Death on Mount Hood

Widow writes book while searching for answers about husband's death

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008

HOOD RIVER, Ore. - Shivering, weak and injured in a snow cave, on a mountain he and two climbing companions had tried to conquer, Kelly James managed to reach his wife on his cell phone.

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Todd Wells / The Associated Press
Todd Wells / The Associated Press

"Hey baby," he said.

"Hi honey, I love you," Karen James said, fighting back tears from their home in faraway Dallas. Her husband hadn't been seen in days and she had feared he was dead, but now, hearing his voice, she wondered how long he could stay alive.

"You've got to be really strong," she said. "You've got to hold on."

She was on another line with the sheriff searching for the climbers. "It's going to take us awhile," he said. In the face of a blinding snowstorm that wouldn't quit, it would end up taking a week.

With her husband, Karen James tried to be reassuring and encouraging.

"The Christmas tree is all decorated, it's so pretty and I can't wait for you to see it," she said. "Stay awake, OK? I love you."

The conversation - six minutes, 42 seconds long - was their last.

Karen James spent more than a year reconstructing the disastrous December 2006 climb her husband made with Brian Hall and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, and has written a book, "Holding Fast: The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy," which contains previously unreleased details and was released this week.

The climbers died after deciding to continue their attempt to reach the summit of 11,239-foot Mount Hood, even as a winter storm packing wind gusts up to 130 mph began to move in. The search, which drew national attention, ended a few days after one body - James' - was recovered.

Karen James defends the climbers' decisions, saying the weather must have still looked good as they inched up the face of Oregon's tallest mountain.

"The guys were not stupid nor were they on a suicide mission," she wrote in the book.

They left behind some crucial gear at a hut so they could move more quickly: sleeping bags, snow shoes, and most of their food. They took only climbing essentials such as ropes, ice screws, ice axes and crampons.

Leaving gear behind is not uncommon for experienced climbers who are making a quick ascent. But the three were mistaken in calculating they could make it to the summit and back down before the storm hit.

"All I can say is that they didn't prepare themselves for what did happen and that was that they would have to stay (on the mountain)," Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler, who led the search for the climbers, told The AP. "It was a matter of time and a lack of 'just in case' preparation. That's my sadness."

Kelly James, a 48-year-old-Dallas landscaper, had made tougher climbs and had climbed with Hall for years. They and Cooke decided on Mount Hood after meeting on Mount Rainier in Washington a year earlier.

Hall, 37, was a personal trainer from Dallas. Cooke was a 36-year-old attorney from New York City.

They drove from Portland to a ski resort on Thursday, Dec. 7, and hiked to Tilly Jane cabin, at about the 5,700-foot level, where they spent the night. They had planned to camp higher up and start earlier but left a note saying a warm fire changed their minds.

The next day, they began the trudge up Eliot Glacier. At about 9,000 feet, they began the climb from the top of the glacier up the sheer north face.

With ropes and technical gear they headed up one of two steep couloirs, or gullies, that cleave the north face - a 2,500-foot vertical climb.

"The climb was designed to be an ice climb, so that's why they picked the gully," Wampler said. "There's rocks, snow, there's water. It is virtually a waterfall and it freezes up in the wintertime."

At about 10,500 feet, Karen James wrote in her book, one of the climbers, probably her husband, fell and was injured. All three were left "twisted and dangling from the same rope," she wrote.

Wampler said that while James probably fell, it is impossible to be sure whether the two others did as well. Marks on James' body were consistent with a long, steep ice slide.

They were somehow able to recover and resume their climb up the couloir. At the top of it, they dug out a platform, where they probably rested.

Tracks show they then climbed to the summit, roped together, with the injured man between the two others. The storm was so bad the three couldn't find a way down, Wampler said, so they dropped down 300 feet or so the way they had come up and dug out a snow cave for the night.

Probably early Dec. 9, Cooke and Hall went for help, leaving the injured James in the snow cave. Someone who was supposed to pick them up at a lodge that day told authorities on Dec. 10 that they had not come down.

Wampler and Steve Rollins of Portland Mountain Rescue called Karen James and began rounding up volunteer searchers.

When Kelly James got through to his wife and sons Dec. 10, Karen James also had Wampler on another phone line. She told the sheriff her husband was "very weak and holed up in a cave somewhere," according to a recording of the conversation supplied by the sheriff's office to The AP.

She told Wampler the three had reached the summit, but "they're all split up now," and Hall had gone to seek help.

"Can you get him tonight?" she asked the sheriff.

"We'll get 'em started tonight. It's going to take us awhile," Wampler replied.

Search crews started before dawn on Dec. 11 but were turned back by the storm.

"I remember on the first day out on the mission we had almost zero visibility," Rollins said. "It occurred to me that if I can't even see the ground underneath my feet we hardly had a chance of finding any evidence" of the missing climbers.

No real break in the weather came until Dec. 16. Searchers found the cave with Kelly James' body in it the next day, along with his cell phone and camera, goggles, his pack and peels from an orange. The search for his companions was called off four days later.

Autopsy results indicated that James probably died of hypothermia within a couple of days.

Mount Hood remains an invitingly white icon on Portland's eastern horizon, seemingly made for postcards. But in 25 years it has claimed at least 35 lives.

Karen James says she is past the worst of her grief and that she knows her family will be reunited in heaven. But she has not returned to Mount Hood.

"A lot of people see this big beautiful thing," she said. "I can't help but just see a beast."



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