rescuers he feels he never properly
thanked.

As for Griber, on his first full day back in Jackson Hole last
week he wanted to go somewhere serene and comforting to tell
Becca everything he had endured since he left for Alaska. He took
her by the hand and led her out their front door and recounted
his horrific story as they slowly hiked Snow King Mountain.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN GRIBER Skywalkers During the ascent Sanders (left) and Martin hiked around one of the deep crevasses that are carved into Mount St. Elias. COLOR PHOTO: GREG VON DOERSTEN The best-laid plans.... The route was carefully reviewed by (from left) Griber, Sanders and Martin, and weather conditions were perfect when the mountaineers were dropped off by Claus's plane at 10,500 feet. COLOR PHOTO: ANNABEL HEINEMANN [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BOB HALLINEN/ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS (MOUNTAIN) Cavemen During their ascent of the Southwest Ridge (left), Martin (above left) and Griber took a breather in the snow cave they dug out at 16,000 feet. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN GRIBER [See caption above] COLOR MAP: MAP ILLUSTRATION BY JANE SHASKY COLOR PHOTO: ANNABEL HEINEMANN Best of friends Sanders (left) and Martin met as small children and were like brothers ever since. COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN looking ahead Back home in Wyoming, Von Doersten (left) and Griber say they remain committed outdoorsmen.

Successful Ascent, Doomed Descent

On the morning of April 5, a plane dropped off Griber, Martin,
Sanders and Von Doersten at Hayden Col, from which they planned
a rapid ascent to the St. Elias summit. Van Doersten dropped out
with frostbite and waited at an igloo they built at 14,500
feet. The others completed the climb in three days. But by the
time darkness fell on April 8, Martin and Sanders--only those
two had reached the summit--were dead, and Griber was struggling
to get back to the igloo, where he and Von Doersten were
dramatically rescued by the Air National Guard on April 10.

Summit(18,008)

Sanders's Body (17,000)

Martin's Body (16,000)

Snow Cave (16,000)

Rescue Site (14,500)

Hayden Col Base Camp (10,500 feet)

These were not four heedless thrill-seekers plucked from a
Mountain Dew ad. Each had a wealth of experience.

Griber heard a whoosh and saw Martin hurtling by, out of
control, on his right hip. He wasn't struggling or kicking.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)