A cloud bank hugging the flanks of Mount Hood frustrated the air search for two missing climbers on Sunday, a day after their companion was found dead on a glacier on Oregon's highest mountain.
Rescuers had to bring in a helicopter and airplanes to conduct the search because new snow had created avalanche dangers for crews working on foot.
Skies had cleared Sunday morning, but the weather worsened again and the mountain became shrouded by a low cloud during the afternoon. The search aircraft — a helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane — returned to their bases. At nightfall, search crews ended operations for the day with plans to evaluate options Monday morning, said Jim Strovink, spokesman for the Clackamas County sheriff.
"The weather, that's what's hampering this operation," Strovink said.
The three climbers — 26-year-old Luke T. Gullberg, 24-year-old Anthony Vietti and 29-year-old Katie Nolan — had begun their ascent on the west side of the mountain about 1 a.m. Friday and were due back that afternoon, but failed to return.
On Saturday, crews found Gullberg's body on the glacier at the 9,000-feet level. Authorities said he was from Des Moines, Wash.
His equipment also was found scattered around the glacier, including a camera with at least 20 photos of the climbers. Crews have looked over the photos for landmarks and other clues to the location of the two missing climbers — Vietti, of Longview, Wash., and Nolan, of Portland.
"It looked like they were confident and having a good time," Strovink said of the photographs.
After eight inches of snow fell on the 11,249-foot mountain overnight, avalanche dangers in the higher elevations Sunday made a rescue mission on foot too risky.
"Nobody is going to want to tromp around in that snow," said Steve Rollins, a Portland Mountain Rescue leader.
Still, officials had not given up hope that Nolan and Vietti could still be found alive, calling them experienced climbers. Strovink said he didn't believe the climbers had a shovel, which could be used to build a snow cave to keep them out of the elements. But, he said, "They were well equipped otherwise."
The Oregonian newspaper reported Sunday that Gullberg was a sales clerk at the outdoor retailer and cooperative REI in Tukwila, Wash., and he studied writing and English at Central Washington University.
"He was very adventurous," Stacy Cleveland, his cousin, told the newspaper. "He did a lot of hiking and climbing and things a lot us would never attempt."
Relatives of the three climbers were gathered at Timberline Lodge, a ski lodge on the flank of Mount Hood and a staging area for the rescuers, to await more news. They were comforted by Dennis Simons, a nondenominational volunteer chaplain for the police and fire departments in nearby Sandy.
"They are grieving and hoping," he said.
The three climbers, all Christians, met through church activities, Simons said, and Nolan has traveled extensively for Christian causes.
'They know how to survive'
Simons said the experience of Nolan and Vietti also was giving their relatives hope. He said Nolan had made the summit of other Cascade Range peaks, and the three had climbed together before. "They know how to survive in the snow," Simons said.
Strovink said authorities planned to evaluate avalanche danger above 7,000 feet before Monday's search, but it was unlikely the aircraft that searched the mountain Sunday would return.
Mount Hood is a popular site among climbers in the United States. In 25 years, it has been the site of dozens of climbing accidents and fatalities. The worst on record happened in May 1986 when nine people — seven students from Oregon Episcopal School and two adults — died after they dug a snow cave during a sudden storm.
The latest search, which comes almost exactly three years after another trio of experienced climbers died on Mount Hood during a December 2006 blizzard, has generated heated debate among some about the wisdom of tackling the mountain during the winter, a season when brutal storms can move in quickly.
In an online discussion for climbers at http://www.summitpost.org, some said it's irresponsible even for experienced climbers to take on Mount Hood during the winter while others said the challenge of winter mountaineering is what brings them to Mount Hood.
Veteran climber Jim Whittaker, the first American to conquer Mount Everest, said he understands why climbers like the challenge of tackling Mount Hood in the winter.
"It's exciting and fun when your testing yourself against the power of nature," Whittaker said in an interview from his home in Port Townsend, Wash. "But you've got to know what you're doing; you've got to be prepared."