Missing Climbers May Have Tried to Descend Deadly Slope

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

SEATTLE, Dec. 18 -- As searchers retrieved the body of one Mount Hood climber on Monday, authorities said two others appeared to have tried to descend the Oregon peak by way of a treacherous glacier slope where many other climbers have died.

A window of good weather, which opened Sunday and is expected to close by Wednesday, has allowed helicopters access to the upper slopes of the 11,239-foot mountain, where on Sunday rescuers found the body of Kelly James, 48, of Dallas, in a snow cave.

He had been holed up there since at least the previous Sunday, when he used his cellphone to call his family, telling them he was staying put while two companions were heading down the mountain.

His brother, Frank James, told reporters Monday that the climber's identity became known to the family when rescuers found a ring on the body bearing Kelly James's initials. The body was found late Sunday and was taken off the mountain by helicopter Monday afternoon.

"This is a difficult day for all three families," Frank James said, choking back tears. "I feel that I have two other brothers still on the mountain."

Hope for those two climbers -- Jerry Cooke, 36, of New York and Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas -- dimmed after rescuers found footprints and other evidence suggesting that the two may have tried to come down from the mountain via an avalanche-prone slope called the "gullies" at the top of Eliot Glacier.

The area is now "too dangerous for ground crews," Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler told reporters, adding that rescuers were searching the slope from helicopters and would continue to do so as long as the good weather holds. Another storm is expected to move into the area by midweek.

"We may be actually beyond survivability periods," he said, referring to the chances that climbers could still be alive up on the mountain.

The search area for the missing climbers has narrowed sharply from virtually all of Mount Hood to the wickedly steep slope below a second snow cave that rescuers found on Sunday, Wampler said. Over the past four decades, he said, about 13 climbers have died in the area now being searched.

Rope anchors driven into the snow near the second cave -- which is just above the search area -- are the last known location of the climbers, Wampler said. Two ice axes, a glove, a foam pad and some climbing rope were also found there.

"I am real concerned the ice axes were left behind," Wampler said, describing the axes as essential gear that climbers almost never abandon. The climbers began their ascent of the mountain Dec. 8.

Until this past weekend, the recent weather on Mount Hood, as across the Pacific Northwest, has been extraordinarily bad. A severe windstorm on Thursday and Friday knocked out power for more than a million homes in the region and is blamed for at least 10 deaths.

The storm brought heavy snow and wind gusts as high as 100 mph to Mount Hood. The lost climbers, if they had managed to dig a third snow cave, could be buried beneath as much as 10 feet of new snow, Wampler said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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