By DAN JOLING.c The Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – John Griber was inching his way down a 45-degree ice face on Mount St. Elias, choosing his route to avoid almost certain death if he fell, when he heard the swishing. About 40 feet away, fellow climber Aaron Martin was off his skis and on his side, sliding with no way to stop. “All I heard was Gore-Tex 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. Then he yelled for a 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 in falls on the Tyndall Glacier. A searcher in an airplane Friday spotted a body and gear about 3,000 feet below the peak and planned to return to assess if a recovery could be attempted, said National Park Service spokeswoman Jane Tranel. Griber and another surviving climber, Greg Von Doersten, both of Jackson, Wyo., were picked up in a daring helicopter rescue by the National Guard on Wednesday, two days after the tragedy. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Griber, his voice at times cracking, 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 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 and calm, 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 they began their ascent, climbing with 65-pound packs with food and gear to establish a forward camp, and encountered the first hurdle: a 3,500-foot ice face that varied in steepness from about 45 degrees to 60 degrees. During the climb, Von Doersten lost a crampon – the attachment on his boot to prevent slipping – and Martin pulled him to the top of the face by rope. With frostbite on his hands, Von Doersten decided to stay behind in a snow cave the group had dug for the night. They were at 14,500 feet. Griber, Martin and Sanders set off the next day, and by Sunday they had reached the 16,000-foot level. The next morning, they decided to try for the summit. They were 600 to 700 feet away by late afternoon when Griber paused to rest and untied himself from the rope that linked the climbers. He followed in their steps about 10 minutes later, but at about 6:15 p.m., 150 feet from the summit, Griber decided he could go no further. It would take at least 20 more minutes to reach the top, and it was getting dark. Griber took off his crampons and neoprene overboots, fit his feet into his snowboard and started down St. Elias with an ice pick in each hand. “This wasn’t snowboarding, this was absolutely survival technique,” he said. “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 headed down, Griber occasionally paused to wait for Martin and Sanders. After a half hour, he spotted them 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. When a few ice balls rained down on him, Griber realized Martin and Sanders were directly above. Then, he heard the sliding. Over his shoulder, he saw Martin falling. Sanders still hadn’t cleared an area of unstable ice columns and crevasses, and Griber yelled to him but heard no response. As it got darker, Griber put on hhis headlamp and made his way to an area of rock debris, where he jettisoned his snowboard. He tried climbing on the rocks and called out again for Sanders. Eventually, concerned with his own safety, he found the footprints the climbers had left on the way up and walked on ice in the dark until he found a crevasse to get out of the wind. “I was feeling cooked at this point,” he said. “I was beyond tired.” About 5 a.m. he set out again to search for Sanders, then he climbed down to the 14,500-foot level to find Von Doersten. A day later, on Wednesday, when Claus flew over the area to check on the climbers, Griber and Von Doersten waved and Griber used his ice ax to carve out a message in 6-foot letters: “two dead.” Claus dropped a note in a weighted bag, telling them a rescue was possible and to raise both arms if they needed help. “I fell to my knees and raised both hands,” Griber said. The National Guard’s 210th Mountain Air Rescue flew in to retrieve the survivors, but that too was a risky mission. The normal ceiling for the guard’s Pavehawk helicopter is 10,000 feet, said Staff Sgt. Jeff Wells, a National Guard spokesman. “They went up higher than they’re accustomed to,” Wells said. Because the air is thinner, “It takes a lot more power to fly at that altitude,” he said. The helicopter was able to land on the ridge, and Griber and Van Doersten were flown to Yakutat, then transferred to a cargo plane and taken to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Both have been released.