‘Hostile’ weather hampers search, raises fears


News staff writer

December 13, 2006

The mood was grim as exhausted searchers gathered around the map lying on a wooden picnic table at Cloud Cap Inn on Monday afternoon.

Wet boots lined the beams of the rustic cabin, sending an occasional splatter of melted snow onto the laminated surface of the map. Sodden coats also hung high overhead to capture the maximum level of warmth that would speed their drying time.

The cabin perched on a steep slope at about 6,000 feet smelled of stale sweat and wood smoke. And sleet beat against the windows as each team used a grease pencil to graph out the rugged terrain they had covered. The quest of the Crag Rats, Hood River County’s search team, and their peers from Portland Mountain Rescue had been to find three climbers missing since Friday.

The glacial rescue experts had just returned from hours of fighting to keep their footing in wind gusts that reached 80 miles per hour. At one point, a team had been forced to crawl on hands and knees across an exposed ridge near Eliot Glacier.

“The weather was pretty gnarly. Visibility was horrendous and the wind just kept knocking us over — we had to hold onto rocks,” said Tom Scully.

He and the 14 other volunteers had been hunting for Kelly James, 48, and Brian Hall, 37, both from Dallas, Texas, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36, of Brooklyn N.Y.

While the two search groups worked the north side of the mountain, their counterparts in Clackamas County had been scouting the southern slopes near Timberline Lodge.

The three men had failed to return from a planned overnight expedition that began Thursday afternoon. Their mission, as stated in a note left inside their vehicle near the Cooper Spur trailhead, and at the office of the Hood River Ranger District, had been to ascend the canyons along the north face, cross the summit, and descend to the lodge.

However, when they had still not arrived by Sunday their respective families grew worried. A highly disoriented James finally used his cell phone to call home about 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 10. He mentioned the word injury in the jangled conversation and then stated that Hall and Cooke had left him in a snow cave just below the north-facing summit and gone for help.

Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler believed that James was suffering from hypothermia at the time of the call. He said that would have impaired his ability to carry on a rational conversation.

So, Wampler mobilized the Crag Rats and PMR to begin searching the “hostile” environment. When the metro volunteers arrived at Cloud Cap via snow cat in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 11, the Crag Rats had pancakes waiting.

Bolstered by the hot meal, the five three-person teams hit the slopes about 8 a.m. Within the next six hours, they traversed three to four square miles of wide and/or deep fissures in a “river of snow” without finding a trace of human life.

By late afternoon the searchers had been forced back indoors, where they were debriefed by Jeff Pricher, operations chief, and Deputy Chris Guertin, incident commander.

“You’re just in survival mode up there,” reported Iain Morris.

One of the teams had reached 8,500 feet in elevation before being driven back down the rugged terrain. They had been unable to gain the additional 1,000-1,500 feet needed to find the location where James was believed to have holed up.

The coordinates of his snow cave had been roughly triangulated by the cell phone service provider. But his exact position could not be determined and searchers worried that it would be days before storms abated enough to allow them access to that elevation.

They were also growing increasingly concerned about the disappearance of Hall and Cooke. Neither of the men’s cell phones had been turned on — or the batteries were dead.

“They could have chosen any chute to go down and that could put them at different locations along the mountain,” said Pricher.

While studying the map for possible escape routes, some of the searchers had their numbed hands wrapped around hot cups of tea. Others munched on chips or a sandwich to renew their energy.

James, Hall and Cooke had experience climbing Mount Rainer, Denali and peaks in South America. So, having no communication with either individual led PMR and Crag Rats to worry even more. They reasoned that, since Hall and Cooke knew how to get around in rough conditions, they should have surfaced somewhere by Sunday. So, the two men might have encountered an unexpected problem since they were unfamiliar with the terrain and likely relying on maps and GPS guidance.

The searchers expressed difficulty about leaving the three climbers stranded for another night in the frigid weather. They acknowledged that since the men were traveling “fast and light” they had brought along little food or water. However, because of the unsafe conditions, the Crag Rats and PMR acknowledged that they could not return to the slopes. Before packing up their gear for the arrival of the next teams, they expressed optimism that an expected break in the weather on Tuesday would put the Oregon Air National Guard and Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler, a pilot, in the air.

They were hopeful that a broader aerial view would help locate the men so that rescue operations could begin.

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