As wind and snow pounded the summit of Mt. Shasta on Sunday, Mark Thomas tried to keep his climbing partner alive.
Each time Thomas "Tom" Bennett Jr. faded on him, Thomas tried to bring him back with a question.
How is your eyesight? How are you doing? What sort of food did you eat last?
"He responded less as time went on," Thomas said in a phone interview Friday.
When the brain teasers failed and Bennett stopped answering, Thomas switched to cardiopulmonary resuscitation and called 911 about 9 a.m.
For close to 45 minutes, Thomas tried to breathe and squeeze life back into Bennett Jr. after an emergency dispatcher told him weather would likely keep rescuers from climbing to their perch close to the 14,179-foot mountain's summit.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK THOMAS
Thomas Bennett Jr. ice-climbs at Lake Tahoe.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK THOMAS
Mark Thomas ice-climb at Lake Tahoe in March.
While Thomas was able to walk down from the mountain Monday, Bennett Jr. remained there until Thursday when rescuers removed his frozen body from a snow cave. Still evaluating the experience and the weekend's decisions, Thomas said he and Bennett Jr. were prepared for the high altitude and he is still shocked by his partner's rapid, fatal decline in health.
"This was a very unfortunate accident," he said.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, Thomas, 26, said he'd been climbing mountains since 2000. Since his first climb up 9,026-foot Mt. Olympus, which towers over Salt Lake City, Thomas went on to top about 130 different peaks.
Those include mountains in the Appalachians, the Rockies, the Wasatch and the Cascades. Two summers ago, Thomas climbed Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. He'd also spent the night at a summit before, recently making it a New Year's tradition on Mt. Olympus.
Attempting about a mountain per month, Thomas said he enjoys climbing in winter and early spring.
"The snow just makes it a very different challenge," he said.
Relatively close to his home in Berkeley, Mt. Shasta became a wintertime favorite for Thomas. He said he'd summitted Mt. Shasta three different times and had been on all the approaches to the mountain, except the northwest face - which he and Bennett Jr. challenged last weekend.
A climbing bond
Thomas and Bennett Jr. met at a barbecue put on by the Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society, a Berkeley-based outdoor group. Thomas earned a graduate degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley last year and Bennett Jr.'s girlfriend was now going to graduate school at the university. Also 26, Bennett Jr., shared Thomas's passion for mountains although he had not topped as many peaks.
A Canadian, Bennett Jr., moved to Oakland last fall and worked for a mining company as a chemical engineer - a job that took him to work sites high in the Andes mountains of Bolivia. Thomas also was an engineer, checking software for Berkeley-based Computers & Structures Inc.
Their scientific interests added to their bond and made them good climbers, said Tom Bennett Sr., Bennett Jr.'s father.
"They both were engineers; they were meticulous," he said.
Before coming to the north state on March 25 to climb Mt. Shasta, Thomas said he checked two sources to gauge the potential weather. One was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast for the mountain and the other was a combined avalanche and weather advisory produced by the Mount Shasta Avalanche Center, which is compiled by U.S. Forest Service climbing rangers.
Work meetings and other responsibilities delayed the pairs' departure from the San Francisco Bay Area, so Thomas and Bennett Jr. didn't start their trip until 4 p.m. They made it to the road leading to the Northgate trailhead after dark and decided to sleep in their car at about 5,000 feet - and a five-mile snowshoe trek from the trailhead - which was covered in snow.
Although the delay shifted Thomas and Bennett Jr.'s initial plans for the long weekend, moving their planned summit attempt from Friday to Saturday, Thomas said everything else was going smoothly.
On Friday, they started out at 5 a.m., made a base camp at 9,800 feet and then climbed to about 13,000 feet on the mountain before returning to camp. Thomas said the focus of the trip was to test their skills on the crevasse-riddled glaciers of the north face and climbing to the summit was only an option.
But he and Bennett Jr. had done a previous climb on Mt. Shasta the weekend of Jan. 9 - going up Sargents Ridge on the mountain's south face - and didn't make it to the top because the route was more difficult than they expected.
It was about 2 p.m. and they were at about 12,000 feet when Saturday, the pair decided to climb to the summit. They knew their descent would be in the dark.
Caught in the storm
They reached Mt. Shasta's summit at sundown, and it was there that their glorious day of climbing ended and the fatal ordeal began.
While there had been some "annoying" light winds on the climb up, it was howling at the top of Mt. Shasta, Thomas said.
"It was only the top 50 feet that the winds really picked up," he said.
The only way to stand up in the wind was to lean at a 45-degree angle, Thomas said. And travel was almost impossible.
"You had to be on your hands and knees to move directly against the wind," he said.
The two weighed their options: go back the way they had come, try a less technical route on the south face, or stay near the summit. They decided to stay.
Thomas said they built a wind block with snow and hunkered down for the night.
Time to descend
The pair was ready for their night on the mountaintop, Thomas said. Although they hadn't brought a tent, they had enough warm jackets, pads and other gear to be comfortable despite the cold. The temperature was in the low teens.
In between bits of sleep, the two talked about the great day of climbing and how they would descend the mountain. They agreed that if either showed signs of altitude sickness, they'd go down Avalanche Gulch, the most popular and easily traversed route on Mt. Shasta.
After the sun rose Sunday, the weather broke, giving Thomas and Bennett Jr. a chance to drop down from the summit. But as Bennett Jr. went to put on his crampons he began to struggle. He said his vision was going. He could barely stand.
Bennett Jr. tried to fight through his internal fog and make his way down the mountain on the Avalanche Gulch route, but soon was unable to walk.
Thomas said he tried to carry Bennett Jr. but couldn't lug his 175 pounds down the slippery decline.
The weather was again turning stormy so Thomas dug a snow cave and helped Bennett Jr. into the shelter. Soon he called 911.
Decision to leave
Thomas said he left Bennett Jr. after it appeared he'd died and his CPR efforts failed to revive him. The storm was starting to dump snow onto the mountain and he realized he needed to get down for his own safety.
Days later, he's still examining the events. He said he and Bennett Jr. prepared for their climb by taking weekend trips above 8,000 to 9,000 feet over the month before it.
He said they watched their bodies' signals and all showed they were acclimatized. He said he plans to talk to doctors to learn what might have happened to Bennett Jr.
Will climb again
Despite the "shocking" experience on Mt. Shasta, Thomas said he will continue to climb.
He compared the event to a T-bone car wreck. The victim didn't expect it, might not have been able to prevent it, but it won't stop them from driving.
"I don't see it as a reason to stop climbing," Thomas said. "Both Tom and I were aware of the dangers and risks - sometimes bad things happen."
Reporter Dylan Darling can be reached at 225-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.