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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Search Continues for Missing Mountain Climbers

Aired December 17, 2006 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And as you can tell and we've been talking about this all morning, it's very clear today. Finally, because the weather has been downright nasty for the last several days.
But as we're looking at that image there, it appears that they're making some good progress in getting to that area. That area, once again, Eliot Glacier. And we believe they're going to find the snow cave by foot.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So Dan, we're thinking that the people that we're seeing, these climbers on this peak, they're at the 11,000 summit area. They have likely descended from -- from the choppers that were in the area. Because we didn't see the previous pictures to this image right here.

But that is our belief now that these are climbers, the pararescuers who have descended from the choppers and now will make that slow-going trek to -- either between 300 and 1,000 feet to where the snow cave is? Is that what we are thinking?

SIMON: About a -- well, I have been told it is about 1,000 feet below the summit. And based upon the, these aerial views, that seems consistent. It's sort of hard to get your bearings when you're looking at the picture. But that seems rather consistent. Coupled with everything we have been told over the last few minutes.

It seems that is where they believe the snow cave is. And you know we have been asked how long it is going to take to get to that area? Well, based upon what we are seeing -- it appears that they're getting there in relatively quick fashion. That helicopter, in other words was able to make the landing and get the necessary people off the aircraft to get down to that area. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: OK, yes, it is a little difficult to tell because we're getting new video. And we're also intercepting that with some of the live video. And we're going to try and piece together some of these images.

But it does look like a team of about maybe a dozen climbers there that we're looking at in this new video. And we did hear one of the officials describing earlier that in the Chinook would probably be a team of about a dozen who would be dropped off nearest to that snow cave area. Is that about what you understood, Dan?

SIMON: Right. We knew that there were going to be a number of people there. And based upon these pictures, yes, there does appear to be, approximately a dozen rescuers there on the mountain. You know, we have been told that this was very steep terrain. This image, I guess it's hard to tell from our vantage point, but it doesn't look particularly steep or dangerous at least from this vantage point does it, Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: It doesn't from this side. But you know, I guess with this tight view it's -- it's kind of unfair. Because we don't know what is on the other side, which is, you know, could be that north side, I guess that has those dangerous peaks and ridges and lots of ice.

SIMON: Lots of ice. And bear in mind you are dealing with -- you know, a very cool environment so to speak. So, I have the sense that we're going to have some sort of idea and some sort of confirmation what has been spotted at, exactly in that area relatively soon. And based upon this picture, Fredricka, now you can really tell the steepness of it.

WHITFIELD: Yes.

SIMON: This is Mount Hood, this is the tallest mountain in Oregon. You know this time of year, it's not very typical for climbers to scale it. But the three climbers here have a lot of experience. This climb had been planned for some time. Two of the climbers had been buddies for years. They had scaled a lot of mountains together. And they thought this was going to be a fun December trek here in Oregon.

And they found themselves in a very dangerous situation because the weather took a turn for the worse. Remember this was supposed to be a one-day climb to the top. They were going to camp out and then climb to the bottom. And so when they got near to the top, the winds really kicked up and the weather just took a turn for the worse.

And suddenly, they found themselves stranded. We know that one of the climbers Kelly James got himself in a snow cave. He made a phone call to his family actually a week ago today. He said he was in trouble. He said the other two climbers went for help. We never heard anything more from them.

WHITFIELD: Did the family ever describe whether he gave any more detail about why the other two would go for help and -- or, you know why they wouldn't all stay together? Was there something about Kelly James' condition that the family is able to share?

SIMON: It -- it never got that specific. But the implication was -- is that Kelly James was injured and the other two attempted to go for help. And that's why he stayed put and they were apparently able to keep going, so to speak.

And we know that based upon the cell phone pings, you know these tiny electronic signals told the rescuers so much. It's really amazing what they were able to do with that limited data. They were able to get a latitude and longitude, a very accurate one.

And they knew -- they had a pretty good idea where the snow cave was based upon that cell phone ping. And they wanted to go there all week. But, the elements prevented them from doing so. And today after all this time the skies opened up. And it almost seems rather easy, doesn't it that they were able to do this?

WHITFIELD: Yes, it's deceiving isn't it? Because none of us here on the ground really have any idea what these rescue climbers are really up against. And now that we see that wider view you can see, you know how intimidating this mountain is with that chopper, whether it be the Blackhawk or the Chinook, that may be nearby, perhaps that being a Blackhawk nearby the mountain.

We're not sure what it is getting ready to do or if it's about to drop off any more people or get a better vantage point of that snow cave. But we have heard all the descriptions, Dan, of just how dangerous this area is. The very sharp edges, the ice formations that makes that powdery snow look very deceiving. So not just tough for those experienced climbers who, you know, remain missing, but for the rescue teams as well.

SIMON: And something to keep in mind, these three climbers decided to take the more challenging route. They decided to scale the north face, which is very steep. The south face is much easier. And that's what a lot of people do. A lot of people choose to go up the south face.

But these climbers given their history and experience felt like they were well prepared for this type of adventure. We were told that they had all the necessary resources to manage themselves. They had fuel. They had sleeping bags. They had parkas, all of the things you need if you are going to go on an adventurous mountain climb.

WHITFIELD: Yes, even, the officials who have been carrying out the rescue mission, even they sounded very impressed that these climbers had all the right things. Those were their words. They had all the right things to be able to encounter this and endure this.

And the rescue teams have remained optimistic. Did you even sense from the press conference there was even a sense of excitement in their voice of real optimism that they came upon the clues that they have been holding out hope for, for a long time now?

