Dec. 11, 2008 -- The country watched in December 2006 to learn the fate of three climbers trapped on Mount Hood. The worst storm in the last 10 years hit the mountain and prevented rescuers from doing their work.
One of the climbers, Kelly James, made a phone call to his wife, Karen James, to let her know he was trapped on the mountain. By the time rescuers found him, hypothermia had killed him. Now in a new book Karen James tells the untold story of what really happened atop the mountain.
Read an excerpt of "Holding Fast" below.
Chapter 1: Two Miles High
Kelly reached for his cell phone. Please let me talk to Karen. Kelly dialed and tried to reach his wife, but there was no signal. All right, I'll try 911. Kelly dialed, but again there was no signal. By that time he was so wet, weak, and tired, he did not have the energy to venture out of the snow cave and try to get a better signal. A vicious storm was raging, and even if he was strong enough, he had little hope of going anywhere to pick up a stronger signal. Just need to sit tight. Brian knows where I am, thought Kelly.
Glancing toward the cave's entrance, he could see that it was almost covered over from the recent snowfall. The climbers built this cave to seek shelter from the brutal weather. They started the trip together, but now Kelly was separated from his two buddies. Alone in the cave, he tried not to focus on the pain in his shoulder and legs. Kelly thought, I need to dig out the snow covering the entrance. But Brian and Nikko had the snow shovel with them. Could I even use it? he questioned himself. Kelly could no longer feel his feet. This was a first for Kelly, who was used to being in top shape. He had natural physical strength and endurance that amazed his friends and family.
Something had gone terribly wrong just below the summit. In the middle of December, Mount Hood can be just as cruel as Everest, and despite their careful planning, the trio could not escape Mother Nature's fury. On the north face of Mount Hood, there is nowhere to go but up, due to the extreme danger of down climbing the ice. The plan was simple enough. Go up, over the top, and descend the south side. But it didn't happen that way. As Kelly reflected on their dire situation, his mind constantly raced back to his family. He knew they had to be trying to call him, especially his wife, Karen. No matter where he was in the world, he and Karen had a pact that every night each of them would reach out and call to say good night. Throughout their marriage, the only time they missed saying, "I love you," before bedtime was when Kelly could not get cell phone reception on a mountain. The longest he had ever been without talking to Karen was five days on Mount McKinley, when he and Brian were caught in their tent in a whiteout.
I wish I was home. Don't worry, man. You'll get there, he reassured himself. Kelly's natural optimistic disposition had always served him well in difficult times. He was a big believer in mind over matter. Despite his worsening condition, he continued to think, It's just a matter of time until help comes. His positive attitude would not allow his mind to travel to the dark place that perhaps Brian and Nikko never made it down the mountain.
As the most experienced climber of the group, Kelly wished he was with them. Before they separated, he told them, "Put in extra protection and be super-safe." Kelly was referring to the climbing tactic of putting screws in the ice to secure the climbing rope. The more ice screws, the more protection. Even though they are roped together, if one climber falls, it is impossible for the remaining climber to stay on the mountain just holding on to his ice tools embedded into the face of the mountain. The jolt of a falling climber and his body weight can quickly pluck the other climbers off the mountain. In dangerous areas, climbers need to secure, at intervals, their ropes attached to ice screws, so if one falls, they will fall only the distance of the last embedded ice screw and not thousands of feet to their deaths.
They should have been back by now. But weather conditions were horrible, and he figured that the guys must be hunkered down in another snow cave waiting for the storm to break. One of the worst storms in a decade had bombarded the mountain for a week, dumping up to five feet of new snow, bringing wind chills estimated at around forty degrees below zero. Despite the strength and size of all three men, they were no match for the storm. The hurricane-strength winds, with gusts up to 130 miles per hour, had rendered them helpless. Nevertheless, they had persevered and were able to seek shelter in the snow cave. Kelly reassured himself, That's it. The weather is the only logical reason why they haven't made it back yet. Just hurry, guys.
As an experienced climber, Kelly was well aware of what was happening to his body. He had hypothermia, and he understood the physical symptoms and progression of the condition. No matter what, I will not undress, he reminded himself. Kelly was thinking about a bizarre condition linked with hypothermia called paradoxical undressing; thinking that they are hot, victims start removing their clothing. In the past, he had told Karen stories about this condition when they discussed the dangers of climbing. But Kelly never really thought it would happen to him. After all, he was a pro at getting out of tight situations. In his forty-eight years of life, he had never met a mountain he couldn't tackle.
He dismissed the thought of hypothermia, and his confidence grew again. He would make it out of this snow cave, and he would beat the hypothermia because he had the strength and presence of mind to fight off the bizarre undressing condition. After all, he thought, God will protect me.
