Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Dec. 8, 2021

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Storm again thwarts search for Central Oregon climber

The Columbian

PORTLAND — Bad weather on Friday again kept searchers from getting near the summit of Middle Sister mountain in Central Oregon, where a climber has been missing for two days with what a rescue leader describes as marginal gear for winter survival.

Climber Benjamin Newkirk, 39, of Bend, Ore., was descending in the darkness Wednesday evening when he fell at a site about 500 feet below the summit of the 10,000-foot peak, and his partner couldn’t tell where he had gone, authorities said.

On Thursday, a rescue party faced winds up to 60 mph and white-out conditions, and had to turn back about 3,000 feet below the climber’s presumed location, said John Miller, search and rescue coordinator in Lane County.

Miller said the temperature Thursday morning at the trailhead at 5,000 feet was 16 degrees.

On Friday, Miller said conditions were no more favorable and there would be “no boots on the ground.”

He said a National Guard helicopter might go up if conditions improved to look for signs of life and, if feasible, attempt a rescue via ropes. Regional mountaineering groups were prepared for ascents if weather conditions improve as expected, he said.

Miller said Newkirk was on an up-and-down climb Wednesday and not preparing to spend the night on the mountain.

The efforts as of Friday were considered rescue operations, Miller said. However, if the rescue teams judge that the situation has come down to recovering a body, they will balance their efforts against the risk, he said.

“The real-world situation is that if he’s deceased, he’ll be up there until spring when the snow melts off,” Miller said.

Middle Sister is one of three volcanic peaks that are tightly spaced along the crest of the Cascade Range about 100 miles southeast of Portland. The other two peaks are North Sister and South Sister.

They are at the center of a region popular with backpackers, climbers, skiers and other outdoor recreationists.

Mountaineering websites describe ascents of Middle Sister as non-technical climbs through glacial routes.

Miller said rescue operations there are more difficult than at Mount Hood in northern Oregon, a site of frequent winter searches for missing climbers.

At Mount Hood, rescue teams have ready access via a ski area high on the mountain, he said, whereas parties heading for Middle Sister have to hike for 7 miles through the Three Sisters Wilderness Area.