SIMON: Well, certainly everyone has expressed a lot of optimism and that was bolstered a day or two ago by the revelation that back in the 70s, some teens found themselves in a similar predicament and survived 13 long days in a snow cave and survived.

But let me talk about something else. Not only did they take the right things with them. They did all the right things. They left several notes. They told people exactly where they were going. And that's unusual. The fact that they -- they really went to extraordinary means to tell everybody what was going on.

WHITFIELD: Right. Leaving notes in their car for one.

SIMON: Right. They left a note in their car. They left a note at the ranger station. Very few people apparently do that. And then there was a lodge up at about 6,000 feet on the mountain, and there is like -- an entry book there where people can write their names and leave comments.

Apparently on that log, they gave another description of where they were going. So, these are three guys who knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what they were up against because they took all of the -- all the right stuff with them. But then, Mother Nature took control and they found themselves in this awful situation.

WHITFIELD: Well Dan, Jacqui Jeras is in the Weather Center. She's been watching the conditions there and giving us an idea exactly what these teams are up against. Jacqui, I think you have a question for Dan as well?

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, I wanted to know what side of the mountain are they on, Dan?

SIMON: What kind of a mountain?

JERAS: What side of the mountain? Are they on the east side of the mountain? I can see the shadow. We're a couple hours away from sunset now and I'm wondering if they're going to be losing some of their light a little bit quicker if they're on the east side of the mountain.

SIMON: Well I know that they're on the north face. That's where they believe the snow cave is. And that's the more challenging side of the mountain. And that's where they started. They were going to go up the north side and then descend on the south side. That was the plan all along.

Apparently they got pretty close to the summit when they encountered some trouble. And that's when -- when Kelly James got himself in the snow cave and the other two went for help.

JERAS: OK, so I can see some of the shadowing of the mountains. From your perspective, is it starting to get dark already where the rescuers are?

SIMON: No, it's still very bright. Let's see, it's just after 1:00 local time. We still have several more hours of daylight. So it's a spectacular day here. Here on the ground, we're at, in a private airstrip. It's actually very comfortable now.

JERAS: Yes, it's very beautiful, it's very majestic. Some of the camera shots, I don't know if you can see them, are zooming in. And you can really get a good idea there along the edge of just how steep some of this terrain is.

And you can see how rugged it is as well. And you know the good snow pack, there's more than 75 inches of snow up there. We were talking about the avalanche concern and that danger as well. Winds are relatively calm. That's good to see.

You don't even see any of the snow blowing off the peaks. A lot of times if the wind is blowing, it doesn't even have to be that strong. Especially with the fresh snow pack like they have right now. We just got one to three feet of snow in the last couple of days. And that's a lot of snow in a short period of time and can help to create some unstable conditions.

And when it's fresh like that, if the wind is blowing a little bit, you'll kind of see almost like the blizzard-type conditions or you'll see that snow kicking up from some of that wind. And we don't even see any kind of haze around the mountain today. So very clear and very vivid pictures there.

WHITFIELD: And I understand Jacqui and Dan, according to our affiliate KOIN, which is providing a lot of these pictures, that the darker side of that mountain, that shaded side, that is the north side. And so that is the area that they want to concentrate their search on. But the area that they are first going to be losing light, as you were talking about Jacqui.

And so that's going to be yet another challenge they're dealing with, because while they may feel they're in the right area, the conditions are certainly working against them with the darkness.

JERAS: OK, I'm hearing from our producer that it is on the west side of the mountain, is that what you said, Jenny? That they're on the west side of the mountain. So that's good, so they're going to have the most daylight that they possibly can get.

Of course, the sun sets in the west. So they're going to see as much of that sun as they possibly can see. Official sunset time, we get it from the Portland National Weather Service office, it's 4:28, local time. So we have, just under three and a half hours of some pretty decent daylight for them to get, have some good visuals while they're still out there.

WHITFIELD: Great. Let's try and join Dan Simon, who has a guest there, looks like Captain Mike Braibish to tell us a little more about what is going on.

SIMON: Yes, Fredricka, we're joined here by the captain as we look at these aerials provided to us by KOIN television. And obviously, looking at this vantage point, you can tell just how steep this mountain is. Give us a sense in terms of the strategy. We understand that that helicopter was able to land and get those folks off the aircraft so they could descend and go towards that snow cave. What is the strategy for making that very challenging descent?

CAPT. MIKE BRAIBISH, OREGON NATIONAL GUARD: Well what's going to happen is we're going to get as many climbers up on the mountain as we can right now, that are going to focus on moving down the mountain. They're going to take a look at the situation and assess and decide what is going to be the best approach, what is going to be the best path of descent coming down that mountain.

Safety is the primary concern at this point. So, I believe they were able to put these paratroopers on the west side of the mountain. There are some climbers from the Portland Mountain Rescue that are up there as well. What they will do is -- you know, I'm seeing the footage here as it is developing. But what they will do is they will try to come together and decide what is going to be the best approach, the safest approach and the one that is going to get them the most information possible.

SIMON: How long might something like that take? I mean, looking at some of the images I'm not sure we fully appreciate how difficult this trek is. What your best estimation how long it will take them to reach this snow cave?

BRAIBISH: Well right now you can see that the conditions are favorable for us to be up on the mountain and moving around right now. We are hoping that it is more a function of minutes than hours. And looking at things under these conditions right now, it looks like we're going to be able to move much more quickly than we were able to move yesterday when we had high winds.

SIMON: Let's talk how this all came about within a very short period of time. This began last night when some folks on the aircraft, it was on a helicopter?

