The Siskiyou Sheriff’s Office has confirmed that a search and rescue team has found the body of Thomas Bennett, the 26-year-old climber who was last seen alive Saturday near Mount Shasta’s summit.
Bennett’s family today was at a Siskiyou County airport where rescuers assembled for their ascent of the 14,162-foot mountain.
Rescuers flew up the mountain in a powerful California National Guard Chinook helicopter, a heavy-lifting chopper with twin rotors, which arrived at the small airport near the town of Weed on Wednesday.
On board the Chinook were six Air National Guard soldiers, three U.S. Forest Service rangers expert in climbing and four Siskiyou County search-and-rescue personnel.
The Chinook was supposed to land in a snow field near the summit about 100 feet from where Bennett was last seen. Five rescuers were on board — the three Forest Service rangers and two Siskiyou County search and rescue personnel — to climb to where they believe Bennett took refuge.
On Wednesday, cloud cover near the summit forced two lighter helicopters to return to the rural landing strip along Interstate 5 that is serving as a rescue base.
Rescue personnel waited there Wednesday for breaks in the weather. With no indoor gathering place, they stood in the cold or sat in vehicles.
The massive volcanic peak loomed over all, its upper reaches veiled in clouds.
“I have a great respect for this mountain,” said Eric White, the Forest Service’s lead climbing ranger on Mount Shasta, who is participating in the rescue effort.
Bennett, a chemical engineer from Oakland, fell ill Sunday near the mountaintop. He had reached the summit Saturday with climbing partner Mark Thomas, 26, a structural engineer from Berkeley.
On the peak, they were surprised by an approaching storm and took shelter for the night behind boulders at about 14,000 feet.
Thomas told his father that the pair made it through the night in warm clothes and sleeping sacks and were in good spirits Sunday morning as they prepared to descend.
But Bennett collapsed while he was putting on his crampons and within 45 minutes was unresponsive, Jay Thomas said his son told him. Mark Thomas’ efforts to revive the man were unsuccessful, his father said.
After putting Bennett in a snow cave with food and water, Thomas started down the mountain Sunday afternoon and on Monday was picked up by rangers on snowmobiles.
He told authorities he believed Bennett was suffering from severe altitude sickness and might have died.
Experts in high-altitude medicine said Wednesday that altitude sickness was an unlikely cause if Bennett suddenly collapsed and quickly slid into unconsciousness.
“That’s not the way acute mountain sickness is,” said John Severinghaus, a retired professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and a prominent researcher in high-altitude medicine. “It’s a slow onset process with lots of symptoms first. It begins with headache and nausea and vomiting and feeling terrible.
“If it gets bad enough, it could turn into cerebral edema (a swelling of the brain tissue),” he said. “You can’t stand. You’re dizzy. You complain like crazy. It occurs over many hours.”
A more likely cause, doctors said, was a stroke or a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot that develops in the legs and moves to the lungs. Hours of exertion and huddling in the cold at high altitude could have caused it, they said. Then, as Bennett was putting his crampons on, the clot could have broken free and blocked the arteries going to his lungs, doctors said.
People who experience the condition “spiral downhill very rapidly,” said Thomas Dietz, an emergency room physician in Oregon who for years treated climbers for altitude-related illnesses at a clinic near Mount Everest’s base camp. “Over a period of minutes, maybe an hour, the person slides into a coma. If that’s what happened, there’s nothing you could do on the mountain.”
Officials have continued to operate on the assumption that Bennett could be clinging to life on the wind-scoured pinnacle of ice and rock. The summit has experienced sub-zero temperatures, snow and gale-force winds in recent days.
At about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, rescue teams were hopeful they could take advantage of a break in the weather to reach Bennett’s location, but deteriorating conditions forced a California Highway Patrol helicopter to return to base.
A few hours later, at about 2:40 p.m., a larger Super Huey helicopter sent by the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection made a reconnaissance flight but could ascend only to about 12,000 feet because of cloud cover.
“We were looking for that weather window, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get it,” said Tom McConnel, a veteran pilot with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The Chinook arrived, and rescuers agreed to try again this morning.