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Oakland climber found dead on Mount Shasta

Justin Berton, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, April 2, 2010





Courtesy Bennett family

Tom Bennett of Oakland, an experienced climber, was found dead near the summit of Mount Shasta.

(04-01) 11:30 PDT MOUNT SHASTA, SISKIYOU COUNTY -- Mark Thomas did not want to leave his friend.

But he didn't want to die, either.

"If I'd stayed with him any longer," Thomas told The Chronicle, "I would likely be up there with him."

Thomas, 26, of Berkeley, had climbed to the top of Mount Shasta with Oakland resident Tom Bennett, 26, whose body was recovered by searchers Thursday morning, five days after Thomas left him in a snow cave just below the summit during a fierce storm.

On Thursday afternoon, Thomas visited with friends in San Francisco. His cheeks were still sunburned, his lips still cracked from the ordeal.

He's in a conflicted state: a mix of grief for his friend, relief that he survived, and dogged by an unrelenting loop of second-guessed decisions.

Thomas is convinced that Bennett suffered from acute altitude sickness, also known as high altitude cerebral edema. The condition strikes quickly and can render a victim unconscious in minutes. Authorities said an autopsy will determine the cause of death.

"It hit him like a brick," Thomas said. "It came on so fast, and he deteriorated so quickly. ... Even if the weather was perfect, this would have happened."

Complementary strengths

Thomas and Bennett met about seven months ago through a local climbing club, and were complementary climbing partners. Bennett was a stronger ice climber and more confident leading on the rope; Thomas, a superior alpine climber, had more endurance thanks to sometimes training on a Stairmaster for an hour while wearing a 60-pound backpack and 10-pound ankle weights.

The two men went on nearly a dozen climbs together, including Mount Shasta twice in the past few months, Thomas said. They drew up plans for new routes over the spring and summer, and headed there March 25 to do some ice climbing.

Thomas said they arrived that Thursday afternoon when forecasts didn't yet show bad weather for Saturday. Even if they had noticed a severe-weather warning, Thomas said, they planned to be down the mountain by the time the storm eventually hit. And as experienced climbers, they were over-prepared with equipment and rations.

On Friday, they made it to the summit and began to descend the Whitney-Bolam Ridge in the dark.

But the winds blew hard that night. They decided the best plan was dig a snow cave at 14,050 feet, about 100 feet below the summit, and leave at first light Saturday morning.

Fears of hypothermia

The only fear Thomas and Bennett had of spending the night that high up was hypothermia.

"Sleeping up there wasn't that big of a deal," Thomas said. "Other than you didn't have the convenience of your tent. But those winds would have shredded a tent. We were fine with staying right where we were because it was the safest decision."

Thomas had worked as a cold-water lifeguard and knew the symptoms of hypothermia, so he and Bennett talked to each other through the night, checking for signs of disorientation.

They didn't feel any colder as the night progressed. They talked about how they couldn't wait for sunlight. They talked about the things friends talk about: Thomas is a structural engineer and Bennett a chemical engineer.

"We'd talk about how these mathematical ideas manifest themselves in nature," Thomas said, such as strength and the beauty of a crevasse.

By morning, the two men gathered their things, and as Bennett put on his crampons, he told Thomas his balance was off. Then he complained of fading eyesight.

Thomas asked Bennett questions to check his lucidity. He said Bennett shook it off, and insisted his eyesight was improving. But shortly after that, Bennett started to fear that he couldn't make it down.

Thomas tied himself to his partner with a short rope to help Bennett descend. They moved slowly. Thomas felt the winds pick up and blow the two men off course.

They tried moving along on their knees.

"I was having trouble myself," Thomas said of fighting the wind. "There was no way I could save someone else."

One phone call

Thomas then used his cell phone to dial 911. The cold weather had chilled the batteries. But he warmed up the phone and managed to make one rescue call to a ranger before the phone failed.

With the winds picking up and daylight fading, he dug a snow cave and moved Bennett inside.

Bennett was unresponsive, Thomas said. He administered CPR.

"In the back of my mind I kept hoping I was wrong," Thomas said.

Thomas set aside the rations for Bennett in case he woke up. Thomas marked the spot with a black avalanche marker and headed down the mountain alone.

"It was a complex feeling," Thomas said. "I was scared that I wasn't going to make it out of there myself. I was absolutely sure Tom was deceased, and I was sad that Tom was gone. But I couldn't stay any longer."

After Thomas set out on his own, the winds again pushed him of course, forcing him northwest. At times, the snow limited visibility to about an arm's length.

"I knew every decision I made was critical," Thomas said. "I became very careful with everything I did."

By nightfall, Thomas realized he hadn't eaten or drunk water all day.

He dug a snow cave for himself, dried his clothes and got a little sleep. In the morning, he ate the last of his food and was able to get cell phone reception long enough to arrange for rangers to meet him at a nearby road.

When he saw the snowmobile, he felt some relief.

"And anxiousness," he said. "I wanted to get things together long enough to tell them exactly where to find Tom. I was still hoping that I was wrong."

E-mail Justin Berton at jberton@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle



Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/04/01/BAFB1COHL4.DTL#ixzz1Htmo7DYT