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The Climber Search Story We Did Not Tell

by Pat Dooris

Bio | Email | Follow: @PatDoorisKGW

Posted on December 29, 2006 at 5:54 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:39 PM


By Pat Dooris

There's one story we did not tell during the rescue attempts for three climbers on Mt. Hood.

But we tried.

In the midst of the worst weather yet on Mt. Hood, Oregon, the brother of stranded mountain climber Kelly James proclaimed to the world that he and his family had not lost hope.

"We have faith in God," Frank James said.

But he added, "there is little doubt---that our faith is being refined these days. We understand how severe these weather conditions are--but our faith remains strong," he said.

Frank James made those comments December 13, 2006.

Four days later, December 17, search teams found the body of his brother, Kelly James, in a snow cave near the mountain's summit.

The bodies of his two climbing partners are still missing as I write this on December 29th.

I met and interviewed Frank during the search for his brother and was moved by his faith.

We don't often do stories that deal with spirituality and God but those are obviously central parts of the James family life.

I was pleased when I pitched the story the next day here at KGW TV and News Director Rod Gramer gave the green light to do it.

Unfortunately, it never ran. The wind storm hit Portland and the Northwest that night, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands and toppling hundreds of trees.

But I still think its an important story---and the way the James family clung to their faith is something we can all learn from, according to the experts.

To report the story, I went to Providence Hospital in Portland and interviewed two chaplins, both Roman Catholic priests, who deal with loss, grief and faith on a daily basis.

Fr. Herb Wheatley remembers 20 years ago when he was chaplin at the hospital. On a terrible spring day seven students and one adult died during a climbing disaster involving the Oregon Epilscopal School on Mt. Hood.

Rescue crews rushed one of the survivors, 16 year old Giles Thompson, to Providence Hospital.

Fr. Wheatley said faith helped Thompson's mother as she struggled with the tragedy.

"Alot of times what I find is that people get through almost imposible experiences simply on the faith experience," said Wheatley.

"They trust that this God who they are related to in some way---thru a religous tradition, has been there for them in the past and he will be there in the present," said Wheately.

During the search for the Kelly James, Brian Hall, and Jerry "Nikko" Cooke, priests at Providence Hospital prayed for climbers and their families daily at mass.

Fr. Jon Buffington, another chaplin at Providence says faith is the thing that gives people balance in a crisis.

"Alot of times when some great tragedy strikes you're just totally disoriented," he said. "But if you have a faith in a higher power in God--a church faith---a faith community--- there's a place to go grab hands...a place to hold on to to keep you with a sense of balance," he said.

The faith of Frank James and his family was on display each day of the search. They openly talked of God and praying as a group for their missing loved ones.

Fr. Buffington says many Christians are comforted by feeling God is there with them during their trials.

"In some traditions God is way out there and doesent really care. He's the watch maker. Sets it in motion and goes away," he said.

"But Christians believe God is very personal," said Fr. Buffington. "He's with us in the midst of what we're going through."

Karen James seemed to exemplify that when she spoke to reporters about the faith of the missing men and their connection with God.

"We are so blessed to know them and they all love God so much. And we know that God is with them, God is watching over them and that he is going to watch over them in this, one of the most difficult times of our lives," she said.

Fr. Buffington says the James' family faith will give them some comfort as they grieve.

"Remember that people who are lost are not really alone. They may be lost to us but they can never be really lost to our loving God," said Fr. Buffington. "And that gives me comfort, I know it gives comfort to their families with their strong faiths."