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Fallen mountain climber was no stranger to risk

Kelly James’ passion for adventure took him around the world. He scaled treacherous peaks in Europe, South America and Alaska.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Kelly James’ passion for adventure took him around the world. He scaled treacherous peaks in Europe, South America and Alaska. He even proposed to his wife on a mountaintop.

James, a 48-year-old Dallas landscape architect, was found dead Sunday in a snow cave near the peak of Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest mountain at 11,239 feet. He and two climbing companions had gotten stranded on the stormy mountain more than a week ago; the two other men were still missing Monday and feared dead.

“He passed doing something he loved,” said family spokeswoman Jessica Nunez, whose voice broke frequently. “So many people in this life don’t pursue their passions.”

James’ mountaineering experience has included Alaska’s Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet; the Andes Mountains; and peaks in Europe, according to his mother. He asked his wife to marry him on Mount Rainier, near Seattle.

“He just kind of lit up when he talked about” mountain climbing, Nunez said.

Planning the next big adventure
Cliff Welch, a Dallas architect who had worked with James, said he would often talk about plans for his next adventure. He would then gather friends to show pictures and describe his experiences.

“It was one of his passions, along with his family,” Welch said. “He was as thorough about his passion for mountain climbing as about other things in his life.”

James was climbing with Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36, a lawyer from New York City, and Brian Hall, 37, a personal trainer who played for the now-defunct Dallas Rockets professional soccer team.

James and Hall were longtime climbing companions. Cooke met the pair earlier this year when they were part of a group climbing Mount Rainier and they became instant friends, meticulously planning the trip to Mount Hood, Nunez said.

‘He knew the risk’
His pastor, Gary Brandenburg of Fellowship Bible Church in Dallas, said James was a religious man who understood the dangers of his hobby.

“He knew the risk of what he did and yet he was always the kind of guy who could see past the summit and know that when this life is over, it’s not over,” he said.

James left Dallas on Dec. 6, and the three began their climb two days later. The were attempting the treacherous north side of Mount Hood, planning to spend a few days on the mountain. On Dec. 10, James made a four-minute cell phone call to his family, saying the climbing party was in trouble and his companions had gone for help.

“This is a difficult day for all three families,” his brother, Frank James, said Monday in Oregon after the body was identified.

James and his wife, Karen, had four children, ages 12 to 25.

An eye for design
“He loved, loved his family a whole lot. He was a really good father,” Nunez said. “He was a remarkable man and he was a very devoted and loving husband and father and a strong Christian.”

James had an eye for design as well. He and his wife worked for six years to renovate their 1970s Dallas home into a sleek, modern masterpiece, featuring paintings by her and a courtyard designed by James.

The Dallas Morning News profiled their project over the summer. In that story, he explained his passion about landscape architecture.

“I just fell in love with it,” he said. “It was a combination of art, architecture and the outdoors all sort of wrapped up in one.”