With yet another snowstorm barreling in, rescue teams gave up any hope of finding two missing climbers alive on wind-whipped Mount Hood and abandoned the search Wednesday after nine frustrating days.
"We've done everything we can at this point," said Sheriff Joe Wampler, choking back tears after returning from one last, fruitless flyover of the 11,239-foot peak.
As the weather permits, officials will now look for the bodies of Brian Hall and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, he said.
Wampler said the men's families made the decision to end the search.
"It was pretty much their conclusion. The chance of survival is pretty nil. I don't think I can justify putting any more people in the field with the hope of finding them alive," the sheriff said. The men's families had no immediate comment.
Three climbers in all were reported missing in the snow on Mount Hood on Dec. 11. One of them, 48-year-old Dallas landscape architect Kelly James, was found dead in a snow cave on Sunday. Volunteers continued scouring the mountains for signs of James' climbing partners, Hall, a 37-year-old personal trainer from Dallas, and Cooke, a 36-year-old lawyer from New York City. But climbing gear found on the peak suggested the two may have been swept to their deaths over a precipice or buried in an avalanche.
The sheriff's announcement ended a dramatic and heartbreaking search that began Dec. 11 on the rocky, snow-covered flanks of Oregon's tallest mountain and included, at its height, scores of volunteers, sheriff's deputies and National Guardsmen on foot and
in helicopters and a plane.
The three men had set out Dec. 8 on what was supposed to be a two-day climb to the peak and back down. On Dec. 10, however, James
called his family via cell phone to say that the party was in trouble and that his two companions had gone downhill for help. Authorities suspect James suffered a dislocated shoulder, perhaps in a fall.
After James' body was discovered, search teams held out hope that Hall and Cooke had dug a cave in the snow and were awaiting rescue, as climbers are trained to do.
In one last-ditch effort, the sheriff piloted a Piper Cub over the mountain Wednesday, looking into a report by snowshoers of a yellow tent in a snow field. He said it turned out to be a rock.
"Right now things are moving in from the west," he said of the snowstorm. "That window has shut on us."
Even before the sheriff spoke, the search had been scaled back dramatically. All of the volunteers had packed up and returned to their regular jobs, and helicopters used in the search had gone back to their bases.
"I feel good abut what I did. I wanted to do what I could for the family," Wampler said. "You start something you want to finish it."