Thursday, May 21, 2009

persistence pays off

Climbers near Camp II in April
Images provided by Nicholas Rice

By Guy McCarthy

Blasting winds, heavy snow and grinding ice destroyed three of his tents on the world's eighth-highest mountain.

At times he endured temperatures 40 below zero Fahrenheit and colder, in a realm so devoid of oxygen those who go there call it the Death Zone. He assisted in two rescues and the elements contributed to at least one fatality.

But he refused to give up his goal of reaching the top. Persistence paid off.

On Day 57 of his expedition in the Nepalese Himalaya, Nicholas Rice of Hermosa Beach finally stood on the 8156-meter summit of Manaslu, a Sanskrit name that translates roughly to "Mountain of the Spirit."

"I summited at 11:30 a.m. on the 19th of May!" Rice said today in an e-mail today from his base camp. "All the best!"

On 8156-meter summit of Manaslu in Nepal

The 24-year-old climber's elation comes at the end of an ordeal that required multiple forays up the mountain and weeks of waiting. He had stocked high camps without porters and without supplemental oxygen, and he'd descended numerous times when the weather turned bad.

"Definitely recovered in base camp now, but it isn't looking good for a weather window," Rice said in an e-mail on May 12. "We've had 2 meters of snow here in base camp already with more to come and no sufficient weather window in sight before the monsoon brings the close of the season. Many expeditions are heading home . . . "

The next day Rice said he and other climbers who remained might still have a chance.

"It looks like there may be a weather window for the summit centering around the 18th of May. It will be difficult thanks to the deep snow and low number of climbers left in base camp, but Mario Panzeri and I will try starting up on the 16th. Wish us luck!!!!"

Ascending serac below Camp IV on Monday

According to dispatches on his Web site, Rice and Panzeri woke at 4 a.m. Saturday to begin their summit push from base camp. In camps I and II Rice found both his tents buried and crushed. Winds were approaching 100 mph and he was worried about frostbite.

On Monday at Camp III, an estimated 7000 meters above sea level, Rice found his third tent demolished and pushed on to Camp IV.

"I passed the corpse close to Camp IV and then spotted a number of destroyed tents on the crystal ice," Rice said. "I headed down to the rocky ridge and spotted Mario with the tent already set up . . .

"We settled in, made water, and quickly got to sleep, knowing that in a few hours, we would be heading up for the summit, two months of work boiling down to the next 24 hours."

They woke at midnight and started for the summit in freezing darkness. Ice on the route was steep and hardened, and at least one climber turned back. Rice tired in the thin air and found himself dozing off. He stopped to rest.

More than 11 hours later, he made it over the last of several high points and stood on the highest.

"I reached the summit in nearly perfect weather, with only a slight breeze and mild temperatures," Rice said. "The view was spectacular.

" . . . I knew that the weather was forecast to change and didn’t fancy looking for Camp IV in a whiteout. The slope before reaching Camp IV is icy and dangerous. As I headed down, exhausted, the clouds began to roll in."

Stuffed animal near summit on Tuesday

Rice made it back to Camp IV about 5 p.m., where he was grateful to share a tent with someone who could watch him for signs of dizziness and distraction. He was thrashed.

They descended all the way to base camp the next day, and celebrated with cheese, meat and wine. Porters are expected to arrive tomorrow for the trek back to Kathmandu.

Experience has taught Rice when to back off, and when to go for it.

Nine months ago, Rice was high on K2 in northeast Pakistan's Karakoram Range when 11 climbers died in one of the deadliest episodes in recent mountaineering history.

Rice opted to retreat on the world's second-highest mountain due to a delayed start on summit day, avalanche dangers, and crowding on the treacherous route to the top. News of the missing climbers, rescue efforts and deaths unfolded over several days and made global headlines.

The Nepalese Himalaya is roughly halfway around the world from Los Angeles and Rice's hometown. When it's sundown here, the sun is rising where he is.

Rice during trek to Manaslu base camp in March

For more on Rice's Nepal expedition, visit his Web site here.

For previous reports on Rice's experience on K2, click here.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

angeles crest

New bridge on Highway 2, slides still threaten road

By Guy McCarthy

VINCENT GAP - Rock slides and snow avalanches tore up a stretch of the Angeles Crest Highway so bad in 2004, 2005 and 2006, a section of the region's most sinuous road has been closed for several years.

Thanks to $10.5 million in repairs, including a centerpiece bridge west of Vincent Gap, Caltrans plans to re-open about nine miles of the Angeles Crest tomorrow at noon - restoring a legendary motorcycle route that connects La CaƱada Flintridge with Wrightwood and the Cajon Pass.

The new bridge is slickly designed, to allow future slides to pass under the roadway. But it's only 208 feet long, according to Caltrans, so most of the road remains vulnerable to erosion.

Caltrans photo March 2006

Regardless, bikers and other mountain curve enthusiasts are psyched the Angeles Crest is about to re-open.

