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updated: 2/16/2010 12:21 PM

Rescuers struggle to reach man in Mount St. Helens

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SEATTLE -- Rescuers struggled against bad weather Tuesday to reach a climber who fell 1,500 feet into the dormant crater of Mount St. Helens, but they faced uncertain prospects after observers in helicopters reported seeing no movement by the man.

Two attempts to reach climber Joseph Bohlig, 52, of Kelso by helicopter were turned back Monday by winds and fading daylight.

"There was no movement of the head, no attempt to signal," said Lt. Brooks Crawford, the pilot of a Coast Guard helicopter. He said the man's torso was covered with snow, with his arms, legs and head sticking out.

The National Weather Service said the overnight temperature on the mountain likely dropped to the upper 20s.

A helicopter from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was dispatched Tuesday despite lingering clouds and winds on the mountain. An avalanche danger prevented a ground rescue attempt.

Bohlig had been standing on the rim of the crater with a climbing partner when a snow overhang gave way and he fell into the volcano, Skamania County Undersheriff David Cox said.

Other climbers called 911. Bohlig's climbing partner made it safely down the mountain.

Bohlig was alive and blowing a rescue whistle soon after the fall. He had climbed the volcano 68 times before Monday's accident, Cox said.

The operation was still considered a rescue mission and not yet an effort to recover a body.

North Country Emergency Medical Services Chief Tom McDowell said two rescuers in a private helicopter were unable to land close to Bohlig on Monday. The Coast Guard helicopter also reported no signs of life.

Crawford said Bohlig fell into an area between the slope of the crater wall and a magma dome on the crater floor.

The pilot said he had to leave the mountain because his helicopter didn't have enough power to hover at that altitude in those conditions.

The volcano about 100 miles south of Seattle exploded in a massive eruption in 1980 but has been quiet in recent years.

The U.S. Forest Service said the climbing route provides views of the crater, lava dome and eruption area. Most climbers can complete the round trip in seven to 12 hours.

The trail reaches an elevation of 8,365 feet. Climbers are advised to stay well back from the rim due to its instability.

McDowell, who has been with the local emergency agency for 39 years, said the only other time a person fell from the rim was in 2008 when a snow cornice gave way under a snowmobiler. He was rescued by a helicopter and suffered a knee injury.

About 13,000 people climb the mountain each year, mostly in the summer months.