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Search for missing climbers called off

Risks are growing too great for rescue teams, and the men are unlikely to be found alive, says the sheriff.

December 21, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — With no sign of two missing climbers on Oregon's highest peak and a new storm bearing down on the mountain, the chief search official concluded "the chance of survival is pretty nil" and called off the search for the men Wednesday.

"I don't think I can justify putting any more people in the field with the hope of finding them alive," Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler said.

Some but not all of the missing climbers' family members agreed that it was no longer worth the risk to rescue teams, Wampler said.

The decision ended a treacherous and dramatic search-and-rescue operation that generated television coverage and interest around the world.

Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn were missing and presumed dead on 11,239-foot Mt. Hood, 12 days after they had reached the summit in a difficult ice-and-snow climb.

Their partner, 48-year-old Kelly James, had been found dead in a snow cave near the summit on Sunday.

An autopsy Wednesday concluded that James died of hypothermia and possible dehydration. He had been "deceased several days prior to the discovery of his remains in the snow cave," said Larry Lewman, deputy state medical examiner in Oregon.

The three men were experienced climbers who reached the summit Dec. 8, but then ran into bad weather and trouble during the descent, in which James suffered an apparent shoulder injury.

While searchers had held out hope that the two missing men might be alive and holed up in a snow cave, they also discovered that at least one of the men had been separated from his ice ax and other vital climbing tools.

The episode has stirred debate about whether climbing in the upper reaches of the Cascades should be banned in cold-weather months, and whether high-altitude hikers should be required to bring emergency-locator devices.

Wampler, at a news conference in Hood River, Ore., said further rescue efforts would not be worth the risks of avalanches and the approaching storm.

"This time of year," he said, "Mt. Hood is a dangerous place to be."

*

sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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