Caltrans workers like Barry Morrison did the dirty work to make it possible.

"We had to clear five-and-a-half years of debris in seven weeks," said Morrison, a Caltrans equipment operator based near Mormon Rocks in the Cajon Pass. "In places there was snow 16 feet deep, 200 to 300 foot across.

"We had rocks weighing up to 14 tons," said Morrison. "Took two loaders to move that one. We started earlier this year than ever before, in March, because the road was closed so long."

Caltrans photo January 2005

The Angeles Crest remains vulnerable for obvious reasons. Formed by tectonic lurching and grinding where two continental plates meet, the San Gabriel Mountains are rising and falling at an impressive pace, according to geologists.

"The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth," author John McPhee wrote in "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," a section of his 1989 book "The Control of Nature."

"Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world," wrote McPhee, who spent much of 20 years with geologists to complete his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Annals of the Former World."

Reporters above Vincent Gap March 2007

For the time-being, firefighters in Wrightwood are pleased residents have another way out of the mountain town in the event of an emergency.

"It's never been a main route out of town during wintertime because it's always closed due to snow," said San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Darrayl Felgar, based at Station 101 in Wrightwood. "But it's always good to have another avenue, another option.

"For sure we'll see an increase in over-the-side accidents and rescues," Felgar said. "Definitely an increase in motorcycle accidents. But we're trained for low-angle rescue. L.A. County has high-angle rescue coming out of Station 79 over by Palmdale.

"As far as fire aspects, with that road open we have better access if there's fires over there," Felgar said. "And anytime we have an additional road it gives us another avenue to get our people to safety if we have a fire here. It's good to have another way out too because of the mudflows on Sheep Creek. We get those nearly every year."

Sarah Barras outside the Racoon Saloon

Some business owners in Wrightwood are looking forward to more travellers coming from the Los Angeles side of the Angeles Crest. A bartender at the Yodeler on Park Drive said he expects to see more bikers on the outdoor deck on weekends. Across the street at the Racoon Saloon, employee Sarah Barras said she hopes to see more visitors too.

"It should be good for business," said Barras, who grew up in Wrightwood. "The people from the other side used to come up here a lot. They'll be up here again. We can use the extra traffic."

Rattler at Vincent Gap

Visitors to the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles Crest Highway right now should keep an eye and ear out for rattlesnakes. The one pictured was resting under a bush next to the locked gate at Vincent Gap today, then coiled to strike and made a lot of noise with its tail when an intruder approached.

Islip Saddle March 2007

For a thorough "Throttle Jockey" perspective and more history, see Susan Carpenter's Column One in today's Los Angeles Times. She took an escorted ride on the closed section recently and the video is worth watching.


Caltrans images provided by Armand Silva.

All others by Guy McCarthy.

Slide show here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

high-altitude rescues

Team members help Marco Ruscarri descend.
All photos credit Nicholas Rice.

By Guy McCarthy

Helicopters can't fly to the roof of the world. People who try to go there know this.

When climbers in the Himalayas get into trouble they have to get themselves down.

A 24-year-old climber from Hermosa Beach who is trying to climb the eighth-highest mountain in the world - Manaslu in the Nepalese Himalaya - assisted on two high-altitude rescues in the past few days.

One of the climbers recovered from severe dehydration and survived. The other died of a pulmonary complication - edema or embolism.

Climbers use poles to assist Giuseppe Antonelli.

"Giuseppe died in Camp II," Nicholas Rice said in a satellite phone interview early today. "Marco was suffering from low potassium. We got him down to base camp."

Rice is trying to climb Manaslu unassisted by porters and without supplemental oxygen. He made it to Camp III last week, but the winds picked up and heavy weather moved in, including an electrical storm that forced most climbers to descend.

"Conditions were bad up high," Rice said early today. "High winds, steep rock with thin ice on the summit ridge. Last night we had a huge lightning storm. It can be dangerous."

A helicopter made it to Manaslu base camp on Friday and collected the body of Giuseppe Antonelli, age 38. Marco Ruscarri, 29, apparently decided to stay.

Rice said he is still optimistic about making it to the summit of Manaslu, which rises to 8156 meters, more than 26750 feet above sea level. The so-called Death Zone - where climbers' bodies steadily deteriorate in the thin air - begins at 8000 meters.

"I'm still optimistic about the summit," Rice said. "The rescues put it in perspective. It's a place where you can die.

"But I drink a lot of water - four liters a day," Rice said. "The main thing is to stay hydrated. A doctor in base camp has checked me out and I'm doing okay."

Rice at Camp III, about 7000 meters.

Rice said he intends to rest in base camp and recharge at least until Tuesday before making another summit bid.

"The past few days," he said, "have been exhausting."


For more on Rice's current expedition, visit his Web site here.

For previous reports on Rice's ordeal last year on K2, click here.