Hood River, Ore. Two climbers still missing on Mount Hood may have been swept to their deaths over a treacherous cliff by howling winds of more than 100 mph after they left their injured companion behind in a snow cave to get help.
Sheriff Joe Wampler offered that scenario as rescuers went back up the mountain in helicopters Monday to retrieve the body of Kelly James from the snow cave and try again to find his two companions, who have been missing for a week.
But the sheriff spoke grimly about the chances the pair were still alive: "We failed them. We literally failed them. But we tried our best, I know that."
James' body was discovered over the weekend. He had an unspecified arm injury that apparently prevented him from continuing, Wampler said.
Climbing equipment found on the mountain - including two slings and two aluminum anchors driven into the snow - led rescuers to believe that James' companions, Brian Hall and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, had tried to secure themselves to the steep slope, Wampler said. That was the last sign of the two.
Because of that, authorities said, it appears more and more likely that they were victims of an accident.
If they did not find a place to take shelter, the sheriff warned, the climbers are long past the point of survival. But he added: "You can last a long time in a hole. We're going to keep looking for that hole."
The spot on the 11,239-foot mountain where the two men vanished is commonly known as "the gullies," with a 60-degree slope and a treacherous 2,500-foot drop-off. Thirteen deaths in the past 40 years have been recorded in the same area.
Teams were expected to continue searching for two more days, but weather forecasts may require them to take a break about Wednesday.
James, a 48-year-old landscape architect from Dallas, made a cell phone call from the cave Dec. 10, telling his family the party was in trouble.
Wampler said it appears the three climbers succeeded in reaching the summit from the difficult north side and started to go down the easier south side. They apparently tried to pass through a rock-and-ice formation known as the Pearly Gates but did not find it.
They built a snow cave, possibly because of bad weather, the sheriff said. He said all three probably spent the night of Dec. 8 there. The next day, he said, two of the men probably left the cave to go in search of help for James, who may have been injured. Then, the weather deteriorated even more.
The two had to dig another snow cave on a steep slope for themselves, not far from the first one, and apparently used snow anchors to secure themselves to the mountain as bad weather raged around them, the sheriff said.