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."