BRAIBISH: There were crews on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, pararescuemen and the air crew members from the Oregon National Guard and the pararescuemen from the 304th reserve squadron. They took a picture. It didn't give us a lot of high resolution because the weather conditions were rough.

But that's what prompted us to get back up there today to take a closer look. When we got that closer look, we felt it was important to get up there and get some crews down because it -- we were pretty convinced that it was an ice cave at that point that we had discovered.

SIMON: So you saw that snow cave and then next to it -- like a few yards away, you saw some equipment including this ice spike.

BRAIBISH: Ice axe, yes.

SIMON: And some rope. And talk about this, this emergency signal, this "Y" that you also saw in the snow?

BRAIBISH: Sometimes climbers will use a signal such as a "Y" to indicate, yes we are here. To indicate that there is someone, there is a presence there. And as you can see now, we've got climbers on the mountain getting as close to that ice cave or that snow cave there. So we can make a determination if we actually have the climbers that we are looking for.

SIMON: Because the wind were so intense over the past few days, one would think that this "Y" that was carved out in the snow would be erased by the wind if you will. Were you able to tell if that was a fresh signal?

BRAIBISH: Well, when you are up this high on the mountain under the conditions that we've seen lately, it's not like a soft snow pack that you might hope to go skiing on. We're looking at ice on that mountain right now. They're very thick ice. So, it's quite possible that, those, that "Y" could have been there for several days.

SIMON: Let's talk a little about the families who presumably are watching this unfold right now on television. It's remarkable to see how strong they've been. You've had a lot of interactions with them. Tell me how they've been holding up.

BRAIBISH: Well, what has happened is that these people from different parts of the country, from different backgrounds have come together around one common purpose and one focus. And that's the focus that, everyone who has participated in these efforts today here shares. And that focus has been getting these climbers down off the mountain alive. And what we're seeing is that these families are very strong, very supportive of each other and they are very optimistic. And we share that optimism with them.

SIMON: Looking at this image right here, right almost there in the middle of the screen, you see those rescuers. Are you able to tell where the snow cave is? What direction they would need to go?

BRAIBISH: From this point I can't clearly tell where the snow cave is. But it was located near -- we had a cell phone ping earlier in the week. It was -- the snow cave is in the same approximate area there. That's on the north-northeast face, near what is called Eliot Glacier.

SIMON: Right. We are listening here to Captain Mike Braibish describe what we're seeing here from these aerial views. We're looking at Mt. Hood, where rescuers are attempting to go to the snow cave that they spotted only a little while ago, maybe about an hour ago.

They saw the snow cave from the air. They also saw some equipment. And they're making this very difficult climb if you will, towards the snow cave. They're going down actually. And it's very steep terrain. It's a difficult move. And just this morning they spotted this snow cave. And you guys have been looking for this for the past several days. But you couldn't find it because the weather was just too challenging, right?

BRAIBISH: We had been looking for any sign, any indication. We had some incredibly severe storms sweep through the Pacific Northwest here lately. There were more than 250,000 people without power. Those winds were even more pronounced up on the mountain itself. And that kept us from getting the crews airborne, as well as getting crews on the mountain. We have had good weather these past two days. We're extremely grateful for that. And obviously it is clearly giving us a direction to go.

SIMON: It's very clear this is what you are focused on right now. But are you looking at any other locations at the moment?

BRAIBISH: The search continues. The search continues. This is where there is a -- this is a focal point. But it's important to note that we still have climbers at several elevations on the mountain. We still have a UH-60 airborne continues to circle the mountain looking for clues. We don't know if there is a climber here. We don't know if there is one, two, or three climbers in this area. We're hopeful. We're looking at this as a positive location. But we realize that it is a big mountain and they can still be anywhere on the mountain. So the search does continue.

SIMON: The cell phone pings were obviously critical for you and gave you a real break here. In most situations you don't get that. Talk about the importance of that little cell phone ping?

BRAIBISH: Well, each piece of information is important. But the best thing that we can do is take those bits and pieces of information and correlate them.

The first bits and pieces of information were the notes from the climbers themselves, that cell phone ping. And now the discovery of the snow cave. So when we were able to put all of those pieces close enough together, it gave us a good picture of where we should focus our efforts and we're very hopeful that we're going to produce some results here with the search as it is now.

SIMON: I have to tell you. I have been here for some time now. And I have never seen at any moment anybody -- you know, feel like -- like this was not going well or not express optimism. You guys always felt like you had a very realistic chance of finding these climbers.

BRAIBISH: Absolutely. We look at this as a rescue mission. We're nine days into it. It is a rescue mission and it is a very well-coordinated effort between two counties here in Oregon, the sheriffs offices between two counties.

We have military support to the civil authorities here. We've got volunteers out of Portland. We've got volunteers from across the state and right here in Hood River. It is a very well-coordinated effort. And we're -- we continue to keep our focus on rescue efforts at this point.

SIMON: And I've heard your counterparts say that this is really an unprecedented search, in terms of the level of resources devoted to it.

BRAIBISH: Well, I am not familiar. I can tell you that the National Guard every year, we perform dozens of searches and rescues throughout the state. We're familiar with the mountain here. But in the two and a half years I've been with the guard, I have not seen a search this intense as we are seeing now.

SIMON: And the country has really shown a tremendous amount of interest in the story. Why do you think people have just been so engrossed following the journey of the three climbers?

BRAIBISH: Well, this is obviously a dramatic story. It is one that tugs at the heart. You know, I can tell you I have taken calls from citizens offering suggestions to us on how we should do this. But the fact of the matter is that I think everyone has hope that we're going to find these climbers. And we maintain that hope that we'll find these climbers and bring them down safely. SIMON: Well you are awfully kind to spend a few minutes with us. Before we let you go, let me ask Fredricka -- Fredricka, any questions here for the captain?

