Why Tom and I Climbed and Why I'll Continue to Climb

Why Tom and I Climbed and Why I'll Continue to Climb

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Ice Climbing, Mixed, Scrambling

Why We Climb and Why I'll Continue to Climb


This is written in response to the common gamut of "why" questions that people have asked me since Tom's death on Mt. Shasta.

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.

Mt Foraker Sunset at 17kMt. Foraker Sunset at 17,000 ft.

Alpinism is inherently dangerous, but that doesn't mean that it is always so. Much of alpinism is about training and strategizing to mitigate risk to the level where one can go into the mountains to commune with nature, test himself, and return safely. During my time climbing I haven't met many (if any) adrenaline junkies. They usually don't last, either due to the hazard or due to the effort and diligence required to reap the real rewards of alpinism. As the saying goes for inherently risky activities, "there are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers." Serious mountaineering for the long-term requires sustained education, practice, commitment, and incredibly hard work. This is one of the aspects that draw me to climbing.

Drytooling above BerkeleyPracticing dry-tooling in the San Francisco Bay Area, far from the mountains.

Tom and I climbed mountains in the winter despite the increase in risk for the increased challenge and experience, both for the enjoyment of the challenge and also as training so that we could more safely attempt harder and more serious climbs on other peaks in other parts of the world. Although we enjoyed the physical, technical, and intellectual challenges of alpinism, that is only one part of it, despite the cliché that seems to be most prominent in the public imagination. I want to emphasize some of the more personal reasons as well, as for me they are what make it worth taking on the risk.

Rime on Sargents RidgeIce forms that you don't see unless you venture into the high mountains in the middle of winter. Tom and I enjoyed these together on Sargents Ridge in January.

One is partnership. I’ve forged intensely strong partnerships with my climbing partners through shared experiences, dedication, risk, and trusting our lives to one another. This “Brotherhood of the Rope” is a unique bond that I have been unable to find in any other type of relationship.

Wind Scoured Snow on the Bolam GlacierWindscoured snow that Tom and I appreciated together on the Bolam Glacier.

Another reason I climb, which Tom shared, was our love for nature. I’m not religious, but I do find spirituality in the mountains, and I find bliss and wonder in these extreme environments. In some ways the word ‘extreme’ is crucial because it keeps me humble before the raw power of nature. Seeing the immense scale of the glaciers and mountains in Alaska was the first time that I could ever begin to appreciate the idea of infinity.

Ice in the 2nd Icefall on the Whitney GlacierModern art found in the Whitney Glacier.

Even the smallest of details in nature can be incredibly beautiful, and I often delight in discovering striking forms in the world of ice and snow. I love the beauty found in features such as the patterns of wind-scoured snow, color and texture of glacial ice, or the bizarre formations of rime ice. Even for the rare mountain traveler in winter, these can easily be missed. Taking the time to stop and appreciate these subtle wonders of the mountains was a trait that I shared with Tom, and it made us closer in our experiences in the mountains together.

Snow FormBeauty of Winter Climbing.

Winter is an especially appealing time for me to venture into the mountains despite the greater risk and discomfort – to me, the winter landscape in the high mountains is ethereal. For those that ask why I venture into the mountains, if they had ever experienced the fiery red and orange Alpenglow on expansive snow slopes or white granite palisades, or if they had ever experienced the deep blue glow of the moon on icy snow slopes with no sound but for the crunch of one’s footsteps, they wouldn’t have to ask.

Wind Scoured Snow Near the Bolam GlacierWind-scoured snow that Tom and I traveled across on the north side of Mt Shasta in March.

Regarding taking on increased risk for mountaineering, there is also something to be said about taking on more risk. Many people are reticent of the idea, yet people do it all the time whether they realize it or not. Yes, mountaineering can lead to my injury or death in a variety of ways, but my choice to drive also heightens this risk. So does choosing to get around by bicycle in an urban area such as the San Francisco Bay Area. I have had many close calls on my bicycle and I nearly died once on a trip to Mt. Shasta, not on the climb, but on the drive home when someone came barreling down the I-5 against my direction of traffic, straddling both lanes.

People choose to live in flood-prone, hurricane-prone, and earthquake-prone areas with little thought given as to the real risk and whether it is worth it. Why is climbing perceived to be so much more dangerous than other activities? Perhaps one is that in many aspects of our lives we take on risk out of convenience (driving, eating poorly, talking on cell phones in dangerous situations, etc.) while in climbing the risk is taken on with active effort. Maybe another reason is that the risk in climbing is much more salient, so it is harder to ignore.

