Rescue teams equipped with ice axes, ropes and other high-altitude gear were once again frustrated Tuesday in their efforts since the weekend to find three climbers on Oregon’s highest mountain.
After battling high winds and blowing snow, search teams broke for the day without success. More snow and high winds were expected Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
An Oregon National Guard helicopter was able to survey the lower half of the mountain, but bad weather kept the crew from getting much higher than the 6,000-foot level on the 11,239-foot peak. Crews began coming off the mountain in the afternoon to conclude their search by dark.
Rescue teams planned to debrief and map out a strategy for Wednesday, said Deputy Gary Tiffany, spokesman for the Hood River County sheriff’s office, which has been coordinating the search.
New technology on the way
Crews may get some help from heat-seeking unmanned aircraft provided by a Colorado company as well as cell phone detection equipment from another high-tech company, said Deputy Pete Hughes, another sheriff’s spokesman.
But even if those tools locate the missing climbers, bad weather may prevent crews from climbing high enough to rescue them, Hughes said.
“If anybody is above the 7,000-foot range, we’re not going to be able to get to them,” Hughes said. “And we’re probably not going to be able to get to them by Thursday either, unless there happens to be a break in the weather.”
Rescue teams have been combing the upper elevations since Monday in search of the three experienced climbers.
Winds weren’t as gusty on Tuesday and snowfall wasn’t as heavy, but the weather conditions were bad enough to once again frustrate efforts to locate the climbers.
No word since Sunday
The last anyone heard from the climbers was on Sunday, when one, 48-year-old Kelly James, used his cell phone from a snow cave to say the group was in trouble. He said his two companions — Brian Hall, 37, also of Dallas, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36, of New York City — had gone for help.
Officials have not been able to reach James on his cell phone since then, said Joseph Wampler, sheriff for Hood River County, but search officials have been able to narrow the approximate location through cell phone signals. Searchers believe James’ snow cave is near the summit, on the northeast side, but it is unclear where the other two climbers might be.
“A snow cave can provide excellent shelter from wind and precipitation,” said Steve Rollins, a search leader with Portland Mountain Rescue. “If you’re well prepared in a snow cave, you can last a really long time.”
More storms expected
Two more storms are expected this week, with one beginning early Wednesday, the National Weather Service said.
Families of the missing climbers have flown to nearby Hood River to await word on their loved ones. They include Frank James of Orlando, Fla., Kelly’s older brother.
Frank James said at a news conference that it wasn’t clear from the four-minute call his brother placed to family members on Sunday whether he was injured. His brother did say he was feeling the effects of the cold and was worried about the weather.
“Today’s the day for courage and for prayers. Courage can help us see through this snowstorm, and our prayers can literally move mountains,” he said.