Search For Missing Climbers Grows Grim

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.

The Search Effort

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.

"These guys are tough, tough mountaineers," Frank James, Kelly James's oldest brother said. "One time during a high school wrestling match Kelly had his shoulder ripped out of socket. He popped it back in and went on to win the match."

On Sunday, members of the 304th Air Force Reserve, a combat rescue squadron based in nearby Portland, flew six soldiers and four expert climbers to the summit in a dual-rotor Chinook helicopter. They found a well-built snow cave about 400 feet (121 meters) from the summit that had room for three people. That cave contained James's body, but it was too late in the day to remove it. Members of the 304 squad said James had a bivy sac, but no sleeping bag nor insulated jacket.

Around the mountain's face toward the North, the soldiers also found another snow cave, this one hastily built. Here they found a series of disturbing clues that suggest the climbers may have fallen: two ice tools and an anchor, along with a length of climbing rope that had been severed.

With clear skies and little wind on Monday, the soldiers flew once again to the summit and dragged James's remains from the cave to the top of the peak. A Blackhawk helicopter swooped in during late afternoon to pick up the body and ferry it about 14 miles (23 kilometers) north to the Hood River airport.

Changing Course

On Tuesday, shortly before Wampler said the rescue effort was winding down, friends and family of Hall and Cooke ate breakfast in the Hood River Hotel under cloudy skies. Some of Hall's friends, who have combed the mountain's lower reaches during their own limited search, said they planned to head back out with binoculars to look for signs of their friend. In the late afternoon, the sheriff's office took family friends up in the Super Cubs for a look at the mountain.

"It was a chance for them to see how treacherous the terrain is that we've been working in and for them to see the mountain up close," said Mark Jubitz, a deputy sheriff with Hood River County. "It was also an opportunity for them to see the adventure these men had set out to do and to give them an opportunity for closure."

Searchers would like to examine the upper reaches of Eliot Glacier, where other fallen bodies have been found in the past, but the conditions and weather continue to be too dangerous. It could be spring -- or never -- before more clues emerge from the melting snow to help investigators piece together exactly what happened to these climbers on Mount Hood.