Climbers rescued from mountain as weather clears up in Sierra Nevada

Friday, October 22nd 2004, 6:59 am
By: News On 6

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) _ Rangers rappelled down Yosemite's most forbidding peak and then carefully climbed back up the sheer 3,200-foot face of the snowy mountain, rescuing two climbers and carrying the bodies of two others on their backs.

The dramatic rescue Thursday on El Capitan came as other rescue teams airlifted out nearly two dozen other hikers and climbers stranded across the Sierra Nevada by an early winter storm, which brought whiteout conditions and 50 mph wind gusts as it dumped several feet of snow.

Two teams of rangers were dropped off by a helicopter and spent the night in deep snow on the top of El Capitan before beginning their rescue and recovery effort Thursday morning, after the weather finally cleared.

One group rappelled down to recover the bodies of a Japanese man and woman. They were already dead when a helicopter crew managed to fly close enough late Wednesday to spot their bodies, blue and dripping with icicles, as they dangled from their ropes about two-thirds of the way up the precipice.

The Japanese climbers had been ill-prepared for the weather, a ranger said.

Each body was put into yellow mountaineering bags, then strapped into harnesses and carried up hundreds of feet by a pair of rangers, said Jen Nersesian, a park spokeswoman.

The other team, using ropes secured to thick pine trees on top of the mountain, rescued a pair of climbers who had been told to stay put overnight on a portable ledge secured high above the valley floor. Each were hoisted in harnesses. ``They're cold and they're tired but they're in fine condition,'' said Nersesian.

A helicopter crew then airlifted them and the bodies of the dead climbers to the valley floor late Thursday afternoon.

Another climber had been rescued off the mountain Wednesday, and two more men who initially said they could finish their climb themselves may have changed their minds Thursday afternoon. ``They may spend the night on the wall. If they want a rescue we'll do everything we can do to get them down,'' Nersesian said.

A half-mile high and a mile wide, El Capitan casts an imposing shadow over the glacier-sculpted Yosemite Valley. Most climbers need three or four days to make it to the top.

Among the others rescued Thursday were four members of a Santa Cruz County winemaking family _ two father-and-son pairs _ who had been missing since Sunday from a 9,400-foot-elevation lake east of Fresno in the Sierra National Forest.

Four other missing hikers were rescued from Yosemite's Ansel Adams Wilderness, while another two who had been spotted by a helicopter crew Wednesday were airlifted out Thursday, along with their dog.

One of the four rescued in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Jeff Peacock, said the conditions Tuesday were ``pretty miserable'' and the group _ all experiences backpackers _ used an insulated red pad and handkerchiefs to try to get the attention of rescuers in a helicopter.

``It was boring most of all,'' Peacock, 45, said. ``We were just sitting in the tents staying warm. We knew we'd be found eventually.''

Britt Jefferson, another member of Peacock's group, told NBC's ``Today'' on Friday that seeing the rescue helicopter come over the horizon was ``absolutely like a movie.''

``A captain drops right into a snowbank and he's on his knees and he says 'You! You! Five minutes! Get over here, we're heading out!' Your heart's pounding. To be honest, I didn't think I'd see my family again.''