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3 men still missing on Mt. Hood

Whiteout conditions hamper the search on the Oregon peak. One hiker may be injured and holed up in a cave.

December 13, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

GOVERNMENT CAMP, ORE. — The three men had all climbed bigger mountains.

When they set out Thursday to tackle Oregon's tallest peak, their plan was to practice an alpine technique known as a rapid ascent, which puts a premium on traveling with a minimum amount of gear. They'd get to the 11,239-foot summit of Mt. Hood and be back to their base camp within a day or so.

But the weather quickly went wrong -- perhaps disastrously so -- for the experienced hikers, who remained missing Tuesday evening despite an intensive search by 40 rescue workers and a helicopter crew.

Authorities believe one of the men is injured or disoriented from the cold and holed up in a snow cave on the northeast side of the mountain, near the summit. Meanwhile, they say, the other two apparently got lost while descending Hood to seek help for their colleague.

But with wind-whipped snow strafing the mountain, rescue crews working both sides of the peak trying to retrace the men's potential routes have been unable to find any of the three and are hampered by whiteout conditions.

"It is very hard to see more than a few feet in front of you," Marty Johnson, a member of the search team, said Tuesday.

"So, at this moment, you could not locate them unless you stumbled onto their path," he added.

The man believed to be injured or disoriented, 48-year-old Kelly James of Dallas, called his family Sunday on his cellphone to report that he was stranded and that the group was in some trouble, said his older brother, Frank. The hiking party's location is about 50 miles east of Portland, and within range of cellphone towers. The call lasted about four minutes.

But Kelly James -- who has climbed the taller Mt. Rainier in neighboring Washington at least 15 times and proposed to his wife there, his family said -- has not answered the phone since. Authorities say they have been able to determine his approximate location, as the phone retained battery power and broadcast a signal in response to incoming calls Tuesday.

Frank James and family members of the other two men -- Brian Hall, 37, also of Dallas, and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y. -- emphasized that the climbers were all experienced, dressed in warm enough clothing for an ascent up the freezing mountain and trained in survival techniques.

And so, they held out hope Tuesday that the trio were waiting out the stormy weather in the snow cave and would turn up alive.

"My brother has been climbing for 25 years," Frank James said from a rescue staging area on the mountain. "He would know what to do in a difficult situation."

Others held out similar hopes while acknowledging the circumstances were difficult. "It's not looking good for those guys, with the conditions we have up there, and the avalanche risks," said Brian Wheeler, a mountaineer and founder of the Northwest School in Gresham, Ore.

"And anyone who goes out looking for him today -- those searchers are really risking their own lives."

The searchers are mainly volunteers from several privately funded rescue groups who respond to emergencies on Mt. Hood and other peaks in the Cascade chain.

About 10,000 people register to climb Mt. Hood annually, a spokesman for the Forest Service said, but he added that the vast majority do so from mid-April to July 1.

Winter climbers number only in the hundreds, he said. Wheeler and other mountaineers said that reaching the summit in winter, which begins next week, required great technical skill, including an ability to climb along ice, but was not an unusual feat.

Many serious climbers try to ascend peaks in the Cascades during the winter to train for bigger mountains, such as Mt. McKinley in Alaska or the peaks of the Himalayas in Asia.

Seven students and two faculty members of Portland's Oregon Episcopal School died in May 1986 when they got trapped in a blizzard on Mt. Hood. And in May 2002, three hikers died and six others were injured when their party fell into a crevasse near the summit.

About 20 people a year need to be rescued from the mountain in an average year, rescue officials say. The climb can turn treacherous in any season, but conditions so close to winter are especially dangerous.

Frank James, conducting the vigil at the staging area, said his brother is a triathlete who has climbed peaks in the Alps and the Andes. "If anyone could survive these conditions," he said, "it would be Kelly James."

sam.verhovek@latimes.com

Times staff writer Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.

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