WHITFIELD: Well you mention, captain, that your rescue teams were equipped to overnight in that area if they have to because it just may be a little too difficult to get to the snow cave area. Give us an idea of what these teams are equipped to do?

SIMON: Fredricka is asking, your teams have the resources to overnight in that area, should that warrant. What would they have to do in order to accomplish that and tell us a little but about the strategy if that has to occur?

BRAIBISH: The key factor we have to look at right now is what we find in that, what we find in that area. If we get late in the day and we're finding information that indicates we have got someone up there and we need to provide them assistance, then we will by all means make arrangements to have those crews stay out there overnight. And they are well-equipped. They are highly skilled and highly trained professionals that are up there on the mountain.

SIMON: Fredricka, we're getting him wired up. He should be able to hear you in the next couple seconds.

WHITFIELD: Oh, great. Well, we're going to let you go ahead do that, Dan, and wire up the captain. And I'm going to talk with the president of the Corvallis mountain rescue unit, Jim Dagata as well. And then I'll talk with you guys again shortly.

So Mr. Dagata, give me an idea how your teams are involved in this mission?

JIM DAGATA, CORVALLIS MOUNTAIN RESCUE (on phone): Well at this point we were called out. We sent a team on, this past Tuesday when the weather was really bad. In fact the taped footage that you have with windblown ridge line was from one of our team members. But right now due to other circumstances with our team being fairly small team, we only have one of our searchers up there right now.

WHITFIELD: And what is, you know that searcher equipped to do or, you know bring, bring to the table if you will. I know a lot of different units have all different levels of expertise. They zone in on different types of obstacles in this kind of search. What about your guy?

DAGATA: Well he has been placed in with one of the crag rats, which is the Mt. Hood search team, mountain rescue team. There are a few mountain rescue teams in the state of Oregon and around some of the other states, and we're members of Mountain Rescue Association.

And all trained for mountain rescue teams to a level of being able to travel on glaciers, on snow, rock, and to be out in those harsh conditions and be prepared to be able to stay out overnight if told in the beginning before a climb, or for as long as three days if need be. So we can go out and self-sufficient for that. All the teams are trained to a very high level. We do testing and reaccreditation for each team every three years.

WHITFIELD: So Mr. Dagata, give me an idea what the rescue teams are up against. Particularly when we hear the concentration of some of the rescue climbers, they're on the west side of -- an area called Eliot Glacier. And it's just a few hundred feet away, or below, this summit area where they believe the snow cave is. As we look at these pictures, describe for us what these climbers are up against and how difficult it is to descend to this location.

DAGATA: Well, the Eliot Glacier and the Eliot head wall just off the summit is a very steep area at this time of the year with all of the snow and wind blowing, there's some very high avalanche danger from all of that.

I know they have been testing it. I haven't been up to the mountain so I do not know right now what those conditions are. The reports from the National Avalanche Forecasting is that the conditions were moderate-to-high.

It takes quite a while for that to calm down. But to climb down that, you need a lot of specialized equipment. And you need to be very careful setting up ropes and either snow pickets or other types of snow protection, even possibly ice grooves or anything else, depending on the conditions there.

WHITFIELD: Because we're talking about a combination of powder and ice, and that making that traverse that much more complicated. It's not just an issue of deep snow, but it's a glacier. You have got a lot of ice.

DAGATA: Right. That whole area at this time of year, it's early in the season. It's not very stable snow. The climbing season is typically in the springtime. So yes, the dangers of avalanche, protecting the climber, you know, rescue climbers to get out there is an issue. There is a lot of ways to do it. And it really is going to depend on the team and their resources that they have, have while they're up there.

WHITFIELD: So when you talk about the avalanche danger and that being triggered by sound, not only of these guys and women too having to work very quietly. But it also means these choppers can't be circling too close to the area of interest here because even that chopper activity could trigger an avalanche, could it not?

DAGATA: Well depending on the conditions at the time. While sound waves from an aircraft such as a helicopter, a Blackhawk, could potentially trigger an avalanche, most avalanches when it's in moderate to high are going to -- you know, if there's humans around, they're the ones that are going to trigger it.

Steeper terrain such as the head wall and stuff will tend to slough by itself if it's going to go. But human-triggered avalanches are mainly what it will be. And that can happen if the conditions are right and they step on the wrong place. That could be anywhere.

You don't know when you are in avalanche conditions and avalanche country what particular trigger will be. It will usually be a human trigger and not usually sound per se. But a concussion of say a shell or artillery shell. But human triggers are the most common for the issues of avalanche.

WHITFIELD: OK, so then based on what we are hearing -- the area where many of these rescuers are going to be descending to this snow cave -- could be anywhere from 300 feet to 1,000 feet. Given these conditions about how long do you suppose that will take before they reach the goal?

DAGATA: Well, honestly not being up there at this point and having an idea of what the conditions are, it's hard to say. It could be a couple of hours depending on how much protection they have to put in and what conditions are.

And they may deem that -- I don't know where they are at this point. But they may deem that it's not safe or very safe to climb down. And they may have to take a lot of extra precautions or see what they can do to get to it.

My understanding is that they have held the other teams at this point. The summit team has advised that everybody else that is on the climb is kind of on a stand-by until they can basically determine what kind of manpower they might need at this time.

