OAKHURST, Calif. – As the 126th Army National Guard MedEvac helicopter flew low over the Sierra Nevada mountains on Thursday morning, four stranded hikers were preparing for a day of sunbathing and drying out beside a high mountain lake.

Tom Peacock, 73, of San Anselmo, Calif., his 45-year-old son, Jeff Peacock, and his Lafayette, Calif., neighbors Doug Schneider, 47, and Britt Jefferson, 57, prepared to make breakfast beside shimmering Lillian Lake. They knew someone would be looking for them.

When they heard the whirring of the rotors overhead about 9:30 a.m., after four days stranded in an October blizzard, they grabbed their orange sleeping pads and a signal mirror and waved like hell.

“We couldn’t have made it out. We knew that,” Schneider said after the foursome, exuberance showing on their bearded faces, hopped off of the hospital airship at 10 a.m. at a forest service work camp near Oakhurst.

The men were among 16 hikers who were caught in an early fall snow storm over the weekend. All the hikers were found safe Thursday, but two Japanese rock climbers froze to death on El Capitan.

Schneider said they had checked the weather for two weeks before heading out, but never saw a forecast for such a large storm.

“We were prepared for very cold weather, except for 4 or 5 feet of snow,” said Tom Peacock, who wore Teva sandals and socks covered with plastic bags as he deftly hopped from the rescue chopper.

“This kind of trip teaches a lot of humility,” said Peacock, who has spent many years hiking the Sierra Nevada. “This was the best helicopter ride I ever had.”

A local ambulance took Jefferson, known to friends as Mac, to a hospital in Fresno to be checked out for minor hypothermia and chest pain.

He was reunited with his wife, Meg, and daughter, Sarah, at the Batterson National Forest Service Work Center, where the National Guard helicopter brought the four mountain men.

“I’m glad I got to see him as soon as he came out,” said Sarah Jefferson, who drove up with her mother on Wednesday to the mountain town of Oakhurst near Bass Lake.

His son, Noah Jefferson, 30, came directly from Las Vegas where he had quit a poker tournament as soon as he heard the men were lost.

The four hikers left Contra Costa County, Calif., on Friday for a weekend backpacking trip in the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area south of Yosemite.

When they failed to call home Monday, one of their wives called the sheriff’s office, initiating a frustrating search in rapidly worsening conditions.

Four-wheel drive trucks located their two-wheel drive Saab on Tuesday morning but could not access the snow-covered trail the men had taken. By Wednesday afternoon the car and the trail were buried in 4 feet of fresh snow, and poor weather rendered a search by air impossible.

Further hampering the search was the fact the men changed their plans at the last minute, and failed to update family members of the new itinerary.

The area they had intended to hike required campers use bear barrels, or food canisters that protect bears from fattening up on hikers’ fare. The hikers didn’t have bear barrels, so they decided to go instead into the area around Lillian Lake. They left details of the new plan with the Clover Meadow Ranger Station just beyond the Norris Creek trailhead where they parked.

They hiked to Vanderburgh Lake on Friday night, caught and ate fish from Rutherford Lake at almost 10,000 feet on Saturday and then hiked in the snow to Lake Lillian on Sunday, thinking it would be the most obvious place for searchers to look for them in case they got stuck.

The men realized Monday that they were not going to be able to hike out and hunkered down near Lillian Lake to wait out the storm. They took shelter in two tents, and had plenty of fuel for cooking and warm clothes. They were also able to build a fire.

“Basically we’ve just been sitting around for four or five days in our sleeping bags and it makes the national news,” Schneider said.

On Thursday, his wife could not wait to hug him.

“Really, truly in my heart, I knew he was OK,” Cindy Schneider said. “We’ll see if he’s allowed to go hiking again.”

Sheriff’s search and rescue volunteers credited the men for staying together and staying calm.

“They helped us by doing everything they were supposed to do,” search manager George Stillman said.

The National Guardsmen, who had seen action in Afghanistan in the same drab chopper, loaded the men two by two onto a “jungle penetrator”-a heavy anchor attached to a cable lowered from the side of the Blackhawk.

With their gear still at the lakeside camping site, the just-rescued hikers were planning to go back before they got off the helipad.

“I’d like to come back,” Jeff Peacock quipped, half jokingly.

(c) 2004, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at http://www.contracostatimes.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RESCUE

AP-NY-10-21-04 2159EDT

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