Research at What Cost?

July 27, 2001
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A graduate student's fatal illness raises questions about balancing risks, precautions, and the quest for knowledge

Shawn Wight lay in his tent in the Himalayas at 19,100 feet above sea level, coughing and miserable with a throbbing headache and a sharp pain in the left side of his chest.

It was September 14, 1997. For


Excerpts from the journal of Shawn Wight (Requires Javascript)


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»  August 14, 1997: The expedition's base camp, with Mount Everest in the distance

»  August 20, 1997: The group begins the ascent from the base camp, as Sherpas help carry the gear

»  September 10, 1997: Drilling ice cores at the top of the glacier

»  September 25-26, 1997: Panoramic view from the top of the glacier

nearly a week, the 26-year-old graduate student from Ohio State University had rarely left his tent. Now, worried and desperate, he scrawled a note for one of the Sherpas to carry to the leader of his expedition, Lonnie Thompson. Mr. Thompson was working 4,000 feet up the mountain, a five-hour hike away.

Six weeks earlier, the student had been nervous but excited about his first research expedition, to the rugged, ice-covered mountains of western China. He had never been overseas before. On the plane to Kathmandu, he opened his journal and took meticulous notes about the flight -- the food that was served, the departure times and delays, the fixtures in the bathrooms.

August 3: "The sun has been shining the whole time. My first experience with 24 hours of daylight."

Once on the mountain, the young man's journal became little more than a catalog of his struggle with the altitude.

While Mr. Thompson gathered data that would bring him international acclaim, Mr. Wight spent 10 days in his tent at the lower station, his condition rapidly deteriorating, before being evacuated to a hospital. Two months later, he was dead.

His parents, Brad Wight and Jacqueline Clark, brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against Ohio State in 1999, charging that the university lacked adequate safety plans and that Mr. Thompson, a geology professor and glaciologist at the university's Byrd Polar Research Center, had delayed the evacuation

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Shawn Wight on the expedition to the Himalayas, before he fell ill. (Photograph courtesy of Brad Wight)

of their son. They lost the case this March. But they continue to believe that the expedition was ill-equipped; that Mr. Thompson didn't take their son's medical emergency seriously soon enough; and that Ohio State bungled the student's evacuation because it wasn't prepared to handle such an emergency.

Mr. Thompson and others at Ohio State deny any wrongdoing. They believe the decision in the lawsuit has vindicated them, and at times, they have portrayed their handling of the situation as a model for other universities. Ohio State eventually reimbursed Brad Wight for travel and medical expenses, and even covered the cost of his son's funeral and cremation. But the stances taken by Mr. Thompson and the university rankle the parents.

"No one can bring Shawn back," Brad Wight says in an interview in Ashtabula, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie, where his son grew up. "But they've never admitted they did anything wrong."

Some Ohio State officials acknowledge that the case prompted them to scrutinize their emergency preparation and to develop policies and obtain insurance to cover expeditions to remote locations.

They and officials at several other research centers now say that the young man's story is a wake-up call for scientists who lead other researchers, including graduate students, on such trips.

The Student

The son of teenage parents who divorced soon after he was born, Shawn Wight spent his early childhood with his mother, then moved in at age 8 with his father, a heating and cooling contractor, who raised him with the help of grandparents. A quiet, straight-A student who loved watching The Simpsons, the young man had been

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Shawn Wight (right) and Lonnie Thompson, the Ohio State geologist who led the ill-fated expedition, stand on a street in Kathmandu, Nepal, in a snapshot taken before the group began its ascent into the Himalayas. (Photograph courtesy of Brad Wight)

the first in his family to graduate from college. Now, he was on his way to becoming a real scientist.

He was six feet tall and healthy, and he enjoyed biking, hiking, and being outdoors. He had skied in the Rocky Mountains, but had never been higher than about 12,000 feet.

Arriving in Kathmandu, he was struck by the smells of human and animal excrement and car exhaust, by the beauty of the Buddhist temples and shrines with their fluttering prayer flags, by the monkeys loitering on rooftops.