WHITFIELD: So given your team and the other teams there have about three, maybe four hours left of daylight. Are you concerned or maybe you can just give me an idea of what transpires in that lapse of time to determine whether your guy or any of these folks will be overnighting, you mentioned them being equipped to overnight up to three nights if they had to. But over the next, three, four hours how do you make the assessment about committing the teams to overnight there on the side of the mountain?

DAGATA: Well a lot of times that is going to depend on the team itself. And what contact they have with the search operations and the -- the incident command. Basically the weather is still looking very good for tomorrow. And you know that -- that presents a much lower risk as long as they, did bring the equipment that they -- that they, to stay out overnight if possible. And for that matter we've had teams that have had to be out and hike through the night or work through the night with headlamps to do rescues. So it's not unusual. It happens when we do mountain rescue.

WHITFIELD: When you talk about the special equipment that these teams would have from ropes, to snow pickets, even, you just mentioned, head lamps. What other kinds of equipment do these rescue teams need to be carrying with them? And how many pounds of equipment are we talking about? Which could really then lead to the kind of exhaustion point that I'm getting to?

DAGATA: Well, mountain rescue teams we train with -- with all of our personal gear that we need for at least an overnight. Which would include typically something to spend the night out, a bidi (ph) sack, and possibly a very small sleeping bag or some other clothing to keep warm. Heat packs. A small stove with fuel to melt snow for water. Energy bars or food. They're going to have crampons, ice axes, they will have all their climbing gear for snow and ice. You know their helmets, head lamps. All their equipment for any kind of weather that might come in.

And they will have rescue equipment as well, including other ropes for evacuations and other equipment. The packs can get pretty heavy. Typically 50 to 70, 80 pounds. Wouldn't be unusual. It all depends on what they brought for the insertion. I believe they were, most of them were placed there by helicopter.

WHITFIELD: How encouraged are you, Mr. Dagata, about this development of a snow cave and some equipment being found near that snow cave?

DAGATA: Well I think that is a good sign. It just depends on whether that is actually from the folks that are missing right now. There is a lot of climbers that climb Mount Hood. A lot of people cache equipment and gear at different times and expect to come down and find it. If you don't, didn't mark it properly with snow wands or some other way to find it you may not find it.

So finding this at this point is a good thing. And hopefully that will be -- maybe some, some good items or some other clues that will help find the three missing climbers.

WHITFIELD: And are you encouraged by the weather forecast over the next couple days?

DAGATA: Well looking at it right now. I am looking at the forecast. It does look good. Not looking at a whole lot of precipitation. The winds look fairly light. And that helps settle out the snow pack. And will allow -- while it will be cold in the evening. Will allow the searchers, a little more visibility and ease of climbing and searching around to see if anybody is -- any clues can be found.

WHITFIELD: Uh-huh. And Mr. Dagata, before I let you go. Just your point of view of this mountain. And it being the kind of challenge that a lot of climbers from experienced to very, very experienced liking to climb. At the same time knowing that -- with the volatility of the weather this is a risky climb as well. Isn't it?

DAGATA: Well, like I say the -- the climbing season for Mt. Hood is typically in the spring time. The Oregon Cascades, it is a very wet, maritime snow pack. They can be very difficult conditions. And depending upon the approach, they came in on the side where basically you may not see the weather coming in from the west-southwest. You know, for any climber, you know that's the big thing. You check the forecast. You go out. And -- you know you make your climb.

And you just don't know. Some times weather can come in. Mount Hood is in particular is being the tallest one in Oregon. It just comes in. It is sitting by itself there and all of the sudden, bam. You are covered in cloud and whiteout. And very difficult conditions.

So, you know not unheard of to do winter climbs. I have friends who do it all the time. I have been up on top, not on top of Mt. hood. But I have climbed around it and other mountains in the Cascades in the wintertime. But you really just have to be careful. Mt. Hood and any mountain for that matter. You just have to weigh the risks of weather versus conditions and abilities and equipment that you take.

WHITFIELD: Jim Dagata, president of the Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit. Thanks for your time. And best of luck to your guy on the team. Joining a number of other organizations and units and outlets to help in this search for these three climbers. The encouraging information here is that one of the Chinook helicopters because the weather cleared up significantly today was able to locate a snow cave. And this was an area of interest yesterday. They were able to kind of narrow in on the search area today. And now we understand a number of rescuers are now soon to descend to this snow cave area. Anywhere between 300 and 1,000 feet below they summit. And they also spotted, some encouraging things, such as an ice spike. And a coil of rope. And even -- even an emergency marker which is a shape of a Y likely carved out by any one of these climbers.

At least that is the hope. A number of teams are taking advantage of the weather. Favorable conditions. Dan Simon is there in Mt. Hood. Even though they believe this, this snow cave is on the north side. Which is likely to get darker than the south side. Dealing with somewhere between three or maybe four more hours of sunlight to try to really take advantage of the good conditions right now. They continue to be optimistic though, don't they, Dan?

SIMON: Exactly. And the captain was saying he felt confident they could reach the snow cave today. And keep in mind this all sort of started last night when -- when the helicopter saw some equipment on the ground. They really couldn't do much with it last night because it was getting too dark. And the weather was sort of whipping up again. The winds were.

So this morning they knew exactly where that area was. And got a helicopter over there. And spotted the snow cave. It gave them absolute confirmation, that's in fact what it is. And as you highlighted -- next to the snow cave they spotted this equipment. The ice spike. Coil of rope. And also this Y signal which is what mountaineers use to show where they are, to show their presence.

So again as we look at pictures here. You see the rescuers here, looks like on a ridge. They're attempting to navigate the very difficult terrain and make their way down to the snow cave.

