Weather hampers attempts to reach climber

New snow, sustained winds and heavy cloud cover continued to thwart attempts Tuesday to reach a climber stranded and feared dead on Mount Shasta.

"We will keep monitoring the weather and if we have a break, we will get helicopters in there as quickly as we can," Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Susan Gravenkamp said.

The man on the mountain, 26-year-old Oakland, Calif., resident Thomas Bennett, became ill while climbing with a friend, Mark Thomas, 26, of Berkeley, Calif., over the weekend. Thomas called 9-1-1 Sunday morning to report that Bennett was exhibiting symptoms of severe altitude sickness, including disorientation, confusion and loss of balance and coordination.

The two were near the summit at an elevation of about 14,050 feet, where they had spent the night in the shelter of some rocks. However, strong winds prevented them from making their way down the mountain, he told authorities.

Thomas had a seasonal wilderness pass, so he didn't need to fill out a wilderness permit for this climb. He and Bennett, both described as experienced climbers, had attempted to climb a route on the south side of Mount Shasta in January, but were turned back by severe weather.

They returned to the mountain March 25, camping at 8,000 feet that night. They took several hikes on the mountain before deciding to climb to the summit on Saturday.

They had reached the top and were starting back down when high winds forced them to seek shelter Saturday night and call for help Sunday, Thomas recounted when he connected with rescuers on Monday afternoon.

Unsafe weather conditions prevented searchers from climbing the mountain or reaching the pair by helicopter on Sunday and Monday. Rangers patrolled lower elevations, around 7,000 feet, after Thomas called authorities again Monday afternoon to report he was coming down the mountain, guided by a map and compass. Rangers found his footprints about two miles from a base camp set up by searchers on Military Pass Road. He had some frostbite but was in good condition.

Thomas reported that Bennett had lost consciousness and was unresponsive, leaving him fearful that his friend was dead. He constructed a snow cave and left Bennett inside with some of their remaining water, granola and candy bars.

U.S. Forest Service climbing ranger Dan Towner said on Tuesday afternoon that there was still a chance Bennett could be found alive.

Although the weather forecast for the Mount Shasta area shows sun breaking though and winds diminishing on Thursday, Towner hoped for a window of better weather today.

A weather station at 8,000 feet on the mountain reported 35 mph winds and clouds obscured the summit on Tuesday afternoon, he said.

If Bennett is found dead, he will be the third person to die on Mount Shasta in three years. On Nov. 28, 2008, Chihiro "Cherry" Enoki, 33, of Brooklyn, N.Y., died in a fall on the Avalanche Gulch route on the southwest side of the mountain. On June, 4, 2009, Charles Eugene Southwell, 52, of Howell, Mich., died of a heart attack near the Bunny Flats trail head.

Mail Tribune archives show that three people died on the mountain in 2000 — two men climbing together in April who were trapped in severe weather conditions and an Ashland man who died of head injuries after a fall in September.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail

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