A few days later, Mr. Wight, Mr. Thompson, and two other Ohio State graduate students, Mary Davis and Keith Henderson, were joined by a Russian researcher, four Peruvian mountaineers, and several Sherpas. They began the long drive to the Chinese border, on their way to Xixabangma Feng, a Himalayan mountain rising to 26,286 feet.

August 11: "Our adventure truly started today."

For Mr. Thompson, then 49 and a veteran of 33 expeditions, such adventure was interesting, but far from new. A native West Virginian whose slight build and thick eyeglasses belie his reputation among colleagues as an adventurer, he had been traveling for nearly two decades to tropical-latitude glaciers at extreme altitudes to drill ice cores. The cores reveal historical weather patterns for research into global warming. He had drilled glaciers in South America, on Mount Kilimanjaro, and in Tibet.

But he had never been this high. To drill ice at the Dasuopu Glacier, on the flank of Xixabangma Feng, his team would travel to 23,000 feet above sea level.

The trip was an international effort organized by the Ohio State team and Chinese scientists from the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Geocryology, and financed largely by the National Science Foundation. When its findings were published last fall in Science, the expedition drew international attention, because no prior researchers had ever drilled ice cores at such a high altitude.

The scientists analyzed the ice for concentrations of chloride, oxygen, and dust, which indicate the intensity of monsoons, droughts, and human activity in the region. The results suggested a warming trend during the 20th century, with strong evidence that the last decade had been the warmest in the past 1,000 years. That warming appeared to be amplified at the higher elevation.

Still, it was only a few thousand feet higher than Mr. Thompson's previous trips, and he wasn't worried as the team drove up the winding mountain road to the glacier.

The Mountain

Neither was Mr. Wight, who was too busy taking in the beauty that surrounded them on the drive.

August 11: "Very green, steep mountains covered in clouds, with waterfalls everywhere."

The terrain grew rockier as the expedition, joined by 26 Chinese scientists, ascended above the tree line to the base camp, at 17,500 feet. In the distance they could see Mount Everest. They had made a quick ascent -- 10,000 feet in two days. Every

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The expedition aimed to drill samples from the Dasuopu Glacier, a river of ice on the flank of Xixabangma Feng, a 26,286-foot Chinese peak near the Nepali border.

Ohio State member of the expedition -- including Mr. Thompson -- immediately developed symptoms of acute mountain sickness, with splitting headaches, nausea, lightheadedness, and difficulty sleeping.

August 14: "Miserable. Can't do anything without becoming completely wasted ... It is like having a really bad hangover and a bad stomach flu all at once."

The student waited for the altitude medications he assumed would be in the team's medical kit, which had been delayed in reaching the base camp. His anticipation of relief, however, was for naught. The Ohio State expedition hadn't packed such medicine. Indeed, the court documents -- including trial testimony, Mr. Thompson's field journals, and the student's journal -- show that the expedition lacked much of the supplies and logistical support that some experts say ideally should be taken on trips to high altitudes in remote locations, including oxygen tanks, satellite telephones, and medications to ease the acclimation to the thin air. The expedition also lacked medical personnel. Mr. Thompson, however, says the preparation and supplies for the expedition were more than adequate.

The team had packed a medical kit and two-way radios, but their arrival was delayed for a couple of weeks. Mr. Thompson decided not to wait. After five days at the base camp, he moved the team on. He had a schedule to keep, and he wanted people to continue their acclimatization to the high altitude.

Mr. Wight's symptoms had not faded, but he decided to head to the next camp with everyone else. He wanted to be tough and contribute to the team. The two other graduate students from Ohio State, Ms. Davis and Mr. Henderson -- who both declined to be interviewed for this article -- had begun acclimating to the altitude. But Mr. Wight lagged behind the others on the eight-mile hike to the next camp, at 19,100 feet. Mr. Thompson, seeing that Mr. Wight was struggling, carried his pack part of the way.

August 21: "I felt like a real wuss."

Seven days later, Mr. Wight made it to the next camp, at 21,500 feet. He continued to suffer from sleeplessness and a constant headache that Tylenol wouldn't remedy. A week later, he reached the top camp -- at 23,000 feet. Snow was falling, and clouds obscured the summit of Xixabangma.

