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Hopes fading for Mt. Hood climbers

Evidence suggests two missing men may have fallen to their deaths, officials say. But rescue efforts press on, for now.

December 19, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

HOOD RIVER, ORE. — Two ice axes. Two slings. A single glove. A frayed piece of rope.

As a helicopter team removed the body of a Texas man from Oregon's highest peak Monday, authorities said these items found on the mountain might indicate that his two climbing partners fell to their deaths in a crevasse while seeking help for the injured man.

But, they said, search-and-rescue efforts would continue for at least another day -- on the slim chance that the men had dug themselves into a snow cave and may be awaiting rescue -- in a drama that has riveted television viewers around the nation.

"You can last a long time in a hole," Hood River County Sheriff Joseph A. Wampler said during a news briefing at the airport here, a staging ground for the operation.

"We're going to keep looking for that hole."

Even as they publicly grieved over news that 48-year-old Kelly James had been found dead near the top of the 11,240-foot volcanic peak, relatives of the Dallas landscape architect also said they were keeping a vigil of hope for his two companions.

"Kelly has been found, but I feel that I have two other brothers still on the mountain," said the dead man's elder brother, Frank.

He was referring to Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, an insurance lawyer from New York, and Brian Hall, 37, a Dallas personal trainer and former professional soccer player. The trio had reached the summit Dec. 8 but ran into severe problems on their way back down.

Kelly James had an "obvious arm injury" that would have hindered his ability to make a descent, because hiking either up or down the snowy Cascade peak would require maximum physical conditioning and frequent arm use of an ice ax, Wampler said.

The axe is used as an anchor during the strenuous activity and to prevent slipping down the mountain face.

Climbers use a technique known as "self-arrest" if they start to slide -- basically, slamming the ax into the ice or snow.

The fact that two ice axes were discovered, with no evidence of a climber nearby, was a strong indication of trouble, searchers said.

One of the searchers who discovered James said he was found Sunday in a "fetal position," fully clothed, and was quickly identified by those who found him because of tattoos, a ring and body markings that had been described by his family. James' body was airlifted off the mountain Monday afternoon.

The spot near the summit where the two other men appear to have disappeared is known as "the gullies," with a 60-degree slope and a drop-off of about 2,500 feet, and where at least 13 deaths have been recorded in the last 50 years.

All three men were experienced climbers who had scaled much higher peaks and also trekked in treacherous winter conditions.

Though the vast majority of the 10,000 people who climb Mt. Hood every year do so in late spring or summer, several dozen do so in winter months, often as training for higher peaks in the Himalayas, the Andes, the Alaska Range and elsewhere.

Though not as high as those mountains, Mt. Hood can be a deceiving killer, with quickly shifting weather conditions and numerous crevasses.

In the worst known incident on the mountain, an Oregon Episcopal School outing turned to tragedy in May 1986 when a fast-moving blizzard killed seven high school students and two teachers from the Portland school.

It was not clear exactly what went wrong in this climb, though it appeared likely the men were detained by an injury to James.

Evidence at the scene indicated that all three men had attained the summit, and that at some point during the descent, less than 400 feet from the top, they had burrowed into a snow cave, perhaps to wait out a storm that set in the night of Dec. 8.

"It was just big enough for all three to climb into, which was exactly the right thing to do," Wampler said.

At the same time, he added, referring to wind gusts of up to 100mph, freezing temperatures and the 10 feet of snow that had fallen on parts of the mountain in the last week and a half: "We may be beyond some survivability periods here."

If the two men fell to their deaths, there may have been no possibility of rescue.

But the sheriff, alluding to the chance they were alive, expressed near-tearful remorse over the inability to locate them despite the efforts of nearly 50 searchers as well as helicopter and airplane crews.

"We failed them. We literally failed them," Wampler said. "But we tried our best. I know that."

James had made a cellphone call to his wife and sons Dec. 10, a Sunday, said his wife, Karen.

He told them the climbing party had run into serious trouble and that the other two men were seeking help, though he sounded disoriented.

"When we asked about Brian, he said Brian was in town getting help," Karen James said. She added that when asked about Cooke, he said, "Nikko's on a plane."

Cooke's wife, Michaela, spoke briefly with reporters, choking back tears and saying: "We hold out hope today for Brian and Nikko's safe return."

Frank James read a statement on behalf of all three families. "As Christians, we find peace that Kelly is with God," he said. "Kelly always told us he felt closest to God when he was on the mountain. That is what drove him to climb.

"We find enormous comfort in knowing he lifted off that mountain from the place he loved," James concluded, "and from doing something that he loved very, very much."

The two missing men, in their bid for help, appear to have first tried to descend through a jagged, icy rock formation known as the Pearly Gates, Wampler said.

"They didn't find it," the sheriff said. So they appear to have climbed back up to the snow cave, spending the night there before trying a different route down Dec. 9.

The weather turned worse.

"At some point they were standing there clipped into something, probably because it was so windy there," Wampler said. "I mean, this is a really steep, dangerous place on the mountain."

*

sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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