Sargents Traverse

Which form of risk is more reasonable to you? At least Guy is paying attention to what he is doing, and he can only hurt himself here. Yet why does no one bother asking "Why do you text and drive?" and "Is it worth it?"

So my point is that you cannot avoid risk, you can only try to be aware and decide what risks are worth the benefits. While it may seem shallow to say climbing is worth the risk for the reasons that I hold, I’d sure rather have my demise be climbing in the mountains than being run over on my way to work.

Kahiltna PassSunset at Kahiltna Pass on Denali.

As sad and traumatic as my experience was on Mount Shasta, I intend to continue climbing. I know Tom would want nothing less. This tragedy was the result of incredibly bad luck with a rare and serious development of HACE. Coming off the mountain as well as I did was testament to how well prepared I was, and Tom was equally well prepared. Even in ideal conditions I don’t think the outcome would have been different, so I can only view this experience as a part of life, but not something to run from.

Tom BennettTom Bennett, living life to its fullest inside a Giant Sequoia.

In closing, I want to share a similar sentiment about climbing that one of Tom’s closest friends shared with me after Tom’s death.

"While there is a technical side to mountaineering, a confrontation with the raw power of the mountains that came only to be understood by those who venture into the hills, there is an essential element that everyone is familiar with, and that is the friendship you forge along the way. This is such a pivotal part of the experience, that alpinists have given it is own name: The Fellowship of the rope. Because at the end of the day, you may have made the summit, you might have had to turn around, but regardless of the outcome, you have spent an amazing day with a close friend. “

- Timb Argast

Tom BennettTom Bennett, living life to its fullest inside the Whitney Glacier Icefall.

Tom BennettTom Bennett - August 28, 1983 to March 28, 2010


Post a Comment
Viewing: 21-33 of 33

PellucidWombat - May 26, 2010 7:03 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice Article

Thanks for the support, Brad.


PellucidWombat - May 26, 2010 7:08 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Painful Heroism

Thanks Ben. Live life and climb safe!


Holk - May 26, 2010 12:23 am - Voted 10/10

To All:

A moving article on Toms life, thank you. As for the comments section: There is some learning to be had here, as stated from a novice perspective, but also a lot of insensitivity as well, which I am sad to see. Wombat, my heart goes out to you and all of Tom's loved ones. My thoughts will be on these accounts as I attempt my climb up the WFG.


PellucidWombat - May 26, 2010 7:09 am - Hasn't voted

Re: To All:

Holk - it's my pleasure to share these thoughts. Best of luck on a safe and successful climb.


travelingclimber - May 26, 2010 12:07 pm - Hasn't voted

Glad to see you're looking forward

My condolences to yourself and Tom’s family.

I have never lost a partner and so I don’t know how I would react. I’ve been injured and have had partners injured but we’ve always managed to get down, sometimes with a little help.

It always amazes me how some people can pull themselves together and continue with their life pursuits after such a tragedy. You lost your partner, almost lost your own life, and you somehow found the strength to continue. Hats off to you for being able to do this.

Tim Geerlings

Tim Geerlings - May 26, 2010 3:23 pm - Hasn't voted

Great pics

I loved the pictures... as one who only does the easy mountains, its incredible to see pictures of what really is another world.


winemanvan - May 27, 2010 10:19 am - Voted 10/10


Nice essay. Great photos. Thanks.


mvs - May 27, 2010 12:30 pm - Voted 10/10

Thanks for this write-up

Especially in the face of truly malicious criticism. Thanks again and climb safe.


PellucidWombat - May 27, 2010 9:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks for this write-up

Thanks for letting me know! I appreciate direct feedback much more than just hits or votes.

I've been unsure about saying much, so it's been nice to see that at least most people appreciate it.


Dragger - May 29, 2010 6:53 pm - Voted 10/10

You hit the nail on the head, Mark

Well written and reflective. I think you echo what 99% of us think every single time we head for the mountains: The experience is worth much, much more that the risk. Brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the rope. Nothing rings turer.

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - May 31, 2010 2:38 pm - Voted 10/10


to Elf or whoever erased previous message #36 from that absolute sicko.


pablo - Jul 9, 2010 3:40 am - Voted 10/10


We love mountains. Friendship raises to the level of love when climbing together. Thanks for this touching and outstanding report.


gabr1 - Dec 21, 2010 6:01 pm - Hasn't voted

i'm sorry for such a loss

i really think it was nice of you to write something celebrating the personal and less rethorical reasons to climb. They sounded like very conforting words.

Viewing: 21-33 of 33



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