Mount Hood Rescuers Face Winds Up to 100 MPH in Search for Missing Climbers

Rescue workers searching for three lost climbers on Oregon's highest peak confronted stormy weather again Thursday and looked in lower elevations in hopes that some climbers had managed to descend that far.

An attempt on Mount Hood to use small, unmanned planes carrying devices that can detect body heat was stymied when lenses fogged up. The flights reached about 500 feet above a camp at 6,000 feet where rescuers have set up a staging area, said John Blitch, leader of the Colorado nonprofit group Aracar, which provided the flights.

A blizzard smacked the mountain on Thursday, and the National Weather Service said winds at 9,000 feet reached 60 to 80 mph.

A new storm, expected to be the fiercest of the week, swept in late Thursday from the Pacific Ocean. Anticipating it, authorities earlier in the day ordered journalists off the mountain and down to a ranger station.

Though the search ended for the day, some workers planned to remain at camp in hopes that the weather would break, allowing them to reach the summit of the 11,239-foot mountain. One climber is believed to be holed up in a snow cave near the top, and the other two are thought to have tried to descend for help.

Winds were expected to gust to 100 mph Thursday and Friday morning. Forecasters said rescuers' next shot would probably be Saturday — more than a week after the climbers ascended.

Also Thursday, authorities said a cell phone belonging to the climber believed to be in the snow cave was on briefly as recently as Tuesday. But for more than two days the phone has not responded to engineers' signals, sent every five minutes.

In response to its "pings," T-Mobile got a return signal from Kelly James' cell phone early Tuesday, indicating the handset was back on, when it had been off, authorities said Thursday.

The Hood River County sheriff's office initially said the signal was returned at about 10:55 p.m., but later the phone company said the last signal returned from the handset was at 1:51 a.m. Tuesday.

But the sequence suggested that James, 48, of Dallas, may have turned his cell phone off to conserve battery power, a possibility that brought hope to family members gathered near the mountain.

"My heart was in my throat when I heard that, because if it's true it means Kelly is alive, and he has his wits about him," his brother, Frank James of Orlando, Fla., said at a news conference.

Authorities looked at lower elevations for James' companions, Brian Hall of Dallas and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, of New York, in hopes that they had gotten down from near the summit.

The three set out a week ago for a two-day climb to the summit.

James' wife, Karen, said the families of the three men remained confident.

"These are three of the most phenomenal men you could ever meet. They're smart, they are strong, and they care so deeply for one another," she said.