In the world of California mountaineering, Patricia Rambert was closing in on the Holy Grail.
The 57-year-old Laguna Hills woman had just 39 peaks to "bag" before making a clean sweep of the 247 summits that climbing enthusiasts consider the most notable in the Sierra Nevada. And as she was with most things in life, Rambert was so passionate about reaching her goal that she recently planned four back-to-back outings.
"She was getting close to that grail," Tina Bowman, her sole companion on the ridge, said Sunday. "It helps explain ... taking on an ambitious plan like that."
But on Wednesday, just 300 feet short of the summit, the mother of two plunged 300 feet to her death while scaling the east face of 13,710-foot Mt. Mendel in Kings Canyon National Park, friends and relatives said Sunday.
Bowman, as well as Rambert's husband, Carl, said the climber was equipped with a helmet, boot spikes called crampons and an ice ax that could have been used to break her fall. Neither understood why, after she lost her footing, she was not able to do so. She slid helplessly down 200 feet of a snow field before dropping 100 feet through the air.
Bowman climbed down, realized Rambert was dead and hiked out to inform the Inyo County sheriff's office, before calling the dead mountaineer's husband at home. Three climbing rangers from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks recovered the body Thursday, and the incident is under investigation.
News of the death stunned the close-knit Southern California climbing community, where the gregarious Rambert was known as a stickler about safety.
"It's a huge shock because Patty is very, very, very safety-conscious," said Cheryl Gill, Orange County chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Wilderness Training Committee, for which Rambert was a popular and outgoing leader.
"Something just let loose under her foot," Gill said.
Rambert's climb came in the midst of a focused campaign to scale all 247 peaks in the picturesque range that one mountain climbing chapter of the Sierra Club has designated the most challenging and interesting. The peaks range from 8,000 to more than 14,000 feet and make the list because of their elevation, inaccessibility and "domination," a Sierra Club spokesman said.
The peak where Rambert died was where a World War II Army airman was found last fall, buried in ice since a training accident 63 years earlier.
Rambert also was working on two other Sierra Club lists, including one of the 99 highest mountains in deserts from Utah to Baja California.
Her quest earned her a reputation within hiking circles as a first-class "peak bagger" who, according to her husband, was either out hiking or scaling mountains 150 to 200 days a year, sleeping every night in a tent.
"She'd be out there three or four or five days, go home, do the laundry, say 'hi' to Carl and the kids and then go off again for another extended trip," Gill said.
Carl Rambert said his wife's enthusiasm for mountaineering reflected her passion for everything in life, be it sailing, tennis or taking care of elderly parents.
"She jumps in with both feet, no question about it," he said.
He said her passion for climbing was ignited in the early 1990s, when the couple served as Boy Scout leaders for their teenage son. The troop inherited some rock climbing gear and Patty Rambert became an instant enthusiast.
She made the transition into mountain climbing about six years ago when, after a couple of initial sorties, she embraced the sport and joined the Sierra Club. She took a training course and never looked back, joining a culture whose members embraced the mountaineering lists as a friendly form of competition.
Rambert was well-known for her dedication, as one mountaineer remarked in a blog last year about his trek to Electra Peak, about 12,400 feet high in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
"I can't imagine many other people climb this peak," he wrote, remarking on the signatures of those who made the haul and signed the official registry. "The main entry I remember is Patty Rambert's, mostly because she seems to have made a habit of visiting all of the more remote peaks I climbed this summer, beating me out to each of them by a few weeks."
Yet as Rambert herself wrote in a recent hiking newsletter, it was the journey as well as the destination that drew her to climbing. It was a chance to take in new vistas, discover new trails and see wildlife like bighorn sheep, snakes and deer.
"Generally my primary goal is to summit the peak we plan to bag," she wrote in the Winter 2004 newsletter of the Sierra Club's Wilderness Training Committee, which showed her on the cover over the headline "Baggin' it!"
"To get there, though, we usually have an amazing adventure.... Then it's on to base camp to relax and settle in to enjoy the remote area."
Carl Rambert, 57, an electrical engineer and computer consultant, said his work schedule and other interests kept him from joining his wife on the treks.
But he helped prep her for the trips by pulling topographical maps out of the computer, mending equipment and waterproofing her boots. She would methodically plan what gear to take, making sure not to overload her backpack.
Friends said she was equally cautious when she taught hiking classes, showing students how to place their feet, urging them to test a rock to make sure it wouldn't come loose.
Still, climbing mountains carries no guarantees and Carl Rambert said he had many a start when the phone rang, as it did Thursday.
"Given the nature of what Patty was doing, when she was away and the phone rang, I usually had a shot of adrenalin," he said. "There was a risk in this sport."
Besides her husband, Rambert is survived by a daughter, Heather, 28, of Bear, Del.; a brother, Edward Sims, of Readfield, Maine; a son, Ryan Rambert, 26, a daughter-in-law, Michelle Rambert, and a granddaughter, Jade, 3, all of Laguna Hills. Services are pending.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.