Climbers rescued from mountain as weather clears up
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Rangers completed a dramatic rescue Thursday of two climbers from a snowy mountain and removed the ice-encrusted bodies of two other hikers who died on the peak in an unexpected early blizzard in the Sierras.
The deaths occurred on El Capitan, a forbidding 3,200-foot granite mountain at Yosemite National Park, following a fierce blizzard that stranded nearly two dozen hikers and climbers across Northern California this week. Other than the two deaths, everyone was found or rescued.
The two deaths created a gruesome sight for a helicopter crew that managed to fly close enough Wednesday to spot the bodies, which were blue and dripping with icicles as they dangled from their ropes about two-thirds the way up the precipice.
To retrieve the corpses, rangers rappelled down El Capitan, put the bodies into yellow mountaineering bags, and carried the them on their backs hundreds of feet to the summit. Another ranger team, using ropes secured to thick pine trees on the mountaintop, rappelled down to rescue the surviving climbers, who were airlifted off the mountain.
"They're cold and they're tired but they're in fine condition," said Jen Nersesian, a park spokeswoman.
The two victims -- an unidentified Japanese man and woman -- had been ill-prepared for the weather, a ranger said.
The blizzard blew in early Sunday and continued through Wednesday, creating deadly white-out conditions and 50 mph gusts as it dumped several feet of snow across the Sierra Nevada.
The storm made for an anxious week for families of the stranded hikers, but many of them rejoiced Thursday as the weather cleared and crews brought their loved ones to safety.
"Oh, thank God, thank God. This is the greatest day of my life," Rita Bargetto-Snider said after receiving word that her brother, Paul Bargetto, was safe after becoming stranded at a 9,400-foot-elevation lake east of Fresno.
Paul Bargetto was part of a four-person group -- two father-and-son pairs -- that had been missing since Sunday. The men, members of a California winemaking family, were rescued Thursday and greeted by about a dozen friends and family members after being removed from the mountains. None of the men needed hospitalization.
"Once the conditions got overwhelming, they stayed put and rationed their food and kept warm. They saved themselves," said Jenna Endres, one of the rescuers.
Seven people in all were stranded on El Capitan by the storm: the two Japanese climbers; the two rescued Thursday; another couple who asked for extra supplies but apparently didn't need any additional help; and one climber who was rescued Wednesday.
A half-mile high and a mile wide, El Capitan casts an imposing shadow over the glacier-sculpted Yosemite Valley. The first successful ascent took 45 days, but today most climbers need three or four days to make it to the top -- clinging to barely visible outcroppings and prying their way up cracks invisible from the valley floor.
Springtime, when the days are long and the weather is often perfect for weeks at a time, is the best time to attempt an ascent. By June, the wall can be an inferno due to high temperatures. By September, the days are too short and the nights can be chilly. By October, there's always the risk of an early snowfall.
Earlier Thursday, four other hikers were rescued from Yosemite's Ansel Adams Wilderness. All are experienced backpackers who had camped in snow previously and were prepared for bad weather.
Jeff Peacock said the conditions Tuesday were "pretty miserable" and the group 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 said. "We were just sitting in the tents staying warm. We knew we'd be found eventually."
Peacock said he wanted to take a hot bath as soon as he got home and didn't plan to go on another wilderness hike this winter.
Associated Press Writer Tom Verdin contributed to this story from Shaver Lake, Calif.