WHITFIELD: And so, Dan, we have been on the air now with this kind of information for about an hour now. And during some part of the hour we were trying to figure out specifically what we were looking at some of the live pictures and even taped pictures.

So now it is our understanding that this location, perhaps the vantage point right now is at that 11,000-foot summit. And from there they're making that descent? Or is this another staging area?

SIMON: It appears that this is right below the summit. In the Eliot glacier area where the snow cave is thought now cave is thought to be. And it looks like they got some personnel in that area. They used a helicopter to get them off. And they have sort of been making their way down.

We have been told this is a descent towards this area. They're on Eliot glacier. And you are right. Not a whole lot of time. But there is this window of opportunity while we have some daylight for them to get down that area. And what it appears to me - and I'm no expert when it comes to this -- it looks like they're sort of staying put for the moment huddling trying to come up with a game plan. A strategy. Figure the safest and most effective way to get to the area.

WHITIFIELD: And about how many people are involved in this entire rescue mission now?

SIMON: Well, we know that it's dozens of people. You know yesterday you had - the way it was described, I guess about 100 people on the north side and south side of the mountain. But bear in mind. Not only do you have rescuers but you also have the support personnel to get people up on the mountain. You have people driving these snowcats and transporting people to various areas.

You also have some military support. You have the helicopter pilots and the airplane pilots, just a lot of people working this scene. Working this rescue. And finally after several days, been a full week since, one of the climbers Kelly James called his family to say he is in trouble. So finally this rescue, if we can call it that, is going to take place. And you see -- there on your screen -- at the top of that ridge there some rescuers attempting to reach that snow cave, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: And then what about communication? How do you ensure that all of these units of rescue teams are able to communicate with one another? Particularly, we're talking about the very high peaks. What is your understanding how they're able to convey information. Relay details to one another?

SIMON: I don't have the information for that. But we have been hearing some traffic over the scanners. So, I believe they're using walkie-talkies to communicate with one another. And Fredricka, let me point out one other thing. On your screen a couple minutes ago you saw one of those Black Hawks. And that is the helicopter that will be used if, in fact, they find the climbers. That chopper will take -- the climbers to -- to a hospital in Portland. Onboard that -- onboard that helicopter is a medic. So they are very well prepared for any eventuality that they might find there on the mountain.

WHITFIELD: Dan, I am going to ask you to stand by for a moment. Because also with us is Jim Whitaker, he is the first American to climb Mount Everest in 1963, he is an experienced climber, he has also climbed Mount Rainier 80 times, you know what it is like, Mr. Whitaker, to live in snow caves as well. Try to give us an idea what it is to live in a snow cave, what you have to sustain yourself while you are hunkered down?

JIM WHITAKER, FORMER PRES. AND CEO, REI: Yeah, the snow cave can be a wonderful experience. Basically you get out of the weather. On Mount Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, we dug a snow cave, lived in there several days. You have a nice shelf for your sleeping bag, you have got a little cook shelf. Got your stove. Can find snow to melt for water.

And -- the temperatures are just around freezing. They don't get any, much below that at all. Wind can be 90 miles an hour outside and you barely hear them. So the caves are a good place to get out of weather and -- hunker down. And wait for the good weather to come.

WHITFIELD: Well you know you bring up an interesting point about wind can be 90 miles an hour outside you can't even hear them. We heard the captain talk about if any one of the climbers happens to been the snow cave of interest right now it's very likely they're not hearing the helicopter activity outside. Because this cavernous nook really is rather secure.

WHITAKER: That's correct. The other thing they're not going to be able to find it by air. The snow cave, I have been on in K2 on the second highest mountain in the world. A fellow teammate, dug a cave across from us. Just a few hundred feet. The next morning, snowed that night. The next morning we couldn't find them. We're looking all over for them. Probing. And finally punch a hole into the snow cave. And they woke up. They didn't even hear us outside. So you can be very comfortable inside those caves. And not hear anybody.

So I think they need to do a ground search. The need to have people walking up, probing. In the area that the cave might be in.

WHITFIELD: And it looks like that might be the phase they just might be in according to officials who had a briefing a moment ago. That these dozen or so climbers have been dropped off in the proximity of the snow cave would be making their descent. Maybe 300, maybe 1,000 feet depending on who you talk to, to get to this snow cave. But perhaps a real smart indicator, Mr. Whitaker, which was, having this rope and even this ice spike for the view of these searchers to see. That's how they say they were able to see this snow cave.

So, how vital, how important is it, for a conscientious climber to do that to leave some sort of marker, that hey this is where we are?

WHITAKER: Climbing now you rely more on rescue. But when we climbed we relied on the team to do the rescue or to get out yourself. So I don't think it's necessary to leave those marks. It's OK if you think you are going to really be in trouble. When we climbed mountains in whiteouts, you leave a wand every 30 feet. So that when one person left it. The person on the rope would encounter it before you came to the next one. So you had a stream of wands marking your route up the mountain. Those were a good thing to have. It's OK. To mark your cave. If you are -- think you are going to need help or some one is going to have to come after you. But if you are self-sufficient it is probably not necessary to the mark the cave. Except on a snowstorm. You might come down and not find it until you drop through the roof of the cave. That's happened to a lot of people. They'll walk over the cave they built. Not seeing it. And drop through the roof right into the old cave.

WHITFIELD: Wow. Hey, Mr. Whitaker, are you familiar what conditions are here at Mount Hood. Was this ever a mountain you tried to traverse, climb?

WHITAKER: The weather is good today. It's good visibility. But again. All you are looking at is snow. You can't really see much. So you have to get -- on the ground, on the snow and probe and so forth if you're looking for people.

