COOPER SPUR, Ore. – Search crews on Wednesday were racing against a storm that was expected to dump three feet of snow on Mount Hood in the next 48 hours while they continued to look for three missing hikers.
Cold rain began whipping the mountain's base as temperatures remained in the 30s, and Wednesday's forecasts called for the most powerful gusts of the year for Oregon in the next few days.
"Those are the strongest winds I've ever been in — knock you down, hands and knees," said Lindsay Clunes of Corvallis Mountain Rescue, one of the dozens of searchers who have been looking for the three climbers since last weekend.
The Hood River County Sheriff's Office said “the avalanche danger is very high.”
Meanwhile, the families of the missing hikers said they're holding onto hope their loved ones will be found alive.
"We would like to thank everyone who continues to work tirelessly," Frank James, Kelly James' brother, said as he read a statement on behalf of the three climbers' families during a news conference on Mount Hood Wednesday.
"We remain strong. We remain hopeful," he added. "Everyone is kind of numb at this point ... [but] we have not given up hope in the least."
Thermal imaging and cell phone-signal-tracking technology, as well as more manpower, were joining the search for Kelly James, Brian Hall and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, who were reported missing on Sunday. An Oregon National Guard helicopter was on standby, ready to go up into the air as soon as weather permitted, Hood River County Sheriff Deputy Pete Hughes said.
ARACAR Director and drone researcher John Blitch said search teams are hoping to employ drones equipped with thermal imaging systems later Wednesday afternoon, which may be able to detect emissions off a particular target, such as vegetation.
Two dozen more rescuers from the Eugene Mountain Rescue Group and the Nordic Ski Patrol joined IOMAX, a company that tracks cell phone signals, and ARACAR — the Alliance for Robotic Assisted Crisis Assessment and Response — which was to provide a drone with heat-sensing capabilities.
T-Mobile on Tuesday detected a cell phone signal near the summit, at about 11,000 feet.
"Two points were found with a very high probability of accuracy,” indicating that the cell phone's owner changed position, the sheriff's press release said.
But "we have a ceiling at about 7,000 feet. ... Man and machine are at their limits," Capt. Chris Bernard of the U.S. Air Force's 304th Rescue Squadron, which is aiding the rescue effort, said Wednesday.
Cooke, 36, a lawyer from New York City, and Hall, 37, a personal trainer who played for the now-defunct Dallas Rockets professional soccer team, are believed to have attempted a descent while James, 48, a landscape architect from Dallas, apparently remained near the summit.
Of the three hikers, James has the most experience — 25 years of mountaineering that includes Mount McKinley, the Andes Mountains in South America and peaks in Europe, according to his mother, Lou Ann Cameron of Bryant, Ark.
The cell phone signal detected near the summit is believed to be from James' phone, but Bernard said because the weather is blocking their ascent, searchers will focus on Hall and Cooke.
"Our resources are going to go toward the lower elevations," while crews remain on standby if there is a break in the weather," he said, adding that if conditions improve, "they will be ready to go."
Teams also were to focus on finding any gear the hikers may have hidden to lighten their load with the intention of reclaiming it on their way back. The gear could provide clues as to how equipped they are to handle the conditions endured during the time they have been missing, according to the press release.
The trio scaled the north side of the mountain, which offers a view of Mount Rainier but is treacherous, with slopes of 50 or 60 degrees and occasional sheer walls of ice.
The site has been made even more forbidding by snow-laden winds rushing over the steep slopes at speeds up to 80 mph.
Willie Nash, a friend who has climbed with Cooke, told FOX News he was supposed to join the three men for the Mount Hood trek but decided not to go because of other obligations.
“Normally I would have gone. I can’t help but think had I been there,” if they would have been able to climb quicker, Nash said.
Nash said the climbers will make their decisions on the mountain based on how much food and water they have.
On Tuesday, teams were unable to reach the summit, where James had made a phone call to his son on Sunday from inside a snow cave shelter.
Frank James said it wasn't clear from his brother's four-minute call whether he was injured. His brother did appear to be feeling the effects of the cold and said he was worried about the weather, he said.
Rescuers were able to clear 9,000 feet before high winds and whiteout conditions blocked their efforts, and a helicopter was unable to go beyond 6,000 feet.
FOXNews.com's Heather Scroope and The Associated Press contributed to this report.