Eating crow — and liking it — with Brian Smith

Brian Smith, pictured on his climb of Mount Everest, is back to tell the tale.

Early in May, I informed mountain climber Brian Smith that I would be honored to buy him lunch whenever he returned to Medford.

At the time, I was sitting in the comfortable confines of the Mail Tribune office. He was clinging to the frozen side of Mount Everest at around 20,000 feet.

And he was battling a life threatening case of high-altitude pulmonary edema — fluid on the lungs.

I had serious doubts about him ever surviving to collect the promised lunch, let alone summit. In fact, I figured he would be lucky just to descend alive to base camp at 17,500 feet elevation.

Now there's one promised lunch I'll never have to make good, I thought as I launched the e-mail offer into thin air.

Boy, was I wrong.

Those following the Mail Tribune's coverage of his journey up the mountain this past spring know you never, ever underestimate Brian Smith. Not only did the 1988 South Medford High School graduate make it safely down the mountain to recover his health, but he charged back up in three weeks to reach the 29,035-foot summit early on May 24. Truly remarkable.

After giving a presentation to a packed Medford Rogue Rotary Club meeting early Friday afternoon, he dropped by to collect on the promised lunch. Joining us were his parents, Larry and Linda Smith of Jacksonville.

Fortunately, I didn't have to order crow for myself.

The soft-spoken 37-year-old is no braggart. He is bright, funny and humble.

"I still think about that climb every day," he says. "I learned how far I can push my limit. And I learned how strong and resilient the human mind and body is."

He is quick to give veteran mountain guide Willie Benegas and the Sherpas ample credit for assisting him in standing on the roof of the world.

But he allows it has changed his life. He will be featured in a four-part BBC documentary called "Everest ER" which will be released in Great Britain in December followed by an international release in January.

And the real estate investor who lives in Loveland, Colo., with his wife, Helen, and their two children — Chloe, 6, and Everest, 3 — is now giving goal-setting motivational speeches.

In fact, you can still catch one of his local appearances, which are open to the public at no charge. He gives a presentation beginning at 7 p.m. tonight at the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church. On Monday he will give another public presentation at 7 p.m. at the Rogue Valley Manor in Medford. He has speaking engagements in Washington state later this coming week.

You know anyone with a son named Everest has to be motivated to achieve his dream. It began in the ninth grade when he would often spend his lunch hours dashing over to the Medford library to check out books on Everest.

During his senior year in high school, he made his first winter ascent of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range at 14,409 feet. He has made 33 ascents on Rainier, but turned back 24 times when the weather turned too dangerous.

Before tackling Everest, the former triathlete kept in shape by traveling to Argentina early this year to climb Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet the highest peak in the Americas.

But Everest is the mother of them all.

After recovering from the edema, he began his ascent. He called his wife and children from Camp 4 which, at some 26,000 feet above sea level, is the beginning of the region known as the Death Zone.

"I didn't know if that would be the last time I would talk to them — there was a lot of tragedy in the death zone," he says.

He would climb past the frozen bodies of renowned climber Scott Fisher and a Sherpa at about 27,000 feet. Fisher died on the mountain in 1996; the Sherpa in 1991.

Smith stops talking about the climb for a moment to express his admiration for the Sherpas.

"They are the kindest, happiest people I've ever met," says the global traveler. "They love you for who you are, not for your Western money. They make huge sacrifices for us."

They are tougher than nails, carrying everything from plywood to heavy generators up the mountain, he says. They also have a penchant for smoking cigarettes and drinking rice beer, he adds.

"When they take their breaks, even at 26,000 feet, they smoke," he adds. "And they get rip-roaring drunk every night and sing until about two or three in the morning. They amaze me."

Yet the countless people following his climb up the mountain were just as amazed by his success. Benegas graciously asked him to lead the way as they neared the summit.

"I thought, 'Wow, I'm going to the top of the world,' " Smith recalls. "As I approached the top, I could see the prayer flags flapping in the wind in my head lamp. I tried to slow down to enjoy each crunch, to savor the moment."

The next step found him atop Mount Everest.

"I go, 'Six billion people on the planet and I'm top dog,' " he says, grinning while pumping both fists into the air.

But there are still mountains to climb. He goal is to climb all 54 peaks in Colorado that rise to 14,000 feet or more. And there is Denali in Alaska, at 20,320 feet the tallest peak in North America.

"I'd love to do Denali — it'll be a challenge," he says.

I'm already looking forward to buying that lunch.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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