WHITFIELD: And so these rescue teams that are out there. Well, I guess before I ask you that. Have you been in a tight squeeze before where you were needing rescue?

WHITAKER: Yes. 1960. We needed a rescue on Mount McKinley. One of our team was hurt. We sat up there waiting for it. Then decided to haul him off ourselves. But before we could do that. A chopper came and picked him up. So we didn't have to haul him off.

WHITFIELD: You didn't even have to put out any indicators, maybe, you know, those wands that you were talking about, perhaps you used those. Did you have to leave any kind of markers or anything to let rescuers know?

WHITAKER: We were up on the west face. We were exposed to anybody going over could see our camp. And where we were. So -- but we also had collected cardboard to light - to light the cardboards to send out a smoke signal if we had to. So you do whatever you have to do. But, no -- if you can mark it, of course, you know, the piece of spare clothing, red, there is something to it, but if the snowfall is recent it's going to cover up what they've done. That's the tough part.

WHITFIELD: So even though the conditions look good today and based on how the conditions have been over the last 10 days or so, or week and a half, what do you suppose these rescue teams are up against as they try to make this very sharp descent. I understand there is a lot of ice on this glacier, obviously. There is a lot of deceiving powdery snow. What are they up against in trying to make this delicate, delicate way down to the snow cave?

WHITAKER: There is no problem descending. If they are experienced mountaineers they have got all the equipment, crampons, ice axes, ropes and stuff, they can get off easily. The are not that far above the lodge. Only about an hour, a good hike down to the lodge. Other people were killed up there because they decided to spend the night and not come down. A few years back. They should have made it to the lodge. But didn't. They decided to spend the night. And that's when you begin to get in trouble. What they should be doing, now, is actually probing, be like an avalanche. Looking for people in avalanche. You have got snow covering people. And if you have snow covering you need probes and so forth to begin to look for them.

WHITFIELD: How closely have you been watching this since it all unfolded publicly?

WHITAKER: Well I have heard -- a lot on the radio. I have read it in "The New York Times" and other -- other media. I'm not watching it that closely. I just wish them good luck. And think -- you know, good for them. They went out. The got a snow cave. They dug it. They were having fun. They got, they got a problem that they have to get out of. And let's hope they can do it.

WHITFIELD: You note how impressed you are about these three climbers who seemingly were very prepared according to a lot of folks who talked about the kind of equipment they took even though day planned for a day trip. And now this indicator -- again officials say they have no idea what the condition of the these three climbers is even though they have focused on the snow cave. They're really not sure about the whereabouts of the climbers.

Still, the kind of information we have learned about the climbers and the rescue teams, the kind of equipment they have been bringing with them. How impressed have you been about preparedness seemingly of all this?

WHITAKER: I think, I can't -- I'm not there. I can't really pass judgment on -- on what they're doing or what's been done should have been done so forth. My own experience is that you do the best you can. But the nature is a great teacher. And you learn a lot from what nature doles out. Sometimes, you might not be lucky. Other times you learn. And learn not to make the same mistake again. I certainly have done it. A lot of mountaineers have done that and realized that sometimes you are on the edge. And that, I think, it sort of comes with the experience.

WHITFIELD: Mr. Jim Whitaker, thank you so much for your time and your insight. Former president and CEO of REI, Recreational Equipment Incorporated where a lot of folks associate getting all their outdoor equipment at many of your former chain stores. As well as, you know, we applaud appreciate you sharing with us some of your experience after having climbed Mount Rainier 80 times as well as being the first American to climb Mount Everest in 1963.

WHITAKER: Thank you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Thank you so much.

WHITAKER: You bet. Dan Simon back with us now out of Mount Hood. Bring us up to date, Dan.

SIMON: Well, Fredricka we are joined by Captain Chris Bernard who has a tremendous amount of experience when it comes to these type of operations. As we look here at the screen, and we saw a group of these rescuers up there on the ridge. Describe what are they trying to do at this point?

CAPT. CHRIS BERNARD, 304TH AIR FORCE RESCUE SQUADRON: Just to borrow a term, this is a shock and awe of rescue attempt right now. Based on information last night. We had a defined target. We knew where it was and are going after it. Many organizations are involved. Presently all at once. We have Portland Mountain Rescue, the 304th Rescue Squadron, Mount Hood, Hood River Crag Rats, we have the 1042nd, the helicopters, the Chinooks out of Pendleton. We are making a huge attempt to get where we believe is the best chance of the survivors' location.

SIMON: And you feel like you zeroed in on the snow cave today. During the press conference it was asked that if the climbers are in there would they be able to hear the surrounding aircraft and essentially crawl out and wave their arms and say, "Here we are."

BERNARD: Of course that is possible. But after this much time, it's, also very possible that they're too weak to do that. So we have -- everything, every capability up there to recover these survivors and treat them and immediately we have action plan. With the hospitals in Portland. And we are ready to go.

SIMON: In terms of the amount of time it is going to take to reach that location, to reach that snow cave. What are we looking at here?

BERNARD: It's difficult. But I imagine this will go right on into the night fall. And hopefully, you know, the risk of danger increases greatly at night. So our, our goal is to get this done before nightfall.

SIMON: Looking at the TV here. It's tough for any of us to appreciate how difficult it is to descend to that area. Talk about the risks inherent with something like that?

BERNARD: The risks just starting with aircraft ability. We are at near maximum capabilities of the aircraft. This is an 11,234-foot mountain. The conditions are sunny and clear but there are still winds and other hazardous factors to the air crew. There is avalanche risk. Steep slope. Ice. It's -- it's a tough one.