September 4: "Hopefully we begin drilling soon. The sooner we start, the sooner we get out of here."

At such high altitudes, serious medical problems can develop fast and without warning. During lunch on Mr. Wight's second day at the top camp, September 7, his hands went numb.

Mr. Thompson told him to walk around and see if the numbness disappeared. An hour later, the student said that it had. But by late afternoon, he had developed a terrible headache and couldn't think straight. Talking to Mr. Thompson, he could remember only his own name and his father's. The researcher believed Mr. Wight had high-altitude cerebral edema -- a potentially fatal swelling of the brain caused by the diminished oxygen of the thin air.

"I was afraid," Mr. Thompson later wrote in his field notebook. "This could be really serious." He and some other expedition members immediately took Mr. Wight down to the camp at 21,500 feet. Even there, the student couldn't remember Mr. Thompson's name. "He just called me Chief and said he was sorry," Mr. Thompson later wrote.

They descended to the camp at 19,100 feet, where Mr. Wight seemed to recover his memory and then fell asleep. When he awoke the next day, he felt better, despite a slight headache.

Mr. Thompson returned to the drill site with Tandong Yao, the expedition's Chinese co-leader, writing in his notebook that he had asked one of the other Chinese researchers to watch Mr. Wight closely and evacuate him if any more problems arose.

September 8: "I just feel bad that five people had to come down with me. ... I also feel useless again."

The next morning, the student didn't feel well enough to leave his tent, except for meals. Three days later, Mr. Wight awoke coughing, with a pain in his chest.

September 13: "It is an excruciating pain, and I cannot breathe fully. ... It feels like my left side of my chest is in a vise."

After two days of that pain, one of the Chinese researchers asked a Chinese doctor in a group camping nearby to look at the student. The doctor mistakenly diagnosed a kidney stone, and gave him an antibiotic and painkillers.

Worried and hurting, Mr. Wight decided that somehow he would have to make his way home. He could not radio Mr. Thompson for help, so he sent a note up with a Sherpa that described his chest pain and the doctor's diagnosis, which he doubted. He asked for advice on traveling to Kathmandu.

The next day, Mr. Thompson sent a note with $300 for travel expenses via Mr. Yao, who was descending with the first ice cores. Mr. Thompson had arranged for a Sherpa to accompany the student to Kathmandu.

Mr. Yao, who did not reply to e-mail messages seeking comment for this article, was shocked when he saw Mr. Wight, according to court records. The student's right leg had swollen to twice its normal size, and he was coughing up blood. Doctors would later say that his symptoms had been caused by a blood clot, which probably developed due to the altitude, and by his inactivity and dehydration from lying for days in the tent.

Mr. Yao sent a note to Mr. Thompson, urging him to come down immediately to help. The doctor from the nearby camp gave the student oxygen that night.

Instead of packing oxygen, the Ohio State group had brought two hyperbaric chambers called Gamow bags, inflatable fabric cylinders in which people with altitude problems can be put to simulate a descent of several thousand feet. The bags were never used during the expedition, because Mr. Thompson did not think they were needed.

Mr. Wight needed oxygen. On September 16, two days after the student sent his note and four days after he first felt chest pain, Mr. Thompson went to the lower camp. He found that Mr. Wight had fluid in a lung and was urinating blood.

Mr. Thompson and Mr. Yao decided to evacuate the student to Lhasa, Tibet, several hundred miles away. Although Kathmandu was closer, they worried about delays at the border, the two men later said. They also knew that if they left Tibet, their visas would not allow them to return to the expedition. Because it would soon be nightfall, they opted to wait until morning to take Mr. Wight the eight miles to the base camp.

The Evacuation

It had been 10 days since the young man's neurological troubles at the top of the glacier. He could not walk, so the researchers carried him to the base camp on a litter rigged out of backpack frames, a trek that took several hours. Then they waited again until daylight to leave, putting him in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser for the drive to Lhasa. On September 18, about halfway there, they stopped at a hospital in Xigaze, where an X-ray showed that the student had fluid in the bottom half of his left lung. The hospital was dirty and ill-equipped, and Mr. Thompson decided to drive through the night to the one in Lhasa.

