3 men found a bond in climbing, then disaster on an Oregon peak

Times Staff Writer

One glorious day in June, Kelly James and Brian Hall, two longtime climbing partners from Dallas, were scaling Mt. Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascades, when they met a man from Brooklyn, Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, who was in another group on its way up the mountain.

The three perhaps did not share much in the way of professional interests: Cooke was a lawyer, James was a landscape architect, and Hall was a former pro soccer player who this year had been named the best personal trainer in town by the Dallas Voice, a newspaper for the city's gays and lesbians.

But the men did find a bond as fellow Christians, and they shared a passion for mountaineering -- not just the thrill of attaining a peak, but the meticulous planning that goes into a successful hike to the top of a major mountain.

The poring over maps. The endless discussions over what food to bring along: At the end of a long day above 10,000 feet, freeze-dried chicken and mushrooms with ramen, mixed with snow and brought to a boil on a tiny Sterno stove, can taste better than dinner at the Ritz.

And, family members recalled, they were, like true mountaineers, obsessed with gear -- from the tips of their crampons to the tops of their perspiration-wicking caps. A high-altitude climb requires minute attention to such things, and, like many climbers, the three friends spent weeks before a hike packing and repacking the gear, trying to include everything they might need -- but not one ounce more.

It was these three men who spent months e-mailing each other about an ambitious but hardly unprecedented goal, according to Kelly James' brother, Frank: climbing Oregon's tallest peak, Mt. Hood, in near-winter conditions.

And so, they set out on the Tilly Jane trailhead near here Dec. 8, after spending the night in a warming hut and leaving a note about their plans at the ranger station.

"We are party of 3 attempting N. Face," one of the men wrote.

They made it -- an impressive accomplishment, and one the men hoped to use as both training and credential for even more ambitious hikes in the future -- in Alaska and the Andes, perhaps even up Mt. Everest.

But then, shortly afterward, something went terribly wrong.

As authorities try to piece together this mountaineering disaster, family members have gathered to give each other strength in the face of death and mystery.

James, 48, was discovered dead in a snow cave by rescue workers Sunday, while the two other men -- Hall, 37, and Cooke, 36 -- remained missing Tuesday, 11 days after reaching the summit.

Troubling photos

Photographs retrieved from James' camera led authorities to offer a grim assessment of the two missing men's chances of remaining alive.

"After developing those pictures and looking at them, I'm pretty concerned," Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler said.

Wampler said that the photos from James' camera indicated the trio was properly equipped for a rapid ascent of the mountain -- in which they would have climbed up and back within a day, a feat achievable from where they started.

In their note, they indicated that they had food, fuel, waterproof gear, shovels, rope and ice axes.

But Wampler noted that the photos showed that the men did not appear to have enough in the way of gear, clothing and food to make it through a lengthy period of intense storms, freezing temperatures and wind gusts of up to 100 mph on the summit.

"I think we're talking about three guys that had ... the basic knowledge and equipment to get this done in the time periods that they had planned on," Wampler said Tuesday at a news conference.

However, their planning may have left them too little of a margin for error -- or accident.

But, the sheriff said, "We're not going to give up."

And family members kept up the vigil of hope.

"These men are mountaineers who have climbed some very serious mountains all around the world," Hall's sister, Angela, said of the two men, who appear to have gone missing while descending the mountain in search of help for James, who had suffered a dislocated shoulder and was unable to get down on his own power.

"They planned logistics for weeks and weeks," Angela Hall said. "If there is any way humanly possible to be alive, that's what they are trying to do."

Hall, speaking on behalf of the families Tuesday, said: "Our faith in the strength of the minds, bodies and spirits of Nikko and Brian remains steadfast. We continue to be hopeful as we pray for their safe return."

Rescue officials believe that James injured himself shortly after beginning the descent from the summit. He made a cellphone call Dec. 10 to his wife and sons, telling them the party had run into trouble.

Hall and Cooke were believed to be looking for a spot known as the Pearly Gates, and a route down the south face of the mountain to Timberline Lodge, a New Deal-era hotel set amid a skiing area, the closest place to get help.

Years of experience

They all had made the ascent on taller mountains and endured difficult conditions -- James, for instance, persevered through a four-day blizzard several years ago on his way to climbing Mt. McKinley, North America's highest peak, said his mother, Lou Ann Cameron; and he also had reached the 22,841-foot summit of Mt. Aconcagua, in Argentina, the highest point outside Asia.

He had climbed Mt. Rainier 14 or 15 times and even proposed to his wife, Karen, there, according to an account he gave the Dallas Morning News last summer when the newspaper was profiling a modernist home-renovation project the couple had undertaken.

"I sat her on this boulder and asked her what she was doing for the rest of her life," James told the newspaper.

Karen, a British native, recalled that she was "completely surprised" by his question. "You're at 10,000 feet in a parka with no makeup. You're not thinking proposal. I was so happy, though."

Hall had become climbing partners about eight years ago with James and had undertaken a weeklong training course for winter climbing in February in Colorado, said Jessica Nunez, a family friend. He is the general manager at Performance Playground, a Dallas fitness center.

Cooke, who is married, is a lawyer for an automobile insurance company in Manhattan. Friends said his mother, Maria Kim, helped put him through college and law school by working at a nail salon.

Mothers' vigil

The mothers of all three men have been in Hood River, at an airport staging area for rescue operations. They have mostly stood silently, and tearfully, while siblings or friends of the men have spoken to reporters.

On Saturday, though, each woman spoke briefly.

"God is sending these soldiers today to save our sons," Maria Kim, Cooke's mother, who lives in Queens, N.Y., said of the rescuers. "I want the mountain to release our sons. The mountain has no right to keep our sons."

"Whenever Brian climbed a mountain, our goal was, every night we are going to look at the same moon," said Hall's mother, Clara Hall, of Rapid City, S.D. "Last night, I saw the moon. I am very hopeful about that."

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sam.verhovek@latimes.com

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