Climber's account of what happened on Mt. Shasta

April 1, 2010 3:53:42 PM PDT
The following account was written by Mark Thomas, with additional information contributed by the family of Thomas Bennett and Siskiyou County Sheriff Public Information Officer Susan Gravenkamp.

Mark Thomas and the family of Thomas Bennett would like to share information about the two young men and detail their days climbing Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County this past week. Both Mark Thomas and Thomas Bennett are very experienced climbers who shared a love of the outdoors and found great joy in scaling the mountains of North America.

Bennett's father told us that his son, Thomas Bennett, was a chemical engineer and chemist who graduated from university in Vancouver, British Columbia, and had worked as a Process Engineer for a mining company about 500 miles south of La Paz, Bolivia near San Cristobal in the Andes Mountain. There he worked at very high elevations and had never experienced any problems with the altitude. He said his son had a genuine love for the outdoors and a passion for mountain climbing and that he understood the risks, and as such, took all appropriate precautions to deal with those risks.

Thomas Bennett most recently lived and worked in Oakland, California area and was amazed at wonderment of Yosemite National Park and spent as much time there as he could.

Mark Thomas said that he has climbed Mount Shasta numerous times and has also climbed Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska with an elevation of 20,320 feet.

Mark said both he and Tom had purchased mountain summit passes in advance. He said they had left a detailed trip itinerary and maps of their expected camps and routes with friends, which is their standard practice when traveling in an area with wilderness permits.

They left the Bay Area on Thursday, March 25, and said that as late as Thursday, the avalanche and weather forecasts did not include any warnings of severe weather and that wind speeds were estimated to be moderate on the mountain. Mark Thomas said he has since learned that the mountain was closed to climbers due to hazardous weather on Saturday, but since they had been on the remote north side of the mountain since Thursday night, March 25, they did not know of the closure or the change in the weather forecast. Mark said he realizes that the mountain makes its own weather and that they were observant of any changes in the forecast.

They both had a map of the area as well as a compass and an altimeter for navigation in darkness or stormy conditions. They arrived in Mount Shasta Thursday afternoon and spent the night at the trailhead at an elevation of about 5,000 feet before heading out from the car at 5 a.m. on Friday on snowshoes. They made camp at an elevation of 9,800 feet at the base of Bolam Glacier and ascended the Bolam Glacier to the top returning to their advanced camp that night. Mark said it was a long day with 4,800 feet of climbing carrying 50 pounds packs followed by another 4,000 feet of roped glacier climbing. He said Tom climbed strongly and showed no signs of being sensitive to the effects of altitude.

On Saturday, March 27, they left their camp at the 9,800 foot elevation with plans to climb the icefall variation of the Whitney Glacier. They brought along crevasse self-rescue gear, snow anchors and ice anchors in addition to their other climbing gear and traveled roped together for safety from crevasse falls as they had the day before on the Bolam Glacier. They had planned to climb only as high as the main icefall and if conditions seems safe and it was early enough in the day, they would attempt to summit?otherwise they would descend the glacier to their advanced camp.

Mark Thomas said the glacier was windy but not dangerously so as his anemometer read winds sustained at 20 to 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 35 to 40 miles per hour. He said the wind was annoying but nothing extreme compared to conditions he had often experienced on winter climbs far above tree line.

They decided to summit late in the day and then descend the Whitney-Bolam Ridge in the dark. He said apparently Shastina and the sub-summit above the west face of the mountain were blocking the worst of the wind as the winds on the ridge were sustained at a speed strong enough to make it nearly impossible to stand and there was not much time left in the day. They decided their best option was to spend the night on the sub-summit at a protected site below some rocks and descend at first light as they had the clothing and gear necessary to safely spend the night at that location. They thought if the winds were better, they would descend the Whitney-Bolam Ridge on the north side of the mountain. If the winds were not better, or if during the night either of them showed any signs of hypothermia or altitude ailments, they would descend the Avalanche Gulch route on the southwest side of the mountain.

They dug a shelter and throughout the night talked and asked each other how they were feeling to help catch any signs of hypothermia or altitude sickness since they did recognize these as potential health risks. Mark Thomas said Tom Bennett was fine and alert all night. In the morning the winds had decreased and the skies were clear, however, when they began to break camp to descend Tom suddenly began experiencing several symptoms of what Mark Thomas describes as acute high altitude sickness. Within minutes he said Tom reported an inability to see well and could barely stand or put on his crampons. They both immediately attempted to descend Avalanche Gulch but Tom Bennett deteriorated quickly and could no longer walk.

Mark Thomas said the winds had shifted and very coming at very high speeds. He said he helped Tom back to their protected bivvy and then used his cell phone to dial 9-1-1 to call for search and rescue, however, the cold conditions had killed the batteries on his phone and he was barely about to get out the rescue call before his phone failed. He said the clouds were moving in quickly and the winds were increasing so he dug a snow cave in preparation for a longer stay on the summit. He said he moved Tom into the snow cave to get him out of the blowing snow and there his deteriorating condition accelerated until there was no response from his climbing partner. He said he attempted CPR but was unable to revive Bennett and was fearful Bennett had succumbed to this medical emergency.

Mark Thomas said once that he was certain there was nothing more he could do for his friend, he attempted to use his cell phone again managing to warm it enough to report their situation to search and rescue. He said he decided that he had to leave before the weather totally prevented him from making it off the mountain and it was only then that he left Tom Bennett in an attempt to get off the mountain while he still could with the deteriorating weather.

Both Mark Thomas and the Bennett family would like to express their sincere appreciation to everyone who participated in any way in the search and rescue operation these past days. The Bennett family is overwhelmed with gratitude during this most difficult time. They have asked that if anyone feels the need to express their condolences through a donation or contribution that the contribution be given to the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Fund at 305 Butte Street, Yreka, CA 96097, to be used in the furtherance of helping another family in the future with a lost or injured loved one in Siskiyou County.

The Bennett family thought perhaps they would be able to speak with the media but find they are unable to do so at this time and asked that this statement be released on their behalf.

Everyone at the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office, the U. S. Forest Service Mountain Rangers, Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue volunteers and the pilots and crews of the three helicopters who assisted in the search for Thomas Bennett would like to express our deepest sympathies and send our thoughts and prayers to the Thomas Bennett family.


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