Climber's Widow Tells Her Story

Karen James and Katie Couric

Karen James knew her husband Kelly's passion was climbing. After all, he proposed to her atop Seattle's Mount Rainer.

She had good reason to hold on to hope. The 48-year-old landscape architect was a 25-year veteran mountaineer who had already successfully scaled some of the most treacherous summits in the world.

But on Sunday, 12 days after Kelly James and his two companions, Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke, began their hazardous trek up Mount Hood, his family's worst fears were realized.

Though an autopsy revealed no broken bones, officials have speculated some kind of injury led him to take refuge in the snow cave that would become his tomb. But James, a father of four children, chose not to tell his family about the gravity of his situation when he placed his last cell phone call to them on Dec. 10.

CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric sat down for an exclusive interview with Karen James.

Karen James: It's the kind of a call that you would never want to receive. And so, we both were acting, and it was like there was nothing wrong. I could tell by his voice that he was in trouble. And I told him I just decorated the Christmas tree and that he needed to come home and see it. He said he would. And I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. And I told him to stay warm and stay awake.

Katie Couric: He told you he was cold and only had a half an orange?

James: He told the boys that, that he was cold and he was wet and he was weak.

Couric: Karen, it was a week between that last cell phone conversation and when Kelly was found. I can't imagine what that week was like for you.

James: Every morning, the only thing I wanted to do was try to save my husband. And from the moment I woke up till the moment I went to bed, I would talk to him and tell him to hold on. It was all-consuming. But I'll tell you, the rescue workers, the Sheriff's Department, everybody up there, it was a family. It was in the worst of the worst we saw the best of the best.

Couric: Karen, when word came that they had found Kelly, what did they tell you?

James: The sheriff came in and he said, "I have bad news. We have a body and it's deceased. And we need to identify it." I said, "look for Kelly's ring." The rescue worker that came to see Frank, he found Kelly, he said that when he walked into the cave it was so peaceful, and so serene. And there was Kelly. He was lying on his side with his head on his pack like we've seen a million times when he's been camping. And he had taken off his right glove, and he folded every finger back except the signature ring and put it out. And he knew. He wanted to be identified, and he wanted to come home to us. And when we told the kids, they were so proud of him because he had, he was still thinking of us, to say "look who I am, and it's time to come home."

Couric: Is there any part of you that's angry that he did this?

James: I'm not angry. I'm really sad our journey is over, for a while. And I miss him terribly. But he loved life so much, and he taught me how to love. He taught me how to live. And I don't know how you can be angry at someone who loved their family, who loved God, and had so many friends and gave back so much more than he took.

Couric: Kelly had four children when you all got married. His kids range from 12 to 25, and Jack's just 12.

James: Kelly loved his kids more than life itself. The kids were everything to him. Kelly taught them so much.

Couric: How do you think Kelly would want people to remember him?

James: Kelly was the biggest optimist you'd ever meet. And Kelly really wanted people to seize the day and he lived every day to the fullest, love as much as you can, live as much as you can and appreciate people around you. And he's taught me that, and he's taught the kids that. And that's why I kind of feel I hit the lottery of life in men because I got to take a journey, and it wasn't long enough, but I got to take a journey with a man who just took me to the moon the back. And I'm very thankful for that.

James: Kelly had this little ornament, and he's had it since he was little. And it's a manger. It's just this little plastic thing. And it's always the tradition that Jack and Kelly put it on the tree together. And so I said this Christmas, we're going to put that ornament on the tree. And one of the things that we really understand about Christmas is that little baby born in a barn is the reason our family has so much strength now. And that is really important to Kelly.

Couric: It sounds as if your faith was strengthened by this whole ordeal. But it must have been tested, too.

James: No, it was never tested. And Kelly said, you know, I remember one time we were watching TV and he said to me, "I can't wait to go to heaven." And I said, "What?" We were watching some show that had nothing to do with it. And he said, "Yeah, that's going to be really cool." And I said, "You know, can you, can you hold off? Can we ... can we wait?" But he wasn't scared. And so those conversations are what I hold on to.

Couric: Is there any lesson for either other climbers or just for people in general from what's happened?

James: I've told a friend, a colleague of mine who I work with, hold your wives really, really tight because you don't know when our journey's going to end. And my journey ended with an 'I love you." And ... for others, if their journey ends with an "I love you," it's a lot to hold onto.

Tune in to Friday's The Early Show for more of the interview.