Friends call missing climber Cooke a natural survivor

Friends call missing climber Cooke a natural survivor

NEW YORK (AP) - As the grim search continued for two climbers missing on Oregon's highest peak, friends said New Yorker Jerry "Nikko" Cooke was a natural survivor.

"He had a tremendous work ethic," said Dr. Victor Lopez, a longtime friend of Cooke who was waiting for word on his missing friend Monday night. "He is a survivor. His character would not permit him to give up."

Cooke and Lopez were college roommates at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in the late 1980s. They traveled the world together and shared a love for the outdoors, taking rock climbing courses together in New Hampshire.

"When you saw the twinkle in his smile, you knew you wanted to be friends forever," Lopez said. "He would truly give you the jacket off his back."

Cooke, 36, took the passion to a higher scale, attending mountain climbing courses whenever he could and eventually becoming an expert ice climber. Never mind he was born and raised in the middle of one of the biggest patches of concrete in the world.

Cooke, a Wall Street attorney, was raised by his mother, a Korean immigrant, in the city's Chinatown neighborhood in a basement apartment of a building he now owns. His mother, Maria Kim, worked in a nail salon to support him.

His credo was: You can do anything you want to but just make sure that you are back in time for work.

"'The world is in front of you,' he would say," Lopez recalled.

Last June, Cooke was part of a group climbing Mount Rainier when he crossed paths with Kelly James, 48, and Brian Hall, 37, both of Dallas.

The trio forged an instant bond, based on their love of climbing, and shared an adventurous spirit and deep faith in God, friends said.

Soon after Cooke arrived home from the Rainier trip, the three men began e-mailing each other, planning their next adventure: a climb of Oregon's highest peak, Mount Hood.

"They immediately connected like lifelong brothers," said Jessica Nunez, a friend of the James family.

They meticulously planned the trip, discussing weather and strategies for months. James had his equipment sprawled out in his living room for weeks.

"They just didn't get up and go on a climbing trip," Nunez said.

The three began their climb Dec. 8. They were attempting the treacherous north side of Mount Hood, planning to spend a few days on the mountain. On Dec. 10, James made a cell phone call to his family, saying the climbing party was in trouble and his companions had gone for help.

Searchers found ropes and anchors that they believed the climbers used to cling to the side of the mountain during high winds. Gusts of up to 100 mph were reported during a storm that hit the area over the weekend the climbers disappeared.

On Monday, searchers recovered the body of James in a snow cave.

As the search continued for Cooke and Hall, Lopez kept vigil with family members including Cooke's mother and wife, Michaela Cooke.

"Kelly, Brian and Nikko shared a passion and reverence for climbing," Cooke's wife said at a news conference. "The bond they forged between them will last for all eternity."

Lopez, who was the best man at their wedding in 2004, said it was Cooke's passion for adventure and his love of beauty that led him to the mountain. 

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)