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Triumph at 24,682 Feet : Conquerers of Himalayas Remember the Winds, the Cold, the Bad Pizza

November 07, 1987|PATRICK MOTT | For The Times

After successfully climbing one of the most treacherous mountains in the world, after fighting freezing 70-m.p.h. winds and frostbite and consuming darkness and numbing exhaustion, two Orange County mountaineers say the worst part of their expedition may have been Nepalese pizza.

Tim Schinhofen and John Collett, part of the first U.S. climbing team to put a man on the summit of the 24,682-foot Himalayan mountain Annapurna IV last month, sat in a Laguna Hills restaurant Thursday--two days after returning home from Nepal--and recounted the climb. And the pizza nightmare.

"There's this restaurant in Katmandu (Nepal) called K.C.'s that sort of caters to Westerners," said Schinhofen, 34. "And when we got back from the mountain we went there and all of us had pizza. The next day I was sicker than a dog. Then later on everybody got sick. We think K.C. might stand for Katmandu Crud."

They were more successful with the mountain. After two years of planning, training and lining up corporate sponsors, after nearly a month of trekking into the Himalayas, scouting routes and setting up mountainside camps, Schinhofen, a communications executive for AT&T, became the first American to stand on the summit on Oct. 10. He and Pemba Norbu, 34, a Sherpa climber who accompanied him on the final ascent, also became the first climbers to conquer the mountain by climbing the treacherous northwest face.

Further assaults on the summit by other members of the team of Southern Californians became impossible, however, because of glacial crevasses on the mountainside that grew constantly wider and more dangerous, making passage impossible. Still, said Collett, 38, a research physicist, all the members of the seven-man team considered the expedition a success.

"I'm disappointed, sure," he said. "Disappointed for myself and the other guys and the Sherpas. But when you're faced with something like that (the crevasses), you have to make a decision if it's really worth it. We made the right decision when we agreed not to go on.

"But it's good to know that Tim got to the top and to remember that we all played a part in that. Really, this was a charmed expedition. Everything worked out better than we could possibly have imagined."

Still, the Orange County climbers said, it was arduous.

After busing to a village about 80 miles from Katmandu, the expedition trekked into the Nepalese highlands through some of the most changeable country on earth.

"You go through steaming jungles," Schinhofen said, "where it's maybe 100 degrees and 100% humidity. The first four or five days, we just couldn't dry off. It was pretty miserable."

Later came thick pine forests populated with monkeys, and finally base camp at the foot of Annapurna IV, where the Sherpas accompanying the expedition set up the stone altar and prayer flags that traditionally precede any Himalayan climb.

"You just don't walk onto the mountain until it has been blessed by the Sherpas," Schinhofen said.

The ascent of the mountain, Collett said, was "like a shuttle," with three mountainside camps established and food and equipment shunted among them. A fourth camp had been planned higher on the mountain, but Schinhofen said when he and Norbu established Camp Three at 22,800 feet in ideal weather, "we decided to go for it."

None of their companions below knew of their decision because the battery in their radio had gone dead, Schinhofen said. However, Collett said he and others watched the men's ascent from base camp through binoculars.

"We thought they were going to establish a Camp Four," he said. "All we could see were two little dots moving. But the weather was perfectly clear. I mean, it was gorgeous."

High on the mountain, however, the wind blew at nearly 70 m.p.h., Schinhofen said.

"It was almost strong enough to pick you up and throw you off the ridge," he said. "It was horrendous."

After reaching the summit, Schinhofen and Norbu made most of their descent to Camp Three in pitch darkness, calculating direction from lanterns being waved by the team at base camp far below. When at last they arrived at Camp Three, Steve Brimmer of Malibu, the expedition's leader, was there with another Sherpa. It was a mixed greeting.

"Emotion was pretty high," Schinhofen said, "because they were worried about us, climbing in the dark. Steve said, 'We're a little upset with you, but congratulations anyway.' "

At base camp, Collett said he and the others were "elated. After all the time and energy, we were just ecstatic when we finally heard on the radio."

Meanwhile, back in Orange County, Collett's wife, Beckie, and Schinhofen's girlfriend, Andrea Gilman, had yet to receive a letter from the men, the result of the remoteness of the mountain and the lack of good postal service in Nepal.

"My emotions went from being worried to being angry," Gilman said. "I knew it wasn't because they weren't writing. It was really tough."

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