Search For Missing Climbers Grows Grim

ByABC News
December 20, 2006, 12:24 PM

HOOD RIVER, Ore., Dec. 20, 2006 — -- Friends and family of the three missing climbers on Mount Hood wanted to believe that the men would walk off the mountain. Ultimately it was a Blackhawk helicopter that plucked the remains of Kelly James from a snow cave near the summit.

While rescuers were able to give this tragic episode a modicum of closure for at least one family, they have found no signs of James's climbing partners, Jerry "Nikko" Cooke and Brian Hall, who now have been missing for ten days.

"We are approaching the time where we need to make some serious considerations about whether we're spinning our wheels," Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler said Tuesday. "This office is not going to give up until someone tells me the risk [of continuing the rescue effort] outweighs the results."

On Tuesday Super Cub single-engine airplanes flew around the peak to scan for any sign that Hall and Cooke might still be alive, a prospect that grows grimmer with each passing minute.

More storms, with predicted 50-mile-per-hour (80-kilometers-per-hour) winds, are expected to crash into 11,239-foot (3,425-meter) Mount Hood tonight. That weather will further complicate efforts to search the Eliot Glacier, a churned river of ice just below the technical north face route the men climbed. Officials believe Hall and Cooke may have fallen some 2,500 feet (762 meters) to that glacier as they attempted to climb down a steep, icy face.

Rescuers have long speculated that the epic ordeal that has riveted the nation began when James, a 48-year-old landscape architect from Dallas and an experienced mountaineer, was somehow injured near the summit during the group's climb that began on December 7. With the retrieval of James's remains on Monday afternoon, new clues are beginning to emerge that shed new -- although murky -- light on what may have happened.

Searchers found a camera on James's frozen corpse holding pictures that, while yet unreleased, may yield some insights. At some point James injured his shoulder, likely high in a steep couloir that fills with the blue alpine ice the men yearned to climb. Exactly how he was injured is still unclear, but the route the men chose had no easy way out. They would have most certainly risked a lethal fall if they had tired to retreat down the steep, icy slope they'd just climbed. The climbers' safest option would have been to push toward the summit in an excruciating effort as storm clouds gathered.