By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writers
December 20, 2006
Hood River County Chief Deputy Jerry Brown made it clear on Tuesday morning that the search for two missing climbers would not be abandoned this week – unless weather forced the issue.
“There is a storm front moving in today that could greatly hamper our efforts but we’re still in rescue mode,” he said.
As of press time on Tuesday, an aerial search by local pilots was planned over the Eliot Glacier area. Two Black Hawk helicopters were on standby in case the bright orange of the jacket worn by Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36, of New York was spotted. Or there was a glimpse of the yellow coat worn by Brian Hall, 37, of Texas.
The body of their companion, Kelly James, 48, also of Texas, was found inside a snow cave about 300 feet below the summit on Sunday. The two missing climbers were believed to have attempted a descent of the north face of Mount Hood in a quest to get help for James, who possibly had a broken arm.
Brown said the James family has returned to Texas to make burial arrangements. His body was transported to Portland for an autopsy on Tuesday to determine the exact cause of death.
The wives and relatives of Hall and Cooke are still keeping a vigil in Hood River and urging the search to continue.
Hall, Cooke and James began their ascent up the Cooper Spur Route on Dec. 7. They were traveling “light and fast” and carried only limited supplies.
Sheriff Joe Wampler now theorizes it is possible that Hall and Cooke had an accident while attempting a hurried descent that weekend. In his last phone call home on Dec. 10th, James said that he was injured and the pair had gone for help.
James’ whereabouts were tracked by his cell phone provider and the waterlogged phone was found on his body. Brown said both Cooke and Hall were also carrying cell phones, but neither device appears to have been turned on and messages have gone unanswered.
Military planes equipped with infrared sensors flew over the mountain on Saturday but were unable to detect any signs of human life.
Wampler said the discovery of ice axes in what appears to be a staging area about 400 feet from James’ cave provides a “disturbing clue” that a fall took place. He said two small ice axes were found that would have been essential tools used by the climbers to keep their balance during howling winds.
However, the sheriff said the standard-issue equipment could also have belonged to James. None of the families have been able to provide specifics about what each man would have been carrying.
If Cooke and Hall fell the 2,500 feet into the area called “the gullies” above Eliot Glacier, they could be buried under 10-foot snow drifts. That location cannot be searched from the ground because of extreme avalanche danger.
“We’re looking for anything that we can see at this point,” said Brown. “We aren’t giving up but the weather is going to dictate how much we can do.”