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Peru Trek Claims 3 Southland Hikers

Mountaineering: The body of one man is recovered, the others are feared dead after an ice avalanche at 18,000 feet. The friends were veteran climbers.


It's the only way to get to the highest peaks--you have to take small steps.

Steve Erskine, Bill Stampfl and Matthew Richardson knew this, which is why they spent so many hours trekking up and down Mt. Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains, picturing higher mountains to scale.

Their latest excursion was supposed to be a 19-day round-trip from their Southland homes to Peru's tallest summit, Mt. Huascaran. They were supposed to be back Sunday, bearing stories, pictures and probably the name of the next mountain on their list.

But Huascaran kept them.

Erskine, Stampfl and Richardson were caught in an ice avalanche while scaling the mountain June 24. Only Erskine's body has been found.

On Tuesday, their families shared stories about the three experienced climbers, some still holding out hope that Stampfl and Richardson may have survived.

Erskine's children answered calls in their Chino home from well-wishers, planning a memorial service that they expect will attract hundreds who knew him and the other climbers.

Although each man took a different path to reach Huascaran, their trails all seemed to lead through Mt. Baldy. They had become friends through climbing. Stampfl was the oldest at 58, Richardson the young one at 40. Erskine was 51.

One of Stampfl's first climbs--the one that got him hooked--was to Baldy's summit. Erskine routinely climbed Mt. Baldy, often twice in a day, as if it were a 7,500-foot staircase. Richardson, of Claremont, proposed there to his wife, Anne Marie, two years ago on Valentine's Day.

Richardson, an elementary school teacher, taught at an appropriately named Montclair school, Monte Vista. He used his June vacations to plan climbing expeditions.

Erskine's children--Jeffrey, 24; Nicholas, 20; and Natalie, 18--recalled hikes to Baldy's summit with their father, who they said remained in better shape than any of them. When Jeffrey was 13, his father carried him on his back to simulate the roughly 100-pound load he'd carry on another mountain expedition.

The Erskine children on Tuesday planned another trek to Baldy's summit, their first together in several years. They plan to take their father's ashes and scatter them at the summit.

Janet Stampfl recalled the soreness her husband had after his first trip up Mt. Baldy. He'd improved to the point where he and Erskine mused--jokingly, she said--about scaling Mt. Everest.

At Kemper Enterprises in Chino, reports of the disaster hit extra hard. Erskine worked there as the company's vice president and financial officer for nearly 10 years. Kemper's president, Herb Stampfl, is missing climber Bill Stampfl's older brother.

The three friends traveled the world to scale mountains. Their climbing resumes included some of the world's most recognizable peaks: Denali, Kilimanjaro, Shasta and Rainier.

Erskine was famous in his family for making a journey from California's Sierra to Fairbanks, Alaska. On foot.

Anne Marie and Matthew Richardson celebrated their honeymoon atop Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro. Erskine and Stampfl, who were close friends as well as climbing partners, spent last summer climbing mountains in Ecuador.

Stampfl, a self-employed civil engineer born in Austria, completed much of the itinerary for the Huascaran climb from his Chino home. As with all climbers, weight mattered. Each man would have carried more than 60 pounds on his back for the seven-day ascent to Huascaran's summit.

By June 24, the day of the avalanche, the climbers' ounce-by-ounce planning and short steps to conserve energy would have had them at 18,000 feet, well over halfway to the top.

Family members speculated about what the men would have done had they reached Huascaran's 22,000-foot summit.

Erskine, a devout Christian who through relief organizations sponsored several children in other countries, would have left a Bible wrapped in a weatherproof bag.

Stampfl would have left probably the lightest items in his pack: a tiny bag of origami turtles, a gift from his wife, Janet. "It was a running joke," she said. "Since I couldn't go, the turtles went instead."

Richardson probably wouldn't have left anything.

But Anne Marie Richardson said he would repeat what he had done atop dozens of mountains before. He'd pull out a photograph, then ask one of his climbing buddies to take a picture of him, Anne Marie's picture in hand.

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