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Hiker caught in avalanche is rescued from Half Dome

A group of experienced South Korean climbers kept their colleague warm through a freezing night until the man, whose leg was broken in the avalanche, could be airlifted back to the valley floor.

February 25, 2009|Richard C. Paddock

A climber from South Korea who got caught in an avalanche and broke his leg near the base of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park was rescued by helicopter Tuesday morning after spending a freezing night on the mountain.

Jun Ho Wang, one of seven experienced South Korean climbers preparing to ascend the face of Half Dome later this week, was in an area known as the Death Slab Approach when a small avalanche swept down a gully above him Monday afternoon.

Wang managed to stay on top of the avalanche as it carried him more than 100 yards down the mountain and broke his femur, park officials said. The other climbers came to his aid and radioed for assistance.

A National Park Service rescue team attempted to get to the area Monday afternoon, but continuing small avalanches prevented them from reaching Wang, said park ranger David Pope, one of the rescue team members.

"A lot of the snow is melting, so it's triggering mini-avalanches," he said.

Wang spent the night wrapped in several sleeping bags as the temperature dropped below freezing. Two of his fellow climbers stayed with him through the night. The other four climbed down to the valley floor late Monday afternoon.

"They were very well prepared," said Pope, who noted that the group had carried expedition-style gear with them even though they had all planned to return to the valley floor that day.

The climbers were in an area of broken rock, known as talus, about 2,000 feet above the valley. They had spent the day putting up ropes across the difficult terrain in preparation for their ascent later in the week. The climbers were on their way back down the mountain and were not tied together when the avalanche struck Wang.

"These folks had the skill and the ability to survive," said Park Service spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman. "They were able to keep him warm. He was alert and responsive."

With the freezing temperatures overnight, the snow solidified and the avalanches stopped temporarily. The rescue team set out again at dawn Tuesday and reached the injured man and his friends before 8 a.m.

A California Highway Patrol helicopter airlifted Wang to the valley floor about 8:30 a.m. As the rescue team prepared to leave the Death Slab Approach, Pope said, the temperature was rising and avalanches were starting again.

"Being able to use the helicopter was very valuable," Freeman said.

Wang was taken in a second helicopter to Modesto where he was in fair condition at Doctors Medical Center.

The climbers were in radio contact with colleagues on the valley floor, but at times the rescue was hampered by a language barrier. At one point, the Park Service employed a telephone operator translator through AT&T to communicate with the climbing party.

Rangers said the South Korean group was planning to climb K2 in Pakistan, and the Half Dome ascent may have been part of their training for that expedition.

Freeman said some climbers come to Yosemite at this time of year to test themselves in adverse conditions.

"We have climbers pretty much year-round," she said. "Some of them are here because it's winter. We look at Yosemite as an international climbing Mecca."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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