As the minutes stretched into hours, his shivering became more violent, and when he tried to talk, he could tell his speech was sluggish. For the first time, he wasn't sure how much longer he could fight off the bitter cold. Outside the cave, the temperature had dropped into the teens with wind gusts up to one hundred miles per hour, resulting in a deadly below-zero double-digit wind chill. A snow cave can serve as good protection from a storm, but in such severe weather, Kelly needed his small portable stove to boil water and a sleeping bag to escape his wet clothes that were speeding up the hypothermia. At that point, he was separated from his important gear that he had so carefully laid out to pack on his living room floor in Dallas only a few days earlier.
His body was starting to shut down. But most upsetting of all, he was unable to disguise it in his voice, and he was aware that Karen knew that something was very wrong.
As he thought back to the last time they spoke—he couldn't quite remember when it happened—he had no doubt that his prayers were answered. Making several attempts to call out, he received no signal each time. Kelly had given up trying to reach Karen and 911. Then on Sunday afternoon as he lay in the snow cave, he heard a sound. At first, he thought he was dreaming, and then he realized that his phone was ringing. He fumbled to answer the call but missed it.
Looking down at the phone, he saw that his oldest son, Jason, had just called. Kelly used every bit of coordination he had left to redial, and as he heard the phone ringing, he repeated, "Please! Please!" Jason picked up.
Relief swept over Kelly as Jason answered. Then Ford, his second oldest son, took the phone from his brother and started to ask questions. Kelly told the two boys everything he could think of to help the rescue workers find him. Despite his deteriorating condition, his mind was still strong, and he knew he could depend on them.
Then Karen got on the phone. Unlike the boys' loud voices and rapid-fire series of search and rescue questions, Karen's voice was soft. He could hear it crack as she said, "Hi, honey." At that moment, both of them knew this was a conversation like none before. In the brief exchange, their souls connected. Their hearts were speaking to each other without either one of them uttering a word. They talked a couple of minutes and exchanged "I love you's." But Kelly realized it was what Karen had not asked him that made the biggest impact. For the first time she did not ask, "When will you be down off the mountain?"
After hanging up, he whispered, "I'm sorry, baby." Reassured by knowing that the boys were with her, he wondered, Where are my other two kids, Katie and Jack? Kelly's heart ached. Please, God, don't take me yet. They need me.
His thoughts flashed to the weekend before his trip when he was with his mother, Lou Ann, tiling her kitchen floor. You can't do this to my mom. She's already had such a tough life. She'll be crushed. Just give me some more time with her and my brothers and sisters.
Kelly's mind was then still. God had rescued him from other tight spots, but instinctively he knew this time would be different. The thought that he might be leaving his family brought deep sorrow, and he wept, knowing what he was leaving behind. It was just a quick weekend trip. Christmas is in two weeks. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this.
Then in true Kelly James style, he refocused, and everything he believed to be true in his life came full force into his heart and mind. He turned his eyes away from this earth and focused all his attention on God.
Throughout his stay in the snow cave, Kelly never felt alone because he knew he wasn't. For him, God and the mountains were inseparable. He felt closest to God when he climbed, and this was truly the closest he had been to death.
Kelly was not afraid of dying. To Karen's amazement, he often expressed his excitement about what heaven would be like. There was never any doubt in his mind about what would happen to him after death. Kelly believed that when it was his time, nothing any person could do would change this fact. This sense of peace and confidence in his ultimate destination, combined with his passion for life, drew people to him.
With his earthly body failing him, Kelly realized this would not be another climbing story that he and Brian would tell while popping a cold beer on his patio at home. He thought about Brian, Man, you have got to watch out for them. As with many climbers, there was an understanding between them that if one died, the other would be there for his family. Kelly knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Brian would do this for him.
While trapped on Mount Hood, Kelly was holding fast to his spiritual beliefs and never gave up thinking that help was on the way. What he understood was that instead of being saved by rescuers, he would soon experience the most incredible rescue of all. It was time to surrender his earthly body. But Kelly had to do one more thing for his family before he died. Lying there on the cold, snowy floor with his head resting on his pack, he removed his right glove, extended his arm, and curled back all fingers except his ring finger with his signet JKJ ring prominently displayed. In his last dying moments, Kelly wanted to send a signal to his family. It would be his last act of love for them, and it would be his final "I love you"—at least on this earth.
*** As Kelly's wife, I believe that I knew in my heart how he spent his final minutes, hours, and days. I spent many nights lying awake, imagining what he had to endure, both mentally and physically, in the fight for his life against the sub-zero-degree temperatures. In the months following his death, I did not have all the facts surrounding his death, yet the answers to what happened seemed strangely within my grasp. I attributed this to my belief that even in death, God had not severed our bond of love. Over the course of the next year, I learned details, unreleased publicly, surrounding the tragedy that confirmed my initial thoughts. But most amazingly, I took a journey that revealed the presence of God in my life and my husband's life and showed me how love transcends death.