Mr. Wight received oxygen and antibiotics there, but nothing for the blood clot in his leg. He had the presence of mind, however, to ask Mr. Thompson to contact his father, to tell him what had happened and to have him pay a student-health-insurance premium so his treatment would be covered. Mr. Thompson called his secretary at Ohio State, then returned to the drill site, leaving Mr. Yao with the student.

The Father

Brad Wight was at work on Friday morning, September 19, when Mr. Thompson's secretary paged him. Your son is in a hospital in Lhasa, she said when Mr. Wight called, but she didn't know its name or what was wrong with the young man.

Frantic with worry, Mr. Wight spent three days calling Ohio State and U.S. Embassy offices in China, trying to locate his

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Brad Wight, the student's father, beside a monument to his son: "No one can bring Shawn back," and Ohio State officials have "never admitted they did anything wrong."

son and find out what had gone wrong. On Friday, no one at the university had any information. Over the weekend, no one was there. On Monday morning, Chinese time, he reached officials at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, who located the student and the phone number for the hospital.

At last, on Monday morning in Ohio, Mr. Wight spoke to his son. Carried on a stretcher to the hospital's only phone, the young man heard his father ask him how he was. "Awful. Terrible," the student replied, then dropped the phone, coughing. Mr. Yao picked up the receiver. "Tell him I'm coming to get him," Mr. Wight said.

Brad Wight contacted Ohio State's Byrd Polar Research Center and its student-affairs office, to seek advice on how to handle the situation. No one at the university seemed to know the procedures for dealing with an international medical emergency, he says, and he was bumped from office to office. "They didn't have a clue."

A staff member in the student-affairs office whom Mr. Thompson's secretary had connected him to on Friday was on a field trip on Monday, so Mr. Wight tried to call Ohio State's president, E. Gordon Gee. The president's secretary transferred Mr. Wight to the university hospital, where he was put in touch with a specialist, Robert Fass. Dr. Fass agreed to participate in a conference call with doctors at the Lhasa hospital, with help from a translator, to advise Mr. Wight on his son's treatment. Based on that conversation, Dr. Fass concluded that the Lhasa hospital wasn't treating the student appropriately for his blood clot, and recommended moving him to a hospital in Hong Kong.

Brad Wight flew to Washington, D.C., to get a visa and, at a friend's suggestion, contacted American Express for help in arranging his son's transfer. The company obtained a medical report from the Lhasa hospital, and informed Mr. Wight that the young man would need a medical evacuation because he was unable to walk onto a plane. That, a company representative told him, would cost $45,000.

When Mr. Wight contacted Ohio State for help, he was told that the university did not have an American Express account with a high-enough limit to cover the cost. After a series of phone calls among Ohio State officials, court records show, the university arranged to have the limit raised.

Brad Wight boarded a plane to Hong Kong on September 24. The next day, his son's plane landed in Hong Kong, and an ambulance whisked him up the hill to the hospital, where the anxious father was waiting. They hugged and cried in relief. "It was real emotional," Mr. Wight recalls, his voice breaking. "He figured this was it, and he was out of it now." The young man handed his journal to his father for safekeeping, but never wrote in it again.

The Hong Kong doctors began treating the student for his blood clot and recommended surgery to drain his lung. Dr. Fass, talking to Mr. Wight by phone from Ohio, advised moving the young man to University Hospitals of Cleveland for the surgery, because any complications might make it difficult for the student to return to the United States.

The Wights flew home. Shawn Wight, whose weight had dropped from 175 to 138 pounds since he left Ohio in August, was admitted on October 8 to the Cleveland hospital, where his mother was waiting for him. It had been a full month since he had experienced his first serious symptoms atop the glacier. "He was pitiful," Ms. Clark recollects in a telephone interview from Texas, where she now lives.

It only got worse. When the doctors drained the young man's lung, they found that somewhere along the line, he had picked up a bacterial infection. The opportunistic bacteria, Alcaligenes xylosoxidans, are dangerous for people whose health is already compromised.

