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Mt. Hood climber found dead

Crews find two snow caves, one containing gear, the other a body. The search for the two other men continues.

December 18, 2006|From the Associated Press

HOOD RIVER, ORE. — On the brightest, most promising day of an anguished week of searching for three climbers missing on Oregon's Mt. Hood, the disappointments came back to back.

Rescuers reached a snow cave near the 11,239-foot summit, where they hoped to find at least one of the climbers.

It was empty, save for some climbing gear. Hours later came more news nobody wanted to hear: One of the three had been found dead in a separate snow cave nearby.

The body was left on the mountain overnight because of darkness. Teams of climbers and a helicopter will work together today to retrieve it, said Marc Smith, a spokesman for the Hood River County Sheriff's Office.

For one family -- authorities had not said which one late Sunday -- the waiting was over. For the other two it continued, with Smith saying the search would resume today.

The family members gathered in Hood River had expressed optimism that the experience and skills of the climbers and the dedication of the rescue workers would keep the three alive -- despite blizzards packing 100 mph gusts that repeatedly hit the mountain during the last week.

Dwight Hall, father of climber Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas, told reporters hours earlier that relatives of the three were going through a "roller coaster of emotions."

Friends and family members of the missing climbers had put their hands on one of two Black Hawk helicopters preparing to join the search and prayed.

Frank James, brother of climber Kelly James, 48, of Dallas, said of the helicopter pilots: "We're the cheerleaders for these guys."

The gathering offered cheers, whistles and thumbs-up as the choppers floated off the frosty tarmac and banked left toward the mountain.

The mood was far more somber after discovery of the body.

"Our hearts are going out to the families right now," said Capt. Mike Braibish, spokesman for the Oregon National Guard.

"We remain hopeful," Braibish said. "We are going to still collect information and pursue the rescue of the two other climbers."

A sleeping bag, ice axes and rope were found in the first snow cave, said another sheriff's office spokesman, Sgt. Gerry Tiffany.

One week earlier, Kelly James used his cellphone to tell relatives that he, Hall and fellow climber Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y., had gotten into trouble near the summit. James told them he was in a snow cave, and the two others were on the way down to seek help.

Taking advantage of clear skies and a sharp drop in the wind, rescuers focused on the first cave Sunday after a helicopter spotted a rope laid out in a Y-shape, which climbers often use to signal their location.

Footprints were also found at the site. Tiffany said the prints appeared to head up the mountain toward the summit about 300 feet above the first cave, but were blown out by the wind at higher points.

Heavy snow stopped Saturday, but wind up to 50 mph blew the fresh snow, hampering visibility. Skies were blue Sunday, the wind was still, and temperatures at the summit were reported near zero.

Searchers dug through the first cave to ensure no one was there and took the equipment, which officials will examine for clues. Tiffany said it was clear that whoever stayed there "hunkered down in the snow and they survived there for a while" and that they climbed out.

"They knew what to do, they did it and they can do it again," he said, holding out hope for the other two.

He said climbers on difficult routes such as the north face of Mt. Hood commonly carry more than one ice ax in case one is broken or lost, and the discovery of two in the first cave does not mean whoever was there ventured out without one.

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