Rescue teams gave up any hope of finding two missing climbers alive on stormy Mount Hood and abandoned their frustrating, 9-day-old search Wednesday.
“We’ve done everything we can at this point,” said Sheriff Joe Wampler, choking back tears after returning from one last, fruitless flyover of the 11,239-foot peak.
Wampler said the men’s families made the decision to end the search as yet another snowstorm barreled in.
“It was pretty much their conclusion. The chance of survival is pretty nil. I don’t think I can justify putting any more people in the field with the hope of finding them alive,” the sheriff said.
He said the operation was now a “recovery effort.”
Three climbers in all were reported missing in the snow on Mount Hood on Dec. 11. One of them, 48-year-old Dallas landscape architect Kelly James, was found dead in a snow cave on Monday. Volunteers continued scouring the mountains for signs of James’ climbing partners, Brian Hall, 37, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36. But climbing gear found on the peak suggested the two may have been swept to their deaths.
Wampler announced the end of the search after personally piloting a Piper Cub over the mountain for new clues and finding none — no tracks, no signs of snow caves, no other debris.
“Right now things are moving in from the west,” he said of the snowstorm. “That window has shut on us.”
Even before the sheriff spoke, all of the volunteers had returned to regular lives and helicopters used in the search had returned to their bases.
“I feel good about what I did. I wanted to do what I could for the family,” Wampler said. “You start something, you want to finish it.”
Wednesday morning, before the search was called off, Angela Hall, Brian Hall’s sister, said on NBC’s “” show that the two men’s considerable experience climbing mountains is just one of the things that gives her hope they are still alive.
“Also, just their strength of spirit, their strong will,” she said.
Search teams made a full-scale attack of the mountain over the weekend. But the search was scaled back to two air teams Tuesday and the rest of the crews were put on standby.
An autopsy on James was tentatively scheduled for Wednesday. Officials have said he had a dislocated shoulder.
Climbers’ photos raise concerns
Hopes of finding the climbers 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.
Ice axes left in a crude shelter indicate the men had a difficult stay and moved forward without crucial tools.
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.