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Mount Hood Mysteries

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

December 30, 2006

Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler has found a disturbing similarity between the recent search and two past cases where the bodies of a climber and hiker were never found.

He said all four missing men, in all three cases, were traveling “light and fast” so they did not have enough supplies for an extended stay or major emergency.

“There is a lesson to be learned here: Never go on this mountain without being prepared to spend more than a few nights in bad weather and to aid in your own survival,” he said.

Although Wampler has called off the official search for Texan Brian Hall, 37, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36, he is hopeful that their remains will be found by summer.

“I think there is a good chance we’ll find these guys somewhere near the top of Eliot Glacier or the Newton-Clark Glacier,” he said.

Wampler’s comment is based on tracks and other clues left near a snow cave about 300 feet below the north facing summit. The body of Kelly James, 38, a third climber, was recovered from that site on Dec. 17.

Based on signs left by Hall and Cooke near the snow cave, Wampler believes their whereabouts can be roughly pinpointed.

He said Hall and Cooke could have fallen while descending the north face of the mountain to get help for James. Or they were blown off the steep slope by wind blasts that reached more than 100 miles per hour.

In a distress call to his family during the afternoon of Dec. 10, James reported an unspecified injury. He said that Cooke and Hall had left him behind in a snow cave to seek help. A massive ground and air search was launched the next day but failed to turn up any sign of the missing men.

Ten days later, Wampler was forced to suspend an active search because of extreme avalanche danger and white-out conditions.

He said searchers with dogs and metal detectors will take advantage of every weather break this winter to scout the rugged terrain. In addition, he plans to pilot a search plane when the skies are clear enough for an aerial view of the frozen landscape.

Wampler said Kenneth Budlong, 45, vanished in September of 1995 during equally “unforgiving” conditions as the recent search. Not only were rescue teams plagued by treacherous weather conditions, but the landscape near Cathedral Ridge was perilous.

He also believes that Karoly Orsi, 24, of Budapest, Hungary, was “swallowed up” by a crevasse above the Tilly Jane campground in September of 2001.

Budlong’s unoccupied tent was found at the 7,000-foot elevation on the northwest side of the mountain. The Nike executive who resided in Clackamas County had planned to make a rapid solo ascent to the summit. However, that area was fissured by deep crevasses that rapidly became coated by frozen rain during a fall storm.

“I think that Mr. Budlong, like our recent climbers, set out on a clear day and was planning on an open weather window that just slammed shut,” said Wampler.

He said Budlong’s body was never recovered in spite of national media attention that brought in military helicopters and search teams from across the Northwest.

“That was a very disheartening situation also,” said Wampler. “Mr. Budlong just disappeared off the face of the earth during a very dangerous time of year when every crack and crevasse on the mountain was exposed.”

While on an agricultural exchange to the United States, Orsi, a horticulturist from Budapest, took off on a solo exploration of the northeastern slope. He parted from his colleagues for a day hike near the summit and was never seen again.

In addition to now having three missing climber/hiker cases on the books, Wampler has human bones recovered from Mount Hood that have yet to be identified.

In July 2001, the weathered skeletal remains of an adult male were found on a steep slope of Heather Canyon. Two employees of Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort were picking up debris when they came across a lower jaw bone with the teeth still intact. Several smaller bones were also located nearby.

Forensic scientists determined that the bones, and several pieces of clothing, were at least 10 years old.

“We definitely have a few mysteries here but I think that we’ll be able to clear up one of them by next summer,” said Wampler.

He said the cost of December’s massive search effort has not yet been finalized. However, he anticipates there will be a big hole in his 2006-07 budget — especially with overtime pay.

“We’ll just see what kind of hit we get and make adjustments from there,” said Wampler.

He said the families of James, Cooke and Hall contributed much of the food that was sent to Cloud Cap Inn, the base camp for searchers. And both businesses and community members also came forward with contributions that helped defray the expenses for supplies.

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