Tempestuous Oregon weather calmed enough for search teams to reach the highest parts of Mount Hood on Sunday during their search for three missing climbers. On these steep and frozen slopes, searchers found two snow caves, the first and lower of which held only a few pieces of climbing gear. In the second, not far from the summit, Kelly James, 48, was found dead. James, along with Brian Hall and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, had been missing on Mount Hood since setting out to climb the Cooper Spur on Thursday, December 7.
Officials are estimating that this upper snow cave is the same one from which James placed a call to his son on Sunday, December 11, describing the desperate nature of his situation. Based on the size of the cave, it appears that all three climbers spent the night here at some point during their ordeal.
The entrance to the second, and lower, snow cave was clearly marked with rope arranged in a “Y” shape. Searchers also found rope, ice axes, and an aluminum anchor and slings here. Multiple storm systems have moved through the Pacific Northwest in the past week and a half, bringing heavy snow (10 feet since December 7) and winds as high as 100mph. These severe conditions likely pinned the climbers in place, and have hampered search efforts.
Searchers received their first weather window on Sunday, December 17, allowing them to reach the summit of Mount Hood and effectively scour the upper reaches of the mountain. The weather remained stable and clear Monday, allowing members of the Air Force Reserve to lift James’ body from the summit with a Blackhawk helicopter.
Sheriff Joe Wampler and other searchers have pieced together one potential scenario concerning the fate of the remaining climbers. Officials suspect that the trio summitted via the Cooper Spur on Friday, December 8, then began descending the standard route on Hood’s south side. From the summit, the standard route passes through “The Pearly Gates,” two prominent rock features split by the top of a couloir known as the “Hogsback”.
According to the Associated Press, Wampler stated that, “They never found [The Pearly Gates],” and instead turned around to descend the Cooper Spur. At some point in the process, James sustained a severe arm injury that may have prevented him from continuing the descent. As the weather worsened, the climbers dug their first snow cave and spent the night.
How long the climbers remained in the first snow cave is unknown. Eventually, Hall and Cook left the first snow cave in an attempt to find help. They built a second snow cave not far from the first and used it as a shelter for an unknown period of time. Given the climbing equipment left behind here, officials are not optimistic about the two men’s fate. On Monday, Wampler posited that Hall and Cook may have succumbed to an accident, either falling to their deaths in the steep narrows known as the Gullies, or potentially being blown off the ridgeline as winds reached over 100mph.
Crews will continue searching for Hall and Cooke, now missing for more than 11 days, though optimism is fast fading. The weather is expected to hold for most of the week, although high winds on Wednesday may limit the scope of the search. Said Wampler, describing his disappointment in the current outcome to the Associated Press, "We failed them. We literally failed them. But we tried our best, I know that."