Antibiotics didn't help, so the doctors removed part of the lung. After nearly a month in the Cleveland hospital, the student seemed well enough to be discharged, to stay in Ashtabula with his grandparents. He was ordered to continue taking antibiotics.

But the day after he left, he developed a fever, chills, and a cough. His family rushed him back to the hospital, on November 3, but the bacteria had taken over. His organs began to fail. He died on November 28, in the company of his family and Ms. Davis, his fellow graduate student.

The young man's family cremated his body and scattered the ashes among the cliffs of Utah's Arches National Park, his favorite place.

The Researcher

Lonnie Thompson still turns the events over in his mind. But he believes now -- as he did then -- that his formula for running expeditions works.

He long ago established himself as a maverick who would undergo the most difficult conditions at high altitudes for his science. Early in his career, he says, peers told grant-makers that his proposed expeditions were too risky and shouldn't be attempted. But Mr. Thompson believes the trips are important for understanding global warming, and his peers have come to agree.

No participant in any of his earlier expeditions had experienced lasting problems. But the Dasuopu Glacier was a different matter. In an interview in his ice-core laboratory at Ohio State, Mr. Thompson defended his decisions.

He acknowledges that the quick ascent contributed to the Ohio State group's initial altitude sickness. But such symptoms, he says, are something to be toughed out.

"We could have gone slower. We could have reduced that for sure," he says. "But acute mountain sickness is not dangerous." He adds that spending more time in the poor conditions of the border towns would have posed a greater risk of illness to the expedition members.

Other mountaineering experts and medical specialists, including Stephen Bezruchka, a University of Washington physician who has written about altitude illness, recommend drugs like acetazolamide and dexamethasone to prevent and ease its symptoms. But Mr. Thompson insists that they don't work and have harmful side effects.

He doesn't know why the student expected such drugs to be in the medical kit. The researcher says he tells expedition members that they can get prescriptions on their own, if they want.

Members of the Dasuopu expedition at first couldn't find the two-way radios that had arrived with the delayed shipment of supplies, and Mr. Thompson says he didn't place a priority on carrying out an extensive search because the radios had been brought to aid surveying and required a direct line of sight to work. He also says he considered hand-carried notes a better communications option. (After Mr. Wight's incident, however, the radios were found and then used to communicate between the 23,000-foot and 19,100-foot camps, when a Peruvian fell ill and descended.)

The researcher acknowledges that the group could have taken along more-versatile radios for such communication, but he decided against it. "You have to weigh the weight and the cost and the impact on people who have to put that stuff in against the benefits," Mr. Thompson says.

Other researchers and commercial outfitters sometimes carry satellite telephones to call for help. But Mr. Thompson says Dasuopu was too remote for such phones to do any good. "If you're in Tibet, who are you going to call?" he asks. "If something goes wrong out there, you're on your own."

He still doesn't see a need to pack oxygen on his high-altitude trips. His philosophy is to descend and use the lighter, less-expensive Gamow bags if a problem arises. "You never get into the position where you have to have oxygen, if you can avoid it," he says.

Unlike oxygen tanks, Gamow bags can't be depleted. But mountaineers and physicians say that while the best way to deal with altitude problems is to descend, climbers should have as many emergency options as possible. "They should have oxygen and a hyperbaric bag," Dr. Bezruchka says.

The University

Mr. Thompson and other Ohio State officials knew even before the student died that Brad Wight was questioning events on the mountain, and they realized they had a potential lawsuit on their hands. In early October, just a few days after the young man returned to Cleveland, Mr. Thompson's wife, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a geography professor at Ohio State, wrote a note to her husband in case he should call in.

"The university anticipates the possibility of a lawsuit and steps need to be taken right now in the event that a suit emerges," says the note, which is in the court record. She urged her husband to document his role in what had happened.

In early November, Ohio State's vice president for research, Edward F. Hayes, directed a panel to review the university's response to the incident and decide whether Mr. Wight should be reimbursed for his expenses in evacuating his son. (Mr. Hayes died of a heart attack in 1998.)

