Karen James became a widow as the world watched in December 2006. Two years have passed since rescuers lifted the body of her husband, Kelly James, from a cave near the summit of Mount Hood. Karen still lives in their White Rock-area home, and says that the house feels right, because they made it together. On her kitchen table sits a copy of her newly published book, “Holding Fast: The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy”.
Tell us about the home you and Kelly built before his death.
When we moved in here, we didn’t have enough money for art so I started painting. I usually locked myself up here and painted while he was away climbing. Every time he’d come home from a trip, he’d have a story, and I’d have a new painting. Outside is an area he designed and built — the spa and deck — where, as a family [with Kelly’s children Katie, Jack, Jason and Ford], we spent many nights. Everything in the house is a reminder of the time we had together.
Did you fear his hobby?
He’d been climbing for 25 years when I met him. It was a part of who he was — a part of the family. In fact, he proposed to me on Mount Rainier. Because I have been on a mountain with him, I understand his behavior. Later, that understanding helped me write the book.
He wasn’t intimidated, but he took it very seriously. I had, in fact, been furious with him that trip because he had forced us to turn back from the summit due to weather conditions. We had spoken candidly about life and death and the dangers of his sport. Kelly was very close to God, loved living life with passion, and was not afraid of death.
The search for Kelly and his friends got so much national attention. how did that affect you?
There were a lot of people on that mountain with me — rescue workers, police and reporters — all with one sole purpose in mind, to get these three men off that mountain. Everybody wanted that Christmas miracle. No one wanted to give up. When it was over, I went home, shut down, and drew on my faith. That is the only way I survived, knowing that one day, the answer to “why, God?” would be revealed. And I decided to live my life in a way that would make Kelly proud.
Hence, the book?
Yes, I think he would be proud of me for showing that even in the most horrendous and painful situation, you find blessings and acts of unbelievable compassion, even from strangers. The sheriff and the rescue workers helped me immensely that day, and later in writing the book. So many people approached me wondering what really happened. With help from Sheriff [Joseph] Wampler, I was able to find out. And in the process, I realized miracles occurred during those days. When we got Kelly’s cell phone records, we saw that he had been trying all that day to call 911 and me. Over and over, not getting through to either. But that afternoon, when two of his children happened to be right here, he got through. We were all three able to talk to him one last time.
What do you want people to know about your husband?
That he was a person with a zest for life. He took so much interest in people. He loved his children, and watching the sun set and the flowers bloom — he got so excited about the little things. And that was contagious. It taught me to slow down and enjoy life, too.
—Christina Hughes Babb