Rescuers return to Mt. Hood searching for trio

Published 5:27 pm Thursday, December 14, 2006

Blinding snow and powerful winds blasting Mount Hood hindered teams searching for three lost climbers Wednesday, as forecasters warned that a new storm could bring gusts of 100 mph, followed by a deep freeze.

A fresh team joined the search, and crews hoped to get some help from heat-seeking, unmanned aircraft provided by a Colorado company and cell phone detection equipment from another, said Pete Hughes of the Hood River County Sheriff’s Department.

Because of poor weather at higher elevations, searchers focused on the mountain’s lower canyons on the chance that two climbers who are believed to have gone for help got that far. Late Wednesday, the searchers ended for the night without finding a trace of the men.

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The week’s biggest storm was expected to engulf Oregon’s highest peak Thursday afternoon and Friday with sustained winds at higher elevations of 90 mph and gusts to 100 mph, said meteorologist Bill Schneider of the National Weather Service.

By Friday afternoon, the wind and snow will abate, Schneider said, but daytime temperatures could drop below zero at 10,000 feet by Saturday.

“You’ve got to be optimistic,” said rescue worker Bernie Wells. “There’s a slim chance they’re going to get out of there.”

Even at the base camp at Cooper Spur, the wind hit 60 mph Wednesday morning and temperatures hovered in the 30s. At higher elevations, the teams have faced wind so strong it knocked them off their feet, plus poor visibility in blowing snow and a threat of avalanches. More stormy weather was in the forecast.

“Man and machine are at their limits there,” said Capt. Christopher Bernard of the Air Force Reserve’s 304th Rescue Squadron.

Plans called for two staging camps on the north and south sides of the mountain so teams could head to the summit quickly if the weather broke, Hughes said.

There had been no contact with the missing climbers since Sunday, when one reached his family by cell phone to say he was in a snow cave high on the mountain and his two companions had gone for help.

On Tuesday, the phone stopped responding to the signals, or “pings,” that technicians had sent in hopes of fixing the climber’s location, they said. The battery could have died, or the phone might have been moved or turned off.

A Denver wireless and data network security company offered hope that they could pick up a faint signal, said Hood River County Sheriff Joseph Wampler.

Another Colorado company, Aracar, hoped to send up three drones — one-pound, battery-operated plastic planes — equipped with thermal imaging devices that can detect body heat. Winds prevented launching the drones but the company hoped to try again Thursday.

A Nevada Air National Guard C-130 equipped with heat-sensing devices flew over the mountain but had to turn back after 15 minutes because of turbulence, said Chief Deputy Jerry Brown of the Hood River County sheriff’s office. Another run was planned early Thursday.

The rescue effort was hampered because the three climbers had taken one of the most difficult approaches to the summit, scaling the north side of the mountain where slopes tilt at angles of 50 or 60 degrees and become sheer walls of ice.

Kelly James, Brian Hall and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke had planned a “quick climb” on Mount Hood, traveling light to make the ascent as fast as possible, officials said.

Cooke, 36, a lawyer from New York City, and Hall, 37, a personal trainer who played for the now-defunct Dallas Rockets professional soccer team, are believed to have attempted a descent while James, 48, a landscape architect from Dallas, apparently remained near the summit.