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Weather still hinders search

'Man and machine are at their limits,' an official says of the effort to rescue three climbers on Oregon's Mt. Hood.

December 14, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

GOVERNMENT CAMP, ORE. — Wind gusts of up to 70 mph and blinding snow kept search-and-rescue teams about 4,000 feet below the last known location of three missing hikers Wednesday near the summit of Oregon's Mt. Hood, officials said.

"Man and machine are at their limits there," said Capt. Christopher Bernard with the Air Force Reserve's 304th Rescue Squadron.

The hazardous conditions kept search teams at about 7,000 feet, Bernard said. Signals from the cellphone of one of the missing men, Kelly James, 48, of Dallas, put his location in an ice cave just a few hundred feet below the peak's 11,239-foot summit.

The search teams were fanned out along several routes below 7,000 feet, on the chance that the other two climbers might have descended that far to seek aid for James, who is believed to be either injured or severely disoriented from the climb on Oregon's highest peak.

Bernard, other rescue officials and family members gathered at a rescue staging area also continued to hold out hope that the three experienced climbers, missing since last weekend, were riding out the storms in a cave or some other natural shelter.

The climbers had a minimal amount of food but could subsist for some time on the water in snow, and they were at least dressed adequately for the subzero temperatures that can rake the summit.

With more storms and lashing winds expected today, it is unclear when a climbing rescue team or a helicopter crew may be able to reach James, assuming he is still in the snow cave.

"It's all about time and weather," said Chris Guertin, a spokesman for the Hood River County sheriff's office, which has been coordinating the rescue effort.

James and the two other men -- Brian Hall, 37, also of Dallas; and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y. -- have climbed the summit of higher mountains and were experienced in cold-weather climbs, their relatives say.

James had reached the top of mountains in the Andes and the Alps and had dreams of reaching the summit of Mt. Everest, said his brother, Frank.

But he and his fellow climbers appeared to have run into severe trouble on Mt. Hood sometime Saturday, when they failed to reappear after telling fellow climbers that they planned to make a relatively rapid one-day ascent of the summit.

Kelly James placed a four-minute call from his cellphone Sunday to his wife and sons in Dallas. Frank James, who has acted as a spokesman for all three families, said that Kelly sounded disoriented and said he had run into trouble, but did not specify a physical injury.

About 10,000 people a year climb Mt. Hood, including several hundred who do so in the winter, which begins next week, often in training for more ambitious climbs in the much higher peaks of the Andes or the Himalayas.

But although the vast majority of climbers scale Hood without incident, about 20 need to be rescued each year.

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sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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