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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
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Peak Performances

Local mountaineers set their sights on climbing all 15 of California's 14,000-foot crests.

May 28, 1999|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Santiago Peak in Orange County. Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada. Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

It used to be that mountaineers set their sights on a single lofty goal, just how lofty depending on their level of skill, amount of free time and discretionary travel funds.

Today's climbers are a more goals-oriented bunch--that's goals plural, not singular.

The best among them--emulating Italian climbing superstar Reinhold Messner--hope to stand atop all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks, and many lose their lives trying; those peaks are concentrated in the Himalayas. Others, perhaps inspired by millionaire senior citizen Dick Bass, author of "Seven Summits," try for the highest point on each continent.

Californians might stick closer to home, hoping to reach the summit of each of our 14,000-foot peaks--13 in the Sierra Nevada, one in the White Mountain Range east of the Sierra and one in the Cascades Range in Northern California.

Those peaks may be half as high as the Himalayan giants, but Golden State adventurers definitely get their money's worth. Who needs air fares, peak fees and porters when some of the most beautiful high wilderness in the world is in our own backyard?

"Any peak that you bag is exhilarating," said Greg Silver, a real estate broker and training chair for the Boy Scouts' High Adventure Team. Silver lives in Garden Grove with his wife, Roxanne, and three children. "It's a thrill for you. But the ruggedness and beauty of the Sierra is an added thrill."

Silver began his quest for the California peaks commonly referred to as "the fourteeners" two years ago. So far he's climbed five: White Mountain Peak and Mounts Langley, Whitney, Russell and Shasta.

Although no fourteener is a stroll in the park, White Mountain Peak and Mount Langley are basically walk-ups, demanding no rock climbing skills; Whitney offers summiteers a popular walk-up route as well as several more challenging routes.

The remaining fourteeners contain steep sections on their routes, with at least five--North Palisade, Middle Palisade, and Starlight, Polemonium and Thunderbolt peaks--requiring rock climbing and rope-handling expertise.

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Hypothermia (which results from cold and insufficient clothing) and altitude sickness can be major concerns on any 14,000-foot mountain.

"I struggle with the effects of altitude," said Margy Floyd of Tustin, a staff member at Rockreation, an indoor climbing gym in Costa Mesa. "I had a really hard time on North Palisade. Thunderbolt Peak, which I did early in my Sierra climbing career, was even harder. I get bad headaches, upset stomach, really great fatigue. Mostly it's the headaches."

While proper acclimatization can reduce the debilitating effects of altitude, altitude sickness can strike anybody without warning at elevations as low as 9,000 feet. Hikers losing their breakfast at trail side are a common sight on Mount Whitney, the highest peak

in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet.

Afternoon electrical storms, typical on California's high peaks, provide another obstacle. People, especially those wearing wire-rimmed glasses, have been struck by lightning. According to "California's Fourteeners"--a hiking and climbing guide to the area by Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns (Palisades Press, Missoula, Mont., 1991)--storms can develop in minutes, especially on White Mountain Peak and Mount Shasta.

Weather prevented Floyd from reaching the top of Polemonium Peak, one of the more difficult fourteeners, and hence from completing her list. She'll try again this summer.

"The loads are heavier for the technical climbs," Floyd said of Polemonium and the other more exacting peaks. "It's a race against time. The whole time you're worried. You're thinking about getting back down, which is more dangerous than going up, about the multiple rappels when you're tired. Weather adds one more aspect."

According to "California's Fourteeners," difficulties on Polemonium include "incredible chasms," "phenomenally loose" rock and a "stunningly exposed" knife-blade summit ridge.

Nevertheless, Starlight Peak is the most technically demanding of the fourteeners and the least often climbed. For a real adrenaline rush, the same book suggests, stand on top of Starlight's bottle-shaped summit pinnacle, an act that the authors liken to flying.

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Jeff Clapp of Irvine, also on staff at Rockcreation, has climbed all of the Sierra fourteeners except Mount Langley and plans to do Mount Shasta and White Mountain Peak soon.

Individuals move through the list at their own pace. Silver, who has a family to think about, took two years to climb five fourteeners. Clapp--relatively free of home-front commitments and in top shape--bagged five in four days.

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