Brian Smith, a 1988 South Medford High School graduate, is sending periodic e-mail dispatches to the Mail Tribune from Mount Everest, where he hopes to reach the summit by mid-May. The son of Larry and Linda Smith of Jacksonville, Brian Smith began his treacherous adventure when he arrived in Kathmandu March 28.
In his last dispatch, published Friday, Smith said he was recovering from the painful “Khumbu cough” (named after the Khumbu Icefall) at base camp. His complete e-mails can be read at www.mailtribune.com.
We are leaving tomorrow for our final week on the upper mountain before our bid for the summit within the next couple of weeks.
It has been a long and sad week in base camp. Since the news has broken in the outside world, I will mention it. (Willy, our team leader, wants us to be very sensitive about what we release to the outside world.)
There have been five climbing fatalities this week.
We all knew it would only be a matter of time.
Willy organized a group of 50 or so Sherpas to bring down the body of a young Sherpa who was killed between Camp II and Camp III two days ago. This poor Sherpa was in his 20s and had a wife and four children back home.
The sacrifices that the Sherpa people make so that we can live our dreams are incredible. The Sherpa was at the base of the Lhotse Face when he was hit by ice, fell, broke his neck and died from his head injuries.
Today, I, Erik, Lakpa and a couple of other Sherpas climbed up to the 18,300-foot level inside the Khumbu Icefall to bring drinks and food to the Sherpas as well as help bring his body down. I felt very connected to the Sherpa people as there were only five of us Westerners helping to bring his body home.
While we were waiting for Willy and the Sherpas at the 18,300-foot level inside the icefall, a massive avalanche broke off the West Ridge and came right at us. Everyone ran for their lives. Erik and three of the Sherpas were already a couple hundred yards below me running through the seracs and crevasses like madmen. The Sherpas thought we were all dead for sure. I stuck around for another 20 seconds, watching the avalanche roar directly at me at more than 100 mph. I felt totally at peace with whatever the outcome of the next 30 seconds would be as I watched it come.
Finally, I dropped down about 50 feet and took cover at the last second with Lakpa behind a serac as day turned into night with the huge blizzard of ice that covered us. The avalanche was so massive that it blew all the way through base camp, coating everything in ice. We were hit at least a mile above base camp full force. I looked like Frosty the Snowman as I was coated in ice from head to toe. Even my glacier glasses were coated in ice so that I couldn’t see.
This is the third time in my life that I have been hit by a massive avalanche cloud. Two of those times have been here on Everest. Once again, all of base camp was freaking out as they watched the cloud blast over us.
After the biggest avalanche of the season here, we continued lowering the Sherpa’s body to base camp. Everyone in base camp watched us get blasted by the avalanche and then they all stood outside their tents as we brought the body into camp. It was quite a day and has been quite a week for us.
Two days ago there was a massive collapse inside the Khumbu Icefall. The entire “soccer field” dropped about 12 feet with much of the route below getting wiped out. I believe in miracles and believe that it was a miracle that nobody was on that part of the route, as it was 7 a.m. on a busy day. Had anyone been there they would have been killed.
I am happy to also report that Jaime is recovering from being hit hard with high altitude pulmonary edema and pneumonia at Camp II, when we were up there earlier in the week. Jaime recognized how sick he was and descended a day behind me. He barely made it to base camp and was so sick that his pulse/oxygen was 125 beats per minute resting, with 61 percent oxygen saturation. He had to rest every 50 feet when walking. He was put onto oxygen gas and intravenous fluids at the Everest emergency room for 24 hours and recovered enough to descend. His skin color was blue before being treated. When he descended, his skin was still ghostly white but he was grateful to be feeling a little better, as were we all. His was the worst emergency at the Everest ER so far this season. Hopefully he will be back in a week or two but we fear that his dream may be over this year to ski the Lhotse Face.
On Lhotse Shar there are currently two Sherpas and two Koreans missing and presumed dead. The Sherpas are really sensitive right now about all the bad karma surrounding the mountain. Two of our Sherpas lost their fathers on Everest when they were children. I have gotten to know Lakpa much better after climbing with him a couple of times when I was sick. Lakpa was 7 years old when his father was killed on Everest.
Now he is a high-altitude climbing Sherpa and has been to the summit three times. I asked him if he enjoys reaching the summit. He said, “Not at all; this is how I support my family.”
By Nepalese standards he does very well, but his wife and 4-year-old worry about him four months each year while he works Everest and Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak in the world west of Everest. He then takes eight months off to be with his family before the next climbing season.
There are a lot of groups up here testing climbers for various things. The Brits have tested 145 climbers who have made the summit of Everest. They found that Everest summiteers have special genes that the rest of the world does not have. These genes make them stronger and able to survive on much less oxygen than the rest of the human race. What they hope to find is a way to extract this gene to give to people who are sick and injured in the hospital and struggling with their oxygen saturation.
Of the three medical tests I have been involved in, this one was most interesting and I was happy to pass my DNA on to them to help the human race. We will see after I make the summit (Lord willing) if I have this same genetic makeup as the other climbers. We are all definitely freaks to want to even risk our lives and suffer tremendously to realize our dreams on the roof of the world.
Tomorrow I am off to Camp II and then Camp III twice, so I will be out of communication for the next week. We will push to Camp II from base tomorrow morning (Sunday). Monday we rest. Tuesday we climb up the steep, icy Lhotse Face to Camp III. The team will spend the night at Camp III while I descend back to Camp II.
Wednesday I rest in Camp II while the team returns. Thursday I then climb up to Camp III with a Sherpa to sleep at 24,000 feet without oxygen. Friday I descend back to Camp II and Saturday I descend back to base camp two days behind the team.
Finding a Sherpa to join me at Camp III has not been easy. Sherpas never sleep at Camp III, as it is a dangerous camp filled with bad juju. I am not looking forward to that night, but it is the last step in my acclimatization process before our summit bid in the next two to three weeks.
I hope everyone is well.