Beyond Mount Everest
Nearly 10 years ago, Brian Smith reached the summit of Mount Everest, a trek that almost cost him his life when he found himself gasping for air from a climber's worst nightmare — pulmonary edema.
After a full recovery, the