It was getting chillier by the minute, prompting outdoor diners at a restaurant on the San Clemente pier to pull on heavy sweaters and shrink into them. Some retreated from the rising winds, preferring the comfort of indoors to an unobstructed ocean view.
But John Collett and Tim Schinhofen remained, dressed in short sleeves, sipping cold drinks and talking animatedly about huge ice fields, bitter winds and breathtakingly thin, frigid air, and about how eager they were to get into it.
They won't have much longer to wait. At midnight Wednesday, the two Orange County men and four other Southern Californians are scheduled to leave Los Angeles in an expedition to become the first Americans to climb one of the most difficult of all Himalayas: the 24,688-foot Annapurna IV. They are also hoping to do it by a route no one has conquered--the treacherous northern face.
"This is such a great chance for us," said Collett, 38, a research physicist from San Clemente. "We know there's always a chance of disappointment, but we feel confident. And none of us is crazy. None of us is going to do anything or make a decision that will get any of us killed. If we have good weather, we think our chances of reaching the summit are 100%."
Collett and Schinhofen are veterans of another Himalayan climb, a 1983 assault on the 22,400-foot Kangtega peak. That expedition, led by veteran climber Steve Brimmer, who also is leading the Annapurna IV expedition, came to an end about 1,000 feet below the summit. It was foiled, Brimmer said, by impassable crevasses and other dangerous conditions on the mountain--many of the same conditions, he said, that exist on Annapurna IV.
It will be, they say, like a journey to another planet.
After a zigzag airplane flight from Los Angeles with stops in Hawaii, Taipei and Singapore, the team will arrive in Katmandu, Nepal, where members will buy food and supplies and join with Sherpa climbers and porters to begin an eight-day march to their base camp. On that first leg, they will pass through rain forests; into the sandy, windy, desolate Tibetan plateau region, and finally they will arrive at the camp site on a 14,000-foot high glacier.
There, William Dailey, the team's doctor, and Dan Bridges, the base-camp manager, will remain, while Collett, Schinhofen, Brimmer and a fourth climber, Doug Kosty, assault the summit.
It is an expedition that has been nearly two years in the planning, Collett said.
"You get a guy who has an idea to climb this big mountain . . . . In this case, it's Steve, and he sends out feelers all over for resumes from climbers," Collett said. "Then once the team's together, you need a permit. A team resume goes to the American Alpine Club, which is the governing body for climbing in the U.S., and they will or will not endorse the climb.
"Then you apply for a permit to the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism, and if you're accepted, you get a commission from the King and Queen of Nepal.
All of it can take six to eight months. Then comes the hard part, said Schinhofen:
"You have to work on the main event--money. And you have to arrange for time off from your jobs."
Schinhofen, 34, a communications executive for AT&T who lives in El Toro, and Collett, who works for Hughes Aircraft, obtained eight-week leaves from their jobs, as did other team members. After some searching, corporate sponsorship for the expedition was found: Singapore Airlines will fly the team to Nepal, and New York-based Celanese Fibers Inc. will be supplying it with cold-weather clothing.
Yet after all the logistical preparations, when the team stands at the base of Annapurna IV, success will rest solely on a delicate combination of mental and physical discipline, Collett and Schinhofen said.
Both men have nearly 12 years of climbing experience and have trained extensively with combinations of practice hikes on California mountains and regimens of oxygen-deprivation sports like running and cycling.
"You're almost at a triathlete level when you're doing Himalayan climbing--except you can't quit when you're climbing," said Schinhofen. "You can't be the guy who finishes the swim part of the race and gives up."
Added Collett, "With rock climbing, like you'd do in Yosemite, you can give up and go home and wait for the weather to get better and try again another day. You can't do that in the Himalayas."
The team also is under a deadline. Their Nepalese climbing permit will expire Nov. 30, and by its terms, they must complete their climb by that day, and by the route submitted in advance, or abandon the expedition.
It takes a singular mental attitude to live with that, Brimmer said.