[img:624043:alignleft:medium:The north side of Mt. Shasta]
This is written with the intention of sharing the insights gained from the Mt. Shasta tragedy in hopes that others can take away some valuable lessons, or offer further insight. Much of this has come from personal reflection, discussion with MANY people, and additional research into the topics, both for my peace of mind and in an attempt to understand and learn.
I’ve attempted to find fault with myself in hopes of learning for the future, but after much reflection and research, I have yet to find any ‘mistakes’ we made that could have been foreseen as such, which is why I've chosen to continue climbing and am doing so with a clean conscience. It’s much easier to judge than to understand, it’s easier to spout vitriol than to sympathize, hindsight is 20/20, and I could care less about pandering to those who choose to take these easy attitudes at the expense of other people. So this article is not for them.
There are lessons to be learned, though, and I’m writing about them in the spirit of education and safety that Tom and I shared.
[img:612623:aligncenter:medium:Tom practicing construction of a V-Thread anchor.]
There wasn’t much for me to learn here, as later research revealed that I did everything right and had a full awareness of what was happening and what to do. Still, many people have asked me about the ‘what ifs’ for Tom’s HACE and whether any actions could prevent such an outcome in the future. Sadly, my answer would be a resounding “no”, but I’ll address the points here.
For those that aren’t familiar with high altitude ailments such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), Altitude.org has a good summary.
Over-hydration can be a cause of HACE, but although Tom hydrated a lot on Saturday, by Sunday morning he was more likely to be mildly dehydrated.
The probability of Tom developing HACE at 14,000 ft was extremely small, especially considering that the previous two days we slept at 5,000 ft & 10,000 ft, and had ascended to nearly 14,000 ft or higher twice. He had been getting up high regularly the past few months and never showed any susceptibility to altitude.
About all that can be learned here is that even those who don’t appear to suffer from altitude can still develop HACE, people that seem to perform well at altitude can still develop HACE at moderately high altitudes, and that one is never completely safe from this sickness when entering the mountains.
There are three treatments that can aid in descent while suffering from HACE that people have asked me about. One is administering oxygen directly, another is the hyperbaric or Gamow (pronounced ‘gamov’) bag, which simulates lower altitude, and still another is administering an injection of dexamethasone.
First, for both of these I’d have to say that the winds blowing over Avalanche Gulch were so strong, and the rest of our descent options technical enough, that I doubt either of these could have improved Tom’s condition well enough for him to descend.
Gamow bags are large enough, expensive enough, and heavy enough that only expeditions to the high altitudes of the Andes and Himalayas can justify bringing them. Similarly for bottled oxygen, so carrying such things to the summit of Mt. Shasta is impractical and unrealistic considering how unlikely the need is compared to other first-aid needs.
Dexamethasone is the only thing that one could feasibly carry to Mt. Shasta’s summit, but it is not necessarily a viable solution. It requires a prescription and not everyone can get it. For example, I tried to get some for myself when I was procuring prescription drugs for altitude ailments from physicians for my climb to the summit of Denali (Mt. McKinley), the highest summit of North America where HACE and HAPE are common. Though I could get some prescription drugs, I was unable to get this drug from my doctor for 20,320’ Denali, so I suspect that many people could not get it for 14,162’ Mt. Shasta.
During this ordeal, I saw a number of problems with communicating important details to Mountain Search-and-Rescue (MSAR) that resulted from both ends of the phone line. Making a call for a rescue and communicating vital information seems simple enough, but in reality there are a number of factors that make this very difficult to achieve, thereby delaying rescue and increasing confusion in rescue attempts.
I want to emphasize, though, that none of these improvements to my communication with 911 & SAR would have changed the outcome on Mt. Shasta. When making a call for an MSAR, a few factors may make it difficult to properly get across the necessary information to those on the ground who are knowledgeable about the mountain and can make use of it:
In light of these problems and after talking with others about them, I’ve boiled down some possible solutions unique to calling in an MSAR that could be useful individually or in combination:
One thing that greatly hampered communication was my cell phone running out of batteries. Although I had charged the batteries just before the trip, temperatures were cold enough that even with the phone stored inside my pack, temperatures left me with only a few minutes worth of battery life. However, I was able to milk juice from the battery throughout the next two days by storing the phone inside my jacket, warming it with body heat.
