‘Whatever the search takes …’


News staff writer

December 16, 2006

The Hood River County Sheriff’s Office has experienced a hectic week orchestrating a high-profile search for three missing climbers.

By Thursday, the agency had spent almost $23,000 on manpower, fuel and supplies. However, Chief Deputy Jerry Brown said now is not the time to worry about the hit these expenditures have taken on the 2006-07 budget.

“The sheriff doesn’t put a cost on a human life. Whatever the search takes, it takes,” said Brown

Sheriff Joe Wampler allocated $14,000 for search and rescue operations this fiscal year. Brown said the money to repay that fund will likely be transferred from an account to replace equipment.

However, he said several financial offers have come from “sources outside the state” so he remains hopeful that, at the end of the day, the shortfall will be repaid.

“We would just be thrilled if that help materialized,” he said.

Brown said the support of the community and other law enforcement agencies has been “heartening” during a long and difficult week.

Both food platters and flowers have been delivered by businesses and individuals to the dispatch center, where the distressed families are keeping vigil.

In addition, Safeway has donated many of the meals being delivered by snow cat to the remote base camp at Cloud Cap Inn.

The Oregon State Police and Hood River City Police have stepped forward to cover the regular patrol duties of sheriff deputies who are dedicating time to the search.

Sheriff Joe Wampler said the hunt for three missing men will continue through today. He said a determination will then be made by survivability experts about the prospects of Kelly James, 48, and Brian Hall, 37, both from Dallas, Texas, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 35, from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Crag Rats, Hood River County’s search team, has been joined this week by other mountaineering groups on the treacherous slopes. The specialists in glacial rescue are based at Cloud Cap Inn and braving fierce winds and white-out conditions in hopes of finding the trio.

On Wednesday, searchers discovered a note the missing climbers had left behind in the logbook of the Tilly Jane Warming Hut. The cheery message written on Dec. 7 seems eerie in light of the men’s subsequent disappearance.

The note reads, “Thanks for your hard work on this great Shelter. We did not plan on staying, but the warmth of the fire changed our minds. We climb as a group of 3 and we left a $20 bill. We will leave tomorrow for the north face! Wish us luck!”

The climbers had planned to spend the night of Dec. 7 outdoors before ascending the canyons along the north side, crossing the summit and descending to Timberline Lodge. The route that James, Cooke and Hall took has slopes of 50 or 60 degrees and sheer walls of vertical ice.

Wampler launched a search after James called his family via a cell phone on Sunday afternoon. In a disoriented conversation, he mentioned the word injury and then stated that Hall and Cooke had left him in a snow cave just below the north-facing summit and gone for help.

Although T-Mobile, the service provider for James, was “pinging” his phone every five minutes to pinpoint his location, Wampler said James left his phone on but there has not been any activity from him since Sunday. He said the last signal obtained by T-Mobile was early Tuesday morning, at which time it appears the phone battery became too weak for use.

The company then worked with two agents from the Portland office of the FBI to narrow down the last-known coordinates. Wampler said James is believed to have holed up at the 11,000 foot elevation, just 239 feet below the peak.

However, he said even if the exact whereabouts of James’ snow cave is located, a “wall of weather” has kept searchers from getting higher than 8,500 feet. He said military drones with heat-seeking sensors have also been grounded by winds of up to 100 miles per hour on Thursday night.

Driving snow, sleet and wind blasts have kept also put on hold the insertion of Army and Air Force Special Forces teams near the summit.

“The weather has really shut us down and that has created a lot of frustration,” said Wampler.

With national media focused on the search, several unfounded reports have been broadcast. The sheriff said speculation has kept the families, which are in town, on an emotional roller coaster ride.

For example, reports aired on Tuesday that snowshoe tracks found on the south side of the mountain might belong to one of the climbers. But Wampler said all three sets of snowshoes rented by the trio are still in the back of the vehicle they left at the Cooper Spur trailhead.

Other stories questioned whether James had attempted a 9-1-1 call on Monday – something that Wampler said cannot be confirmed. He said the emergency dispatch center did send a text message to James that day, which might have been mistaken for a call. The message was received by the phone, but has not been opened.

By Thursday, weather conditions on the mountain had deteriorated to the point that searchers were kept at the tree line, or about 6,500 feet.

Wampler said the search would have been easier if James, Kelly and Cooke were wearing either a GPS Receiver or Mountain Locator Unit.

Both pieces of equipment serve as beacons that, when activated, immediately signal the location of lost skiers, climbers and hikers.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have very many people who use these devices — but it sure would be helpful,” he said.

With those words, a tired Wampler turned back to the white board where he charts the daily progress of the multi-tiered search effort that he hopes will become a rescue operation.

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