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Family recounts ordeal in the Sierras

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Rita Bargetto-Snider hugs husband John after hearing that four family members had been rescued after being stranded in the snowy Sierras.

Rita Bargetto-Snider hugs husband John after hearing that four family members had been rescued after being stranded in the snowy Sierras.

Gary Kazanjian, Associated Press

COURTRIGHT RESERVOIR, Calif. — As an experienced backpacker, Frank Horath knew to check the weather forecast before leaving on an overnight hike with family members to an alpine lake in the Sierra National Forest.

The forecast said the weather would be clear in the mountains through the weekend, with a storm moving in Monday. They would be home well before then, he thought.

As Horath, his brother-in-law and their sons huddled in their camp Saturday night at nearly 9,900 feet on the shore of Rae Lake, it became clear the forecast had been wrong. The storm was early — and it was worse than they ever imagined.

They awoke Sunday morning, Oct. 17, to six inches of fresh snow. Watching more snow fall constantly, they knew they were trapped.

"It just snuck up on us," Horath said.

By the time the storm let up Wednesday night, it had dumped four feet of snow at the Sierra Nevada's highest elevations and whipped the mountains with 50 mph wind gusts. It stranded groups of backpackers and rock climbers from Yosemite National Park south to Mount Whitney, setting in motion a series of dramatic high-elevation rescues.

By Thursday, clear weather allowed rescuers to reach all of the hikers stranded in the mountain range, although two of the Yosemite rock climbers died.

Park rangers and rescuers credited the hikers' survival with their decision to remain in their tents until the storm broke.

It was warm and dry when Horath, a 45-year-old financial adviser, set out on the 13-mile trail to Rae Lake with his 16-year-old son, Dominic, his brother-in-law, 47-year-old Paul Bargetto, and Bargetto's 20-year-old son, Michael.

Expecting clear weather, they packed lightly. Once the storm hit and it became clear they were stranded, the group decided that staying put was their only option. Horath said thoughts soon turned to how they could survive for a week or more.

They were forced into one tent after the other began leaking, and zipped their sleeping bags together for warmth. Even then, it was a struggle to stay warm and dry.

They rationed their food: five peanuts each for breakfast, a bit of oatmeal for lunch, a scoop of peanut butter for dinner.

There were times of panic. One night, snow fell faster than they could keep it away from the tent.

"It was just coming down very rapidly and at the same time the wind just started blowing at gusts of, I don't know," Horath said. "I was afraid the tent was going to break, and that would probably have been it at that point."

They lifted each other's spirits with humor and faith. The two fathers, however, had their moments of doubt.

They heard or saw no sign of a search. Horath worried that perhaps their wilderness permit didn't get filed correctly or the detailed route map he had left at home hadn't been seen.

"We had no way of knowing that anybody was even on to this," Horath said. "It was a real feeling of loneliness."

They had no way of knowing that rescue crews had plowed their way to Courtright Reservoir shortly after their families reported them missing late Sunday, and by Monday morning were struggling to reach Rae Lake.

When the Horaths and Bargettos awoke Thursday to a brilliantly cloudless sky, they knew they would soon be rescued.

A few hours later, Paul Bargetto heard a helicopter and saw the twin rotors of a military Chinook rise over a ridgeline.

"We waved, they acknowledged us, and we hugged each other like you would not believe," he said.