The seven members of the committee all had a direct interest in the outcome of the review. The chairman was Kenneth C. Jezek, the director of the Byrd center. Other members were Mr. Thompson and his wife; Linda K. Meadows, an assistant vice president for research; Mary Basinger, the student-affairs advocate who talked to Shawn's father; Rae Mercier, Mr. Thompson's secretary; and John Reilly, a staff lawyer at Ohio State. They consulted once by telephone with Dr. Fass.

Mr. Jezek's premise was that the university had properly handled Shawn Wight's emergency. "Thanks to many efforts on his behalf, the university responded quickly and effectively to secure necessary medical care and emergency transportation," he wrote in an e-mail message convening the committee.

After its first and only official meeting, the panel issued its report. "The university responded quickly and effectively to secure necessary medical care and emergency transportation," wrote Mr. Jezek, who declined to be interviewed for this article.

Ms. Meadows says that Mr. Thompson and his wife were on the panel to "educate and inform the other members about what happened." Although the panel found no wrongdoing, Ms. Meadows says that the emergency had put Ohio State in unfamiliar territory. Ohio State was "able to take an immediate course of action," she says, "but we didn't have a formalized system in place."

As the student struggled in the hospital, the local newspapers ran articles in which his father criticized Ohio State's handling of the situation, and the young man described his ordeal as "seven weeks of hell." A few days after the student's death, Mr. Jezek sent an e-mail message to Mr. Hayes. "I remain concerned that the tremendous and very rapid response of the university is going unnoticed by the press and by the family," he wrote. If the report were not made public, he added, Ohio State would "lose an opportunity to make sure that the university's extraordinary effort is made known." Copies of the report were quickly sent to local broadcasters and newspapers.

By early March 1998, Ohio State had reimbursed Brad Wight $39,500 for his travel and medical bills, and paid $5,100 to cover his son's funeral expenses.

But Mr. Wight still feels that Ohio State is shading what happened on the mountain and taking credit for an evacuation that he coordinated and carried out himself. "I was livid," Mr. Wight says. "They didn't even want to admit what they did and correct it if there's a problem down the line."

The Lawsuit

So he filed suit for $21-million, a figure suggested by his lawyers. He eventually was joined in the lawsuit by Ms. Clark. "The money was not the issue and never has been the issue," Mr. Wight says now. "All I wanted from Day 1 is for people to realize what they did, and I want them to change."

The case went to trial in June 2000 in Ohio's Court of Claims, which hears claims against the state and is presided over by judges who are appointed. No statistics are available on how often the court has found against the state. Law professors and other lawyers who have tried cases there, however, say that it's harder for plaintiffs to prevail because no jury trials are allowed and the court's rules are more demanding than those in other civil courts.

The record shows that Mr. Wight's lawyers, who had never tried a case in the Court of Claims, struggled with its procedures. The judge, J. Warren Bettis, was impatient with them more than once. "I've got enough trouble trying to do my own job without doing yours," he snapped when one lawyer stumbled over the rules for calling witnesses.

Ohio State's lawyers, in contrast, knew the terrain. The university spared no expense on the lawsuit, paying $336,000 to its lawyers and $54,000 to four expert witnesses. Those included Peter H. Hackett, a respected physician specializing in high-altitude medicine, and Peter Athans, a mountaineer and commercial-expedition leader.

Mr. Wight's lawyers took the case on a contingency basis, spending $37,400 out of pocket. That included $14,000 to hire one expert witness: Charles Houston, an octogenarian physician considered to be the pioneer of high-altitude medicine.

He testified that Mr. Wight had never really acclimatized and had shown the early stages of high-altitude cerebral edema on the glacier. Mr. Thompson "did not take him down low enough," Dr. Houston said. "He took him down only to 19,000 feet, where he was left in the tent."

Dr. Hackett, testifying for Ohio State, disagreed. He said that the student had suffered a transient ischemic attack -- a sort of migraine -- and that Mr. Thompson had acted appropriately, because the neurologic symptoms had gone away at 19,000 feet.

Mr. Athans also defended Mr. Thompson's decisions. He has criticized lawsuits against expedition leaders in the past. In Jon Krakauer's account of the 1996 deaths of climbers on Mount Everest, Into Thin Air, Mr. Athans lamented that "some people don't understand that an Everest expedition can't be run like a Swiss train." The situation on Dasuopu also was unpredictable, he testified.

