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Small teams of searchers return to Hood

06:11 PM PST on Thursday, December 21, 2006

By kgw.com and AP Staff

HOOD RIVER, Ore. -- A break in winter weather allowed small teams of searchers to return to the snowy slopes of Mt. Hood on Thursday looking for clues on the whereabouts of two climbers lost and presumed dead.

AP photo

A piper cub airplane with Hood River County officials in it flied over the slopes of Mount Hood on Wednesday.

Two small teams climbed to about 7,500 to 8,000 feet to confirm that the "anomalies" seen from the air earlier in the search were really natural features and not evidence of the climbers, Deputy Matt English said.

But the teams found that the discolorations in the snow were just rocks. Deputies said teams will continue to search as weather permits.

After the search for the missing climbers ended with death, shortly after a San Francisco man trying to save his family in the Oregon wilderness was also found dead, Governor Kulongoski wants the state to explore ways of helping local agencies improve rescue efforts.

The governor said he was also concerned that county sheriff's departments -- which run search and rescue operations in Oregon -- may not be adequately funded.

Guest book: Share/read messages to climbers' families

Slideshow: Photos of clues found on Mount Hood, searchers

Meantime, autopsy results Wednesday showed that Mt. Hood climber Kelly James, whose body was recovered Monday, was not injured as previously thought.

More on Kulongoski's concerns, plan going forward

James did not have a dislocated shoulder as reported by authorities earlier this week. Furthermore, James' body showed no broken bones or injuries that would have prevented his mobility, according to the state medical examiner, Dr. Larry Lewman.

Lewman did say it appears James suffered from hypothermia and dehydration.

With yet another snowstorm barreling in, the search for two climbers feared dead on Mt. Hood was called off Wednesday. Rescue teams gave up any hope of finding the two missing climbers alive on the wind-whipped mountain.

VIDEO: Search ends | Sky 8 over Mt. Hood | Only on 8: Sheriff talks

"We've done everything we can at this point," said Sheriff Joe Wampler, after returning from one last, fruitless flyover of the 11,239-foot peak.

Your Turn: Read/share comments about search effort, climbers

The dangerous search lasted nine days. It began as a hunt for three climbers. One was found dead in a snow cave near the summit, and the two others may have fallen to their deaths, been buried by an avalanche or died of hypothermia.

The rescue search ended with concerns about the safety of searchers, worsening weather and the decreasing chances the climbers could have survived. Wampler said family members decided the rescue search should end, although not all members agreed.

The entrance to the first snow cave.

"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.

"(It was) some of the worst weather we've seen all year," he added. "This time of year Mt. Hood is a very dangerous place to be."

As weather permits, officials will now look for the bodies of Brian Hall and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, he said. Often when climbers go missing so late in the season, though, their bodies are not recovered until the spring.

The men set out Dec. 8 for what was supposed to be a two-day climb to the peak and back down. On Dec. 10, climber Kelly James used his cell phone to call his family and report the party was in trouble and that his two companions had gone downhill for help. James, a 48-year-old Dallas landscape architect, was found dead in a snow cave on Sunday.

Extra info: Most climbers don't carry locator beacons

High-tech locating devices that might have aided searchers in their hunt for three missing climbers are not widely used by those climbing Mt. Hood, according to several local climbing experts.

Volunteers continued scouring the mountain for signs of Hall, a 37-year-old personal trainer from Dallas, and Cooke, a 36-year-old lawyer from New York City. They held out hope that they had dug out a snow cave or sought other protection. But climbing gear found on the peak suggested the two may have fallen to their deaths or been buried by an avalanche.

Details: How climbers became trapped | Timeline

The search was delayed numerous times because of the weather and the threat to the safety of the searchers, many of them volunteer mountaineers from local search and rescue teams.

Photos found in James' camera | VIDEO: Sheriff describes photos

The final attempt to find the men alive was Wampler's one-hour flight in a county plane to the 11,239-foot peak Wednesday morning, during a short break in icy, cloudy conditions as a storm moved in. Rescuers say it is one of the largest searches in memory on Oregon's tallest mountain. During the height of the effort, scores of volunteers, deputies and National Guardsmen on foot and in helicopters and a plane had searched the mountain.

Climb was practice for Everest | Climbers had passion for adventure

More on theories of what happened to Hall and Cooke

But the search had already been scaled back dramatically on Tuesday. And the immediate prospects for a recovery search are limited by weather.

"Right now things are moving in from the west," Wampler said of the snowstorm. "That window has shut on us."

James' body identified | VIDEO: James' family mourns loss

Many volunteers have already packed up and returned to their 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."