A rescue on Thunderbolt Peak
Steamboat mountaineers come to aid of fallen climber on California fourteener
Brick Root and his son Bridger, 15, were already veteran mountain climbers when they set out in early July from Steamboat Springs to climb all 15 of California’s 14,000-foot mountain peaks. They achieved their goal and are also veterans of a harrowing rescue effort on 14,003-foot Thunderbolt Peak.
At the same time the Roots were setting out on their adventure, a pair of California climbers was nearing the end of a similar quest. Rich Benbrook of Ventura, Calif., and his climbing partner, Tim Metzinger of Santa Barbara, were camped at 12,000 feet in Dusy Basin on their way to climbing Thunderbolt. The mountain was No. 14 in Benbrook’s bid to climb the state’s 15 highest mountains.
Destiny was about to unite the four mountain climbers.
Brick Root said he and his son reached the foot of the summit pitch on Thunderbolt Peak just behind the two Californians. None of them was roped up, though the other party had climbing harnesses, and Brick Root carried a climbing rope in his pack.
The Roots summited with Metzinger, but Benbrook had taken another route and was out of sight when they heard him calling for help.
Benbrook described how he took a scary fall onto a granite ledge, narrowly avoiding death.
“We arrived at the summit block at around 10 a.m.,” he said. “I was exploring around near this summit block and decided to go along a ledge. The ledge was exposed, with a vertical drop-off on one side, but was fairly wide and looked easy to negotiate.”
Benbrook, it turned out, had misjudged the difficulty of the ledge.
“Perhaps because the 14,000-foot altitude had made me a little hypoxic, I didn’t notice that halfway along the ledge it had a section the sloped downward toward the cliff,” he said. “I got to that point, slipped, and found myself hanging over the edge by my fingernails in the tiniest crack. No way could I use that crack to pull myself back up, and I was slowly slipping away. That was the worst part, I think: knowing I was going to fall and not being able to do anything about it.”
Benbrook was fortunate that he did not fall to the bottom of the huge cliff.
“I landed on another ledge about 20 feet below. My sunglasses bounced off and went the rest of the way (probably a thousand feet or so). My right knee was broken in two visible pieces, neither puncturing the skin, and my ribs hurt. I couldn’t stand on my right leg and had to climb up about 40 feet now to get back to where Tim was and where I could start climbing down.”
Brick Root said he never saw Benbrook fall or the ledge he landed on, so he couldn’t fully appreciate the predicament Benbrook had been in.
Brick Root lowered his rope to the injured climber, who tied it into his harness so that the climbers could help him to relative safety. Ironically, they had delivered the injured climber to the summit register at the top of the peak.
Next, Root rigged a rappel to get the injured climber down the steepest part of the summit block.
What lay ahead of them was a 1,600-foot descent. For Brick and Bridger Root, it amounted to a lot of tedium, but for Benbrook, it was more than 10 hours of pain.
“Rich was tough,” Brick Root said. “A broken kneecap and a broken rib are two of the most painful injuries there are. They aren’t life threatening, but there isn’t much you can do about them.”
Benbrook’s grit and his determination to support his weight on his good leg are what saved him from spending the night in the elements, high on the mountain.
The climbers began descending with Brick Root belaying Benbrook on a 100-foot rope. Benbrook was able to support his weight by leaning back on the rope, with Bridger Root and Metzinger guiding his foot placement. After a while, the men determined that their best option was to have Metzinger go on by himself to summon help, though Brick Root had some misgivings about sending Benbrook’s partner down a steep couloir by himself.
Benbrook said he was impressed with the poise Bridger Root, then 14, showed as a teenager.
“He acted like he had been climbing for 40 years,” Benbrook said. In fact, the teenager had completed his goal of climbing all 54 of Colorado’s fourteeners just the summer before.
“Every 100 feet or so, we would have to stop so Brick could come back down to me, set another anchor, and repeat the process,” Benbrook said. “I fell a lot, and every time Brick would tighten the rope to keep me from going all the way down. It took a very long time to get back down to Palisade Basin.”
The climbers finally made it to the spot where the Roots had left their camping equipment.
“We arrived at their packs just around sunset and set up camp on the only level spot we could find,” Benbrook said. “There was no way I could get back to my camp, so they gave me one of their sleeping bags and put me in their tent. The climb down had exhausted me, and I had nothing left. I could just lay there waiting for something to happen.”
Brick Root learned from two individual climbers shortly after dawn that Metzinger had made it to the bottom of the mountain. But he didn’t anticipate what happened next. A rescue helicopter came into view at about 6:30 a.m. and was able to land on a patch of snow less than 100 yards from where Benbrook lay.
Rescue rangers from Kings Canyon National Park gave Benbrook morphine, and he was loaded into the helicopter. Fifteen minutes later, he was at the airport in Bishop, Calif., and on his way to a hospital.
The Roots went on to climb Starlight Peak that afternoon.
Benbrook said Friday that after initial surgery to repair his kneecap, which was shattered into 13 pieces, he contracted a staph infection that interrupted his physical therapy and dealt him a major setback. He learned from his doctor just this week that he has turned the corner on the infection.
Bridger Root already is looking forward to an attempt on Washington State’s Mount Rainier next summer.
“All 15 of California’s fourteeners are tougher than most of Colorado’s fourteeners,” he said. “But they aren’t that tough.”
Benbrook, still receiving antibiotics intravenously, is looking forward to resuming physical therapy.
“I would surely have died had it not have been for the efforts of Brick and Bridger Root,” he said.
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