It starts with mumbling and stumbling. Then come violent shivers and then, paradoxically, a false sense of warmth that makes some people strip their clothes off. Eventually, they may curl into a fetal position as their muscles go rigid, their skin goes waxy, and the heart slows down, then stops.
Whether two climbers missing on Mount Hood for more than a week are still alive is not clear. But if they are somehow still hanging on in the brutal cold and howling winds, perhaps hunkered down in a snow cave, they may be going through what veteran climbers say is a slow, dispiriting assault on both mind and body.
“We are approaching that time when we have to make serious consideration whether we are spinning our wheels,” said Sheriff Joe Wampler, who is overseeing the search-and-rescue effort.
The search goes on
Rescuers returned to the 11,239-foot mountain on Monday to retrieve the body of 48-year-old Kelly James from the snow cave near the summit where he was found dead and to look for his companions, Brian Hall, 37, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36.
It was unclear whether they were swept off the mountain by 100 mph winds, were buried in last week’s blizzards or created a shelter for themselves by burrowing into the snow and sharing their body heat, as climbers are trained to do.
Avalanche teams planned to use long poles to poke through the 10-foot-deep snow. And searchers in two planes flew over the mountain Tuesday, watching for signs of life.
Rescuers are hoping Hall and Cooke “stick their heads up out of their hole and rescue themselves. We want to be there to see that, if that happens,” Wampler said.
Climbers’ photos raise concerns
But hopes of finding them alive dimmed after officials developed film in a disposable camera found in James’ pocket. The pictures, taken as the men began their ascent, show the three had enough gear and provisions for a quick climb up Mount Hood but not for a longer period out in the elements.
The photos show “three happy guys putting their stuff out there,” the sheriff said. But “looking what they had with them, I’m pretty concerned about how long somebody can last out there.”
Some climbers have survived in a snow cave for nearly two weeks in similarly punishing conditions. In January 1976, three teenagers lived for 13 days on Mount Hood after bad weather halted their effort to reach the summit. The youths bottled water dripping from the cave walls and survived on a mush of pudding powder and pancake mix.
But climbers suffering from hypothermia may become confused, delirious, and uncoordinated, and shiver intensely.
“The shivering is agony,” said Dr. William Long, director of the trauma center at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland. “Once the shivering stops, they have lost the ability to fend for themselves.”
The blood begins to lose oxygen and thicken, just as a car’s oil congeals in frigid temperatures, he said. “That puts a huge strain on the cardiovascular system,” Long said.
Digging for safety
Climbers are supposed to dig caves slightly uphill into snow banks, creating a trap for warm air rising from their bodies. A good snow cave will have a ledge to help drain melting snow or ice and a breathing tube that can be readily cleared; the entrance can serve that purpose. And it should be marked, perhaps by a piece of clothing anchored to the ice or a stick, to let rescuers know where to find the climbers.
Experts say it is critical to have fuel and a stove to heat water for drinking. Dehydration can contribute to the effects of hypothermia, and swallowing snow or ice only lowers the body’s temperature.
Fran Sharp, president of the National Mountain Rescue Association, said that if Hall and Cooke are still alive in a snow cave, they are struggling to stay dry, digging little grooves in the snow and ice to drain the moisture that accumulates from their body heat. Dampness can contribute to hypothermia.
Relatives of the three climbers clung to hope.
“Our faith in the mind, body and spirit of Brian and Nikko remain steadfast,” said Hall’s sister Angela.