Cell phone batteries can behave drastically different in the cold (e.g. Tom's I-Phone never had battery problems, but it had reception issues), so for cold winter climbs either make sure you know at about what temperatures it keeps power when stored inside your pack, or keep it inside your clothes if you want the batteries fresh and ready for an emergency call.
Also, my altimeter stopped working on my descent on account of the cold and rime build-up, leaving me with only a map and compass to navigate. This is an example where I would have been in big trouble if I were dependent on a GPS.
When dealing with risk, it is helpful to break down some of the hazards into the categories of:
Known knowables are things such as what one learns from an avalanche safety course. For example, slopes that can potentially slide, and whether you are on or beneath one. These tend to be factors in accidents when people ignore warning signs as they are rushed to get down, focused on the summit, overconfident, etc.
Known unknowables are things that one can never know, but they can at least be aware of them. For example, where the trigger points are for an avalanche. These play into one’s uncertainty in assessing risk.
Unknown knowables are bad, as these are basically things you could have known, had you taken the time to investigate and learn. These lead to preventable accidents. Reactive approaches to preventing future accidents also deal with these.
Unknown unknowables are things that one can never know that the one is unaware of. These are often things that become known only through a creatively morbid imagination, a near-miss, or an accident, and these are a common source of accidents.
In retrospect, I’ve learned some things about the wind on Mt. Shasta, turning some unknowns into knowns for me, which I’ll elaborate on here.
(The Thursday forecast that I had last checked forecasted calm to moderate winds on the mountain.)
I’ve long feared bad weather on Mt. Shasta – especially the wind – and I treat the mountain with respect. Knowing this detail about the forecasts will cause me to assume greater wind speeds than forecasted, and that such forecasted wind speeds are likely to be much less accurate than even the highly inaccurate general weather forecasts for the mountain.
[img:625817:aligncenter:medium:Distribution of winds encountered on day 2]
Now I know that despite weather forecasts indicating lower wind speeds, and all signs showing nothing but, that you can still have nasty surprises like this hidden from view – a particularly nasty known unknowable. Also, beware loose snow, as then it can be difficult to tell the snow plumes from lower-speed winds from the higher-speed winds.
[img:625818:aligncenter:medium:Distribution of winds encountered on day 3]
The only takeaway lesson that I see from this is the increased importance on being prepared for adverse weather on the mountain (such as those things listed in the next section), and realizing the greater uncertainty in reading wind signs on the mountain.
One thing worth pointing out from the Mt. Shasta tragedy is that it came out as well as it did. Tom was in a good shelter and quickly found. I made it down alive, and with little more than some mild frostbite and cold injuries to my fingers and toes. I could have easily developed serious frostbite all over my face and hands, or this easily could have been one of those mountaineering accidents where we both disappeared on the mountain. I didn’t think much of my actions at the time, but others have pointed out how unusual or unique some of the important actions were, and that I should point them out for the benefit of other climbers.
After talking with a number of climbing friends, the impression I’ve gotten is that not a lot of people can answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions. Yet, my being proficient at building snowcaves and having the means to do so was critical in the outcome on the mountain.
Snowcaves are much more difficult to construct in practice than in theory. Finding sufficiently deep snow is difficult, and digging one quickly, without burning out, and without getting drenched, is very difficult. I try to dig at least one snowcave every season, if not more. If I don’t find an opportunity on a climbing trip, I make an outing to the mountains specifically to practice this skill (among others). I attribute this regular practice with my ability to construct two snowcaves in one long day under very difficult conditions.
If I hadn’t tried making snowcaves in such differing conditions, I might not have had the quick-thinking to figure out where to look for a site under the high winds that were scouring most of the snow away. There were very few places from the summit to the base where one could have been constructed, especially in low visibility and with the wind limiting mobility.