The judge was convinced. He ruled that the parents had failed to prove negligence by Ohio State, and that "Dr. Thompson acted with the proper degree of care in responding to Wight's medical emergency." The university was not liable.

A crucial point, in a case that relied on expert testimony on both sides, was that Mr. Wight's lawyers had failed to have Dr. Houston review all of the hospital records up until the student's death, omitting those from the Cleveland hospital. "Dr. Houston said it didn't have to do with the University Hospitals records, it had to do with what happened on the mountain," explains Thomas C. Schrader, Mr. Wight's lead lawyer. But without evaluating what had happened after the student left Hong Kong, Judge Bettis wrote, "Dr. Houston could not fully understand the cause of Wight's death."

The University of Washington's Dr. Bezruchka, who at The Chronicle's request reviewed portions of the journals, the expert testimony in the case, and the Cleveland hospital's postmortem report, says that whatever the young man's problem was, it probably was related to altitude. "They should have descended and kept going," he says.

The student's weakened state when he was evacuated to the hospital in Lhasa made him more prone to infection, Dr. Bezruchka says. "He was a sitting duck for some sort of opportunistic pathogen."

Mr. Schrader says his clients don't plan to appeal the judge's decision, because the court's rules for allowing an appeal require proving that the judge acted "with malice."

The Aftermath

Although Ohio State carried the day in court, John J. Biancamano, a staff lawyer at the university, acknowledges that the case prompted Ohio State to make several changes, including developing guidelines for expeditions based on the internal committee's report.

The university now has an insurance policy that will cover emergency medical evacuations from remote locations. It has set up a system to allow expeditions to contact the university's security office 24 hours a day.

The Byrd center has created a set of written procedures for professors and students to follow before any foreign travel and in case of emergencies. Those include general recommendations for communicating with the university and for coordinating emergency evacuations.

But Mr. Wight believes the changes are insufficient. He thinks researchers should be required to have written plans for handling emergencies that may arise on their individual expeditions, and to take along modern communications gear and either a physician or an emergency-medical technician, as well as necessary medicines or supplies. He also wants expeditions to include someone whose sole responsibility is to ensure safety.

Some Ohio State professors agree that university officials should have done more. "The university did not officially acknowledge that there was a problem," says Gunter Faure, a geologist who was the student's academic adviser.

The major national scientific groups do not have safety protocols or guidelines for expeditions, even though in many disciplines, such work is a required part of the scientific apprenticeship. The National Science Foundation, however, does have elaborate requirements for scientists who work in Antarctica. Those include procedures for medical evacuations and rules that researchers in the field carry modern means of communication and regularly check in with the main bases.

William C. Noxon, a foundation spokesman, says that for individual expeditions elsewhere that it supports with grants, the agency leaves the responsibility for safety protocols up to researchers and their universities.

Few universities seem to have such protocols, however, as the Ohio State panel discovered when it contacted several other institutions. The operations director for a research center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Robert A. Grove, wrote back that the case was "a wake-up call that we need to work on and develop a more comprehensive plan."

Mr. Thompson now agrees: "You need to make sure you have documents for procedures."

While Mr. Faure doesn't blame Mr. Thompson for the student's death, he says that universities or the N.S.F. should ensure that expeditions have the required logistical support, including a medic or a doctor, if necessary. "I think that we're lucky that there aren't more Shawns," he says.

Mr. Thompson says that the agency should debate the issue internally, because researchers often face the dilemma of having to justify costs as "reasonable."

He still battles the aftereffects of what happened to Shawn Wight. The professor refers to the university inquiry and especially the lawsuit as his "ordeal." When the doubts creep in, when people question him, he insists to them -- and to himself -- that his decisions on the mountain were correct.

"Shawn was a great person," says Mr. Thompson, his voice tight and fast. "As these things are unfolding, you have no view of where they're headed."

"You go over this. I probably went over this a thousand times. What could I have done differently that might have made a difference?" he asks. "We did it right." Section: Research & Publishing Page: A12