A team of Southern California mountaineers has returned safely to Katmandu, Nepal, after becoming the first U.S. climbing team to put a man on the summit of the 24,682-foot Annapurna IV--one of the most difficult climbs in the Himalayas--and the first team of any kind to ascend the mountain's northwest ridge.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," said Tim Schinhofen, 34, an AT&T communications executive from El Toro who, with Sherpa guide Pemba Norbu, 34, reached the summit Oct. 10.
"I was so tired and exhausted (upon reaching the summit) that it was hard to be elated and jump up and down and realize what we'd accomplished. But it did feel good," Schinhofen said. "It was Pemba Norbu's birthday, and we had enough presence of mind to take a few pictures. Then we got the hell out of there."
Schinhofen, in a telephone interview from a Katmandu hotel where the seven-man team is resting, said they are "in good health and good spirits" after the nearly monthlong expedition, becoming the first mountaineers to succeed in scaling the steep northwest ridge route of Annapurna IV.
Schinhofen said he and Norbu left the highest of the team's mountainside camps at about 6 a.m. on Oct. 10 and reached the summit about nine hours later. After 20 minutes on the peak, they returned to the camp after a 4 1/2-hour descent, exhausted from battling winds of 40-50 m.p.h. and temperatures that dropped to an estimated 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
"It was crystal clear on the summit," Schinhofen said. "You could see hundreds of miles in all directions."
The descent was complicated by a hanging glacier that continued to move and crack after the three climbers traversed it on their way up the mountain. On the way down, they found that small cracks in the moving glacier had become yawning crevasses that prevented any other team members from making an attempt to scale the summit.
Steve Brimmer, 37, the leader of the expedition, said Schinhofen suffered frostbite on the tips of most of his toes, but it was not expected to cause permanent injury.
However, Brimmer, a sound engineer at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and a resident of Malibu, may have suffered the most serious injury of the climb when he fell off a 100-foot cliff in pitch darkness while walking out of the mountainous terrain of Nepal.
Brimmer said he had contracted pneumonia while high on the face of Annapurna IV and decided to descend with Schinhofen the day after Schinhofen and Norbu made the summit.
"I was intending to go for the summit, but my lungs filled up with water, and I had to make a decision to go for it or come down," Brimmer said.
"I'm glad I came down. Otherwise, I think I'd still be up there. It took all the strength we had to come down that mountain to base camp."
On the trek out of the mountains, Brimmer, while walking alone in the dark across a high plateau area, suffered a mountaineer's nightmare.
'Pitch Dark and Raining'
"It happened to be one of those nights, pitch dark and raining," he said. "And I was walking along a ledge and couldn't see, but I could hear a river down below. I just stepped off and down I went. It took quite a while to climb out. I just have a vague recollection of it. I had to climb through a waterfall, which made it kind of nasty."
Brimmer said he lay exhausted, possibly with broken ribs, "for several hours" before he spotted a Sherpa's lamp. He yelled and the Sherpa pulled him to safety.
"It's one of those things that happens and either you survive or you don't," he said.
The medical director of the team, William Dailey of Rancho Cucamonga, was forced to descend the mountain earlier in the climb when he became ill with pulmonary edema, a swelling of the lungs that occurs at high altitudes.
Other members of the team, which was sponsored by Singapore Airlines and Celanese Fibers Inc., are John Collett of San Clemente, the assistant leader; Doug Kosty of Carlsbad; Dan Bridges of Vista, the base camp manager; and Karl Hermann of Santa Monica, the team's photographer.
They will be leaving the capital city of Nepal later this week to meet wives, girlfriends and family members in Tokyo this weekend, before flying into Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 3.
The team wasn't disappointed that it couldn't put more men on the summit, Brimmer said.
In fact, the climb "was a miracle," he said: "We had 14 days of sunshine and clear weather. It was like a window that opened when we came in and slammed shut when we left. It was all extraordinarily remarkable."