YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) – Two Japanese climbers were found dead Wednesday in Yosemite National Park, dangling from a 3,200-foot sheer climbing face in a snowstorm.

Rescuers began search efforts Tuesday after seeing the stranded party on El Capitan, a granite monolith in the Yosemite Valley that is among the world’s best-known rock climbing spots. The couple was not moving at the time.

Heavy snow and winds initially made searching with a helicopter impossible, so a rescue team began an 11-mile hike in driving snow and extreme wind.

A break in the weather Wednesday allowed the helicopter to fly close to the party and rescuers determined that the two climbers were dead, according to park rangers.

The Sierra Nevada range has been hit this week with an unusually early blizzard, and the heavy snow and high wind were hampering efforts to rescue at least 10 stranded hikers elsewhere in the rugged mountains.

The blizzard raged at higher elevations through much of Wednesday, frustrating rescuers who labored against 4-foot-deep snow and 50 mph winds to reach the areas where the hikers were thought to be, at elevations from 8,000 to close to 10,000 feet.

“It’s miserable,” said Erica Stuart, spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff’s Department.

The stranded hikers included two groups of experienced backpackers along with a couple from San Luis Obispo County who apparently set out for a day hike.

Rescue workers believe the hikers can survive if they find shelter and wait for the storm to pass. Storm clouds were expected to clear Thursday night, when temperatures were expected to plunge to zero through much of the central Sierra.

“It certainly is a bona fide blizzard condition,” said Mark Burger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The missing couple was believed to have started on a two- to three-mile hike in the Sierra National Forest east of Fresno when they were caught in the storm, said Lt. Toby Rien of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department.

He said rescuers were fighting conditions they described as “whiteout, zero visibility.”

Also in Sierra National Forest, four members of a Santa Cruz County winemaking family were reported missing Sunday after they failed to return from a two-day hike at a 9,400-foot-elevation lake northeast of Fresno.

In a cabin at Shaver Lake near the sheriff’s command post, several members of the family were awaiting word on their relatives, ages 16 to 47.

“It seems foolish to undertake this (hike). But in all fairness, they didn’t know this storm was coming,” said Rita Bargetto, sister of one of the missing men. “We just hope and pray they were smart enough to know they shouldn’t have moved when the snow came.”

Early Tuesday, the Madera County Sheriff’s Department launched a search for four men from the San Francisco area who were believed to be stranded in the Ansel Adams Wilderness near the southern boundary of Yosemite National Park. The men had apparently changed the itinerary they left with family members, setting back rescue efforts.

Family members said the men, ranging in age from 45 to 75, have experience camping in the snow. Authorities arranged for a military helicopter from Mather Air Force Base to search for the men once the weather breaks.

AP-ES-10-20-04 2011EDT



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