Search party still seeking climbers

Published 1:04 am Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rescue teams set out before dawn Saturday in an all-out search for three men missing on Mount Hood, taking advantage of a long-awaited break in the brutal weather that had hobbled their efforts all week.

About 25 hand-picked rescue mountaineers were making their way up the south side of the 11,239-foot mountain, and 30 others started up the north side, Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler said at a news conference. He said the team on the south side would attempt to reach the summit.

Other teams were spread out elsewhere on the mountain, including paramedics and avalanche experts, he said.

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The searchers were treading carefully to avoid starting snowslides, sheriff’s Sgt. Gerry Tiffany said.

“With all the snow and wind from the last five days there is concern of avalanche dangers,” Tiffany said.

In all, about 80 climbers were to take part Saturday, along with helicopters. A C-130 military cargo plane with heat-detecting devices made three passes over Oregon’s highest mountain Friday but found no sign of the climbers.

At the news conference with Wampler, the mothers of the three missing climbers choked back tears as they expressed hope their sons would be found.

“I know my son’s coming down today,” Lou Ann Cameron of Bryant, Ark., said of her son, Kelly James. “It’s my birthday. He wouldn’t miss my birthday.”

Wampler said the chances of finding the climbers alive would be improved if they had held onto the “bivvy sack” sleeping bags they said they had taken along. Some climbers stash gear such as sleeping bags and backpacks to lighten their load as they head to the summit, then pick it up on the way back down, but he said searchers had not found any gear left by the three men.

“They either stashed it really good, or they have it with them,” he said. “If they have it with them, it greatly increases their chances.”

The climbers left Dec. 7 on what was to be a two-day trip.

James, 48, called family members Sunday to report that the party was in trouble and two members were descending for help. He said he was in the shelter of a snow cave.

The two climbers believed to have tried to descend the mountain are Brian Hall, 37, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36. James and Hall are from Dallas, Cooke from New York.

The last clue to their whereabouts was a signal returned from James’ cell phone Tuesday.