The search for two climbers missing on Mount Hood narrowed Tuesday to a largely aerial quest over a small, treacherous section of the mountain, which has had up to 10 feet of snow since the men vanished and a companion since found dead near the summit.
The body of Kelly James, 48, of Dallas was removed by helicopter
Monday from the 11,239-foot summit after rescue workers winched it
up from a snow cave about 300 feet down the steep north side.
Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler said James had an "obvious" arm injury. Wampler said the other climbers had likely left their injured companion in the cave to find help, but had to dig a shallow cave of their own on a steep slope as the bad weather worsened.
Wampler said the search for Brian Hall, 47, also of Dallas, and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of New York City will continue for now as a rescue effort, not a recovery operation. But more bad weather is expected at midweek and Wampler said the chances for survival
are less if the two were without shelter.
"If they did not get in a hole somewhere, we might be beyond survivability periods," Wampler said. "You can last a long time in a hole. So we are looking for a hole."
Most searchers are volunteers, limiting efforts by foot, said Pete Hughes, a spokesman with the Hood River County Sheriff's Office.
"The ground search has been greatly scaled back," Hughes said.
"It comes down to a lack of resources."
Blizzard conditions severely curtailed early search efforts but weather improved over the weekend, when helicopter crews spotted a Y-shaped climbing harness anchored to the side of the mountain.
Search crews on Sunday found a snow cave and equipment but no
climbers. They searched for a second cave and found the one containing James' body.
Wampler said he is increasingly leaning toward the likelihood of a climbing accident.
The place below the second cave is called "the gullies," with a 60-degree slope and a treacherous 2,500-foot drop-off. About 13 climbers have died in the area in the past 40 years, Wampler said.
James made a cell phone call from the cave on Dec. 10, telling his family the party was in trouble and the others had gone for
Wampler said it appears the three got to the summit Dec. 8 after an exhausting and technically difficult climb and had planned to descend the gentler south side to Timberline Lodge that night.
He said they apparently missed the descent point known as the Pearly Gates and - cold, exhausted and facing high wind - decided to dig in and spend the night a few hundred feet over the steep north side.
"At some point they were standing there clipped into something, probably because it was so windy there. I mean this is a really
steep, dangerous place on the mountain," Wampler said.
The "something" was the Y-shaped harness fastened to the mountain wall by an ice anchor that the men had used to stay in place in their shallow caves. It was spotted by Spec. Tim Handforth, flight engineer on a Pendleton-based Oregon National Guard Chinook helicopter.
Handforth said he was attracted to the straight line of the harness, a line out of place on the rugged mountainside. It set rescue crews on the spot, near to where James' phone call had been traced.
Rescuers said they found a soaked cell phone with James, whose identity was confirmed later Monday by jewelry, tattoos and scars.
Well-equipped climbers have survived for many days in snow caves. The three, all seasoned climbers, were traveling light for a quick climb and may not have carried much extra food, rescue workers said.
Capt. Mike Ross of the Air Force Reserve's Portland-based 304th Search and Rescue Squadron said survival odds drop with time "but
some people beat the odds."
Wampler said rescuers had held out the best hopes for the two missing men "because they had the best chance to get up and get out."
Frank James, brother of Kelly James, choked back tears when he said a ring found on his brother's body inside the snow cave had confirmed his identity.
"This is a difficult day for all three families," James said. "I feel that I have two other brothers still on the mountain."