MOUNT HOOD, Ore. – Scores of hand-picked rescue mountaineers began descending from Mount Hood Saturday afternoon, once again thwarted in their attempt to locate three missing climbers despite a long-awaited break in the weather.
The weather wasn't as bad as it had been during searches of the past week, but visibility was limited by winds reaching 50 mph, which kicked up soft snow dumped by recent storms on the 11,239-foot mountain.
Search teams were also hindered by cold temperatures in the upper elevations.
"It wasn't quite the dream picture we had hoped for today. But there is the chance tomorrow will be a better day," said Sgt. Sean Collinson of the Clackamas County sheriff's office.
He said a C-130 aircraft equipped with thermal imaging would continue flying around the mountain during the night, hoping to pick up body heat from the missing climbers.
Before dawn, 25 rescue mountaineers began making their way up the south side of the mountain, and another 30 started from the north side, said Joe Wampler, sheriff for Hood River County. Both teams started at about 6,000 feet.
Just before midday, a small team moving from the south had reached an elevation of 10,600 feet, said Sgt. Gerry Tiffany, with the Hood River County sheriff's office. They had hoped to summit and descend down the north side, but they had to turn around and come back down.
Blackhawk helicopters worked the north side of the mountain, also hoping to find signs of the trio.
At a Hood River news conference earlier Saturday, the mothers of the three missing climbers choked back tears as they expressed hope their sons would be found on Saturday.
"I know my son's coming down today," said Lou Ann Cameron of Bryant, Ark., mother of Kelly James, who was last heard from on Sunday when he placed a call on his cell phone from a snow cave near the summit to tell relatives the climbing trio was in trouble.
"It's my birthday. He wouldn't miss my birthday," she said.
Wampler, the sheriff, said chances of finding the missing climbers alive would improve if they kept sleeping bags they had presumably taken with them on their attempt to summit Mount Hood.
Some climbers "stash" gear like sleeping bags and backpacks to lighten their load as they summit, picking it up on the way back down.
Wampler said searchers have been unable to find a stash of gear left by the three climbers.
"They either stashed it really good, or they have it with them," he said. "If they have it with them, it greatly increases their chances of survivability."
There has been no sign of the three missing climbers — two Texans and a New Yorker — since 48-year-old Kelly James' call from a snow cave on Sunday.
It is believed the two others in the climbing party — Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas, and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, 36, of New York City — tried to descend the mountain to seek help.
The last clue to the climbers' whereabouts was a cell phone signal returned from James' cell phone on Tuesday.