YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) – Rangers attempted a dramatic helicopter rescue Thursday of two climbers on a snowy mountain and struggled to remove the ice-encrusted bodies of two Japanese hikers after an unexpected early blizzard swept through the Sierras.

The deaths occurred on El Capitan, a 3,200-foot granite mountain at Yosemite National Park, following a fierce blizzard that stranded nearly two dozen hikers and climbers across Northern California. Other than the two deaths, all of them were found or rescued.

“Oh, thank God, thank God. This is the greatest day of my life,” rejoiced Rita Bargetto-Snider after receiving word that her brother, Paul Bargetto, was apparently 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. They were spotted from the air Thursday, and all appeared to be in good shape, authorities said. A rescue team was lowered to the ground and quickly reached the stranded hikers, who are members of a California winemaking family.

About a dozen friends and family members were on hand ready to greet the men, none of whom 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.

On El Capitan, the survivors spent the night on a portable ledge secured high above the valley floor. A team of 12 began trying to reach them late Wednesday, and renewed the efforts Thursday.

A separate crew prepared to remove the bodies of the Japanese climbers – a man and a woman. Seven people in all were stranded on El Capitan by the storm: the two Japanese climbers; the two being rescued Thursday; another couple who asked for extra supplies but apparently didn’t need any additional help; and one who was rescued off the mountain 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.

This time, it was a blizzard, with deadly white-out conditions – snow so thick that even helicopters couldn’t approach the mountain until the storm finally began to break.

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.

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