Sheriff Says Search for Missing Mount Hood Climbers Now a 'Recovery Effort'

The rescue effort for two hikers who have been missing on Mount Hood for more than 12 days was officially called off Wednesday, as officials said it was now turning into a recovery mission.

"We've done everything we can at this point," said Hood County Sheriff Joe Wampler, choking back tears.

Wampler said the men's families made the decision to end the search.

VIDEO: Mount Hood Search Becomes Rescue Effort

Rainy weather in the region earlier temporarily halted search and rescue team efforts. Wampler personally flew a Piper Cub airplane over the 11,239-foot mountain Wednesday one last time before a series of storms moved into the Northwest.

Deputy Sheriff Chris Guertin said Wampler's plane was "checking on anything it can find."

The storm could put the search on hold for days. Many volunteer searchers are returning to their regular jobs, although Steve Rollins, a leader of one of three volunteer groups in the search, said many are ready to go up the mountain again if needed.

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

The search operation had earlier been scaled back from scores of volunteers scouring the mountain to fixed-wing airplanes hoping to signs of Brian Hall and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke.

Their partner — Kelly James — was found dead in a snow cave near Mount Hood's 11,239-foot summit on Sunday.

Wampler has maintained he will continue searching for the men until he's told to call off the search, or if conditions become too dangerous to put teams on the mountain.

The Hood River sheriff's office said Wednesday in a news release that an avalanche team, with search dogs, was on standby to resume operations when the "the search area is considered safe and weather permits." Mountaineers said the storms have made the snow unstable and put rescuers at some risk.

Wampler said Tuesday that abandoned equipment, photos and notes left behind indicate the two men are likely in a small but treacherous portion of the mountain known as "the gullies."

The area is known for falls. Avalanche conditions, freezing temperatures and fierce winds over the past week have lessened hope for the two men.

Angela Hall said authorities have told family members they are attempting to search areas that may not have been previously targeted.

"We continue to be encouraged by what they tell us, which is that they are not stopping," she said.

An autopsy on James was tentatively scheduled for Wednesday. Officials have said he had a dislocated shoulder.

Officials said photos taken by James show the team was not well-equipped for a long stay. Ice axes left in a crude shelter indicate the men had a difficult stay and moved forward without crucial tools.

The snow cave, cut into the ice of a nearly vertical cliff, is the last sign of the two men, who are thought to have left the injured James to seek help.

It is possible Hall and Cooke were swept off the mountain by 100 mph winds, were buried in last week's blizzards or created a shelter for themselves by burrowing into the snow and sharing their body heat, as climbers are trained to do.

"This is probably the largest mountain search and rescue, and complex one, that I remember in some many, many years," said Bill Pattison, a member of the Crag Rats, a rescue group that has helped in the search.

He called Tuesday a "solemn" day for the families as the likelihood of finding the men alive greatly diminished. Two friends of family flew over the mountain Tuesday, which Pattison characterized as a "farewell" flight.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.