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Ground search for 2 missing Ore. climbers halted

GOVERNMENT CAMP, Ore. - GOVERNMENT CAMP, Ore. (AP) — Rescuers on Mount Hood who have recovered the body of one climber say "time is critical" in the hunt for his two companions, but all but ruled out a ground search for them Monday because the risks of an avalanche on Oregon's tallest peak were too great.

The search crews are hoping for a break in the foul weather by midday Monday to see if they can mount another aerial search.

"They can't take to the hill because the avalanche danger is extreme, more so than yesterday," said Detective Jim Strovink of the Clackamas County sheriff's office.

Risk of an avalanche prevented teams of rescuers from searching the mountain on foot Sunday. An overnight storm dumped seven inches of snow on the daunting 11,249-foot mountain, raising the avalanche danger. Forecasters expect another storm to sweep in late Monday afternoon, dropping 12 to 18 inches of snow on Mount Hood.

Rescuers held out the possibility a helicopter could lower a rescuer to inspect the immediate search area, and will examine photos taken from Sunday's aerial search.

Authorities say they have not given up hope that Anthony Vietti, 24, of Longview, Wash., and Katie Nolan, 29, of Portland, could still be found alive, calling them experienced climbers. But rescuers were mindful that "time is critical now," Strovink said Sunday.

Mountaineers found the body of their companion, Luke T. Gullberg, 26, of Des Moines, Wash., on Saturday.

The three mountaineers had begun their ascent on the west side of the mountain about 1 a.m. Friday and were due back late that afternoon, but failed to return. On Saturday, crews found Gullberg's body on a glacier. A forensic examination was planned. No details were released on how he died or the condition of the body.

His equipment also was found scattered around the glacier, including a camera with at least 20 photos of the climbers. Crews have looked over the photos for landmarks and other clues to the location of the two missing climbers.

"It looked like they were confident and having a good time," Strovink said of the photographs.

The final frames of the photos appeared to show that the climbers were at the 10,000-foot level, not too far from the summit, Erik Broms, a Portland Mountain Rescue team leader, told the Oregonian newspaper for Monday editions.

Steve Rollins, another Portland Mountain Rescue leader, told the newspaper that rescuers believe the missing climbers could still be alive, saying that details from the photos led them to believe that Vietti and Nolan have survival equipment with them.

Relatives of the three climbers were gathered at Timberline Lodge, a ski lodge on Mount Hood and a staging area for the rescuers, to await more news. The climbers met through church activities, said Dennis Simons, a nondenominational volunteer chaplain for the police and fire departments in nearby Sandy.

Simons said the experience of Nolan and Vietti also was giving their relatives hope. He said Nolan had made the summit of other Cascade Range peaks, and the three had climbed together before. "They know how to survive in the snow," Simons said.

Mount Hood is a popular site among climbers in the United States. In 25 years, it has been the site of dozens of climbing accidents and fatalities. The worst on record happened in May 1986 when nine people — seven students from Oregon Episcopal School and two adults — died after they dug a snow cave during a sudden storm.

The latest search, which comes almost exactly three years after another trio of experienced climbers died on Mount Hood during a December 2006 blizzard, has generated heated debate among some about the wisdom of tackling the mountain during the winter, a season when brutal storms can move in quickly.

In an online discussion for climbers at www.summitpost.org, some said it's irresponsible even for experienced climbers to take on Mount Hood during the winter while others said the challenge of winter mountaineering is what brings them to Mount Hood.

Veteran climber Jim Whittaker, the first American to conquer Mount Everest, said he understands why climbers like the challenge of tackling Mount Hood in the winter.

"It's exciting and fun when your testing yourself against the power of nature," Whittaker said in an interview from his home in Port Townsend, Wash. "But you've got to know what you're doing; you've got to be prepared."

Republican John Lim, a former legislator who's running for governor, said Sunday he plans to keep pushing for a state law to require mountaineers to carry electronic locator devices when they head for the summit of Mount Hood.

Many rescuers and mountaineers oppose such a requirement, saying it would create a false sense of security and prompt some climbers to take risks they otherwise would avoid.

In the latest case, the three climbers did not have a radio locator beacon but they did have a cell phone that was briefly activated as they were preparing to begin their ascent.

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Associated Press Writer Brad Cain contributed to this report from Salem, Ore.

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