Snowboard mountaineer john griber, photographer Greg Von Doersten, and ski mountaineers Aaron Martin and Reid Sanders set out last spring to be the first to descend Alaska’s 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias from peak to sea. Martin and Sanders both fell and died on the descent. Griber chose to turn around just below the summit and was the only person who made it to the upper mountain and survived. It was the most lethal skiing expedition of the season, and media giants from Sports Illustrated to The Boston Globe published accounts of the story. We caught up with Griber at his home in Jackson, Wyoming, to get his perspective on the tragedy and the media’s response to it.
Skiing: You’ve climbed and snowboarded all over the world, and the mass media never paid much attention. Then two people die on one of your trips, and suddenly everybody wants to talk to you. Is that fair?
JG: I was definitely a little pissed when everybody was calling right away. But I understand it. That’s their job. Is it fair? I don’t know. I just know that if Reid and Aaron were still alive, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Skiing: Do you think, with the type of mountain you guys were attempting, that coming down on a snowboard is easier-and safer-than coming down on skis?
JG: Regardless of the mountain, it’s easier to stand on your toes and face the slope on a snowboard because you’re able, if need be, to use two ice tools to help in sideslipping.
Skiing: How much emphasis did your team place on skiing the whole way down? Too much, maybe?
JG: No, not at all. It didn’t matter to us whether we down-climbed sections. It’s just quicker to descend on skis and sideslip than it is to rappel. It’s obviously easier to look back and pick apart a tragedy than pick apart a trip that went right. People are always going to say, “You should have done this or you should have done that.” But they weren’t there.
Skiing: The number of ski-mountaineering deaths has remained fairly constant over the past 50 years, at about two per year. Yet we hear so much more about fatalities now. Is ski mountaineering more dangerous than it used to be?
JG: That’s a hard question because I lost three of my best friends in the past two years. But no, if anything, modern gear and rescue techniques have made it safer. Sponsorships and media coverage have made the trips more visible, so when something goes wrong, you’re naturally going to hear more about that, too.