Any climber should be proficient in orienteering and should always have a map, compass, and altimeter with them in addition to a GPS device.
Even though this was my first visit to the north side of the mountain, I had familiarized myself well enough with the routes and terrain that I had a good mental map of the area. Tom had done the same, so we were able to discuss travel decisions on an equal level.
Considering that the frostbite on my fingers was limited to the tiny area where my liner had come open, I’m sure that both my hands would have had terrible frostbite if I didn’t have liners to wear when operating my zippers and holding the map, or if I didn’t have such warm mittens. The same goes for wearing a face mask.
The blowing wet snow made it impossible to see with my eye protection as it fogged up and streaked with water, but the hood of my jacket provided enough cover that I could still see well enough to navigate in the white-out with my eyes exposed.
I always aim to push myself for power or endurance on my bike rides, runs, and swims, and I try to get out in the mountains as much as possible. When I'm on easier climbing trips I often carry more weight, including other people's gear, as 'training weight' in order to improve my climbing fitness.
It was extremely physically wearing caring for Tom, digging two snowcaves, and down climbing the full north side of Mt. Shasta in 80-100 mph winds after a long day of climbing, a night out, and insufficient food and water to be hydrated and well-nourished. Having so much extra fitness, a trained ability to recover quickly, and a good sense of how to pace myself were critical in being able to make it through the weekend.
In a nutshell, I’d say that my ability to make good decisions under pressure was my ability to maintain good situational awareness . I was constantly assessing the situation – my physical and emotional state (as well as Tom’s), the landscape around me, the environment around me, the equipment I had, and the experience I had. I was thinking of relationships between these factors and what decisions to make in light of the full picture.
For example, in being self-aware, as I became more panicked, I managed to acknowledge these feelings, but to not be overwhelmed by them. I would slow down, calm down, and force myself to think through the problems rather than reacting to them.
Another was my physical state, as I had to decide when to stop. If I had continued down the mountain too far, I easily could have become too exhausted and cold to dig a snowcave. I made sure to get down the mountain far enough to be reasonably likely to make it out the following day, but once I realized that I was wearing out, I knew that it was time to recover before I was spent.
I’m always trying to be safer and better prepared, and although it is an unobtainable goal, it is one worth striving for. To put the attitude succinctly: No one ever plans to have an accident, but they should plan to be prepared for one.
Some people still seem to insist on believing what the media reported over what I had to say about what happened. Well, my claiming that their earlier reports are false and not to be believed is not a defensive or paranoid reaction.
I learned a lot from Mt. Shasta as to how little research is done before reporting something as fact. And once one outlet makes a claim, even if it is unfounded, many of the other news outlets then reference that claim as fact rather than checking up on it. I witnessed this first-hand as stories were first reported locally, then repeated nationally, and then repeated internationally.
Here are a few examples of the sloppiness of the earlier reports, which should cast doubt on their ability to report the finer details of a topic that they were unfamiliar with:
1. Tom was said to be engaged to be married. He was not.
2. I was said in the days after Shasta to have returned to Berkeley and was reunited with my father. This was news to me, since I stayed at the town of Mt. Shasta to meet the family and wait around for Tom's recovery. Such a reunion happened a week after the media reported it.
3. In many reports, the articles couldn't even keep the names 'Tom Bennett' and 'Mark Thomas' straight, and some articles even had 'Tom' performing CPR on 'Mark'.
4. The mountain was reported as being closed to climbing. Mt. Shasta is never closed to climbing.
5. We were reported as climbing the mountain without permits. We had all the permits that were possible for our approach.
6. When the media couldn't find credible people to interview for the early stories, they went so far as to interview gym climbers and ask them to speculate on the accident.
As far as I know for how I was approached by the media, and what those involved in the rescue reported, there was virtually no fact-checking done on anything reported. The attitude of the media was that if they couldn't verify a fact, they would make a best guess and report that. So consider that this is how many agencies operate whenever you see a television or newspaper story.