SIMON: Fredricka asked me earlier how the rescuers are able to communicate with each other and how they are able to communicate with the folks on the ground. What are they doing?

BERNARD: We actually have the 125th Special Tactics Squadron and also international guard out of Portland that we work with quite a bit. They're handling a lot of communications issue, air to ground, ground-to-air, also each of the climbers, every one up there is equipped with radio talk inter-team and talk with the air crew.

SIMON: In terms of the operation that is taking place. The way it's been characterized is the helicopter essentially landed. The rescuers got off the helicopter. And are now attempting to make the trek to the snow cave. Is that correct?

BERNARD: That is correct. We're not - the snow cave isn't defined at this time. But all the target indicators of the climbing rope, anchors, and you know we put this altogether and the pieces. We really believe this is it.

SIMON: You have been involved with missions like this. Tell us what must be going through the rescuers' mind at this point. I mean they've been attempting to do this for the last several days. The fact that we now have clear weather I imagine that their adrenaline is pumping?

BERNARD: Yeah, this is, a horse at the beginning of a race at the starting gate. And these guys, that's what they're waiting for. And when we got this break the morale was high. And this is it.

SIMON: Well, we're listening here to Captain Chris Bernard. And Fredricka feel free to chime in here at any moment. We have him hooked up here. So he can hear the audio. But we are looking at the pictures. And there you really get a perspective in terms of how steep this is. And captain is joining us as we're watching this unfold.

And as he said, they're going to be up here for the next several hours attempting this trek to the snow cave. In terms of, in terms of where we are today -- if it gets dark are they still going to be on the mountain?

BERNARD: Yeah, the rescue will continue until we exceed rescuing capabilities of the climbers, of course. And that's up to them right now. The climbers right now, they're where it is at. And that's where the decision is.

SIMON: Well, Fredricka, I will toss it back to you.

WHITFIELD: Well, Dan, let me ask, the captain then. When you talk about - you leave it up to the discretion of the rescue climbers to determine if they can endure the conditions even once you lose nightfall. We spoke with some one earlier with the Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit, the president of the group. Saying that his climber is out there prepared for say three nights of being out in the elements. Is that representative of what the majority of these climbers are equipped to do?

BERNARD: Yes. In fact all the climbers and I am primarily speaking for the 304th Rescue Squadron. I know my men and what they're prepared for. And they're prepared for night operations. And each man carries enough equipment to sustain themselves in these conditions for probably two or three days.

WHITFIELD: And how ...

SIMON: We're getting a note ...

WHITFIELD: OK. Go ahead.

SIMON: I was just passed a note from my producer and according to what we heard on radio traffic it says prepared to evacuate the summit at 1600 hours. That would be, 4:00 local time. In about 2 hours. What does that mean to you, captain? BERNARD: It is difficult to comment on that. It depends where it came from. You know just to speculate a little bit. I imagine they are looking at limitations of the helicopter, fuel, that sort of thing. And you know -- some limitations come apparent whether from the climbers, or from the aircraft. I'm not sure. And that's a decision that is on going at site with, I've got to say, the heroes on the mountain right now.

SIMON: How many people would you say are devoted to this mission?

BERNARD: It's difficult to say. I know, I was counting military. Involved between 125th STS, and the 304th, I think we are up to approaching 30 military there. We have additional, on the helicopter crews, another 15 military there. And then, I'm not sure of the numbers but I imagine it's at least around 50.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A dozen additional.

BERNARD: Yes, yes.

SIMON: Thank you for joining us. Fredricka? As we continue ...

WHITFIELD: Before you let the captain go. I do have one more question -- I'm wondering, captain, it's been about an hour and a half now since at least the information became public for all of us that you were focusing on this target area. And since those climbers have been dropped off in the area nearest the snow cave do you have any estimation as to how far they have been able to travel, how much closer they may be to that snow cave now?

BERNARD: Not really. And I just want to clarify. We are not sure of the snow cave. But ...

WHITFIELD: What do you mean you aren't sure?

BERNARD: We're just letting them -- well there was some indications, some holes and whatnot. But that's still information, that's what we are doing. We're confirming that information right now.

SIMON: That is a bit different than what we had heard over the past, you know, 30 minutes or so. We had been told that clearly this was a snow cave. And that next to it was some equipment. But now you are not so sure that is in fact that's what it was?

BERNARD: I haven't been updated that that is a snow cave or they found the snow cave. So that's information I am not aware of.

SIMON: But clearly, there are a lot of signs, some evidence that is in fact that's what it is based upon the proximity, the latitude and longitude what you were able to acquire from the cell phone pings in addition to the equipment that you saw in the snow.

BERNARD: It is very high suspicion that is snow caves there, yes. SIMON: I'm looking behind me.

WHITFIELD: Is there -- Sorry, go ahead.

SIMON: I was just going to say looks like we'll have a press conference here in the next few minutes. Is that your understanding captain?

BERNARD: I'm not sure. I came over here for you. But likely will be.

WHITFIELD: OK.

SIMON: Fredricka, go ahead.

WHITFIELD: Captain Bernard, real quick, if in the past hour and a half or maybe longer that these teams are moving towards investigating whether it is indeed a snow cave do you think it's been -- you know, 20 feet they have been able to cover, 100 feet, is there any estimation like that to give us a sense?

BERNARD: My estimation ...

WHITFIELD: How long it's been taking?

BERNARD: My estimation is that they're at the target area. I can see from the video. You know they -it looks like they have made it down to the area. But I have not had a report yet. What they found.

WHITFIELD: OK.

BERNARD: In terms of the target.

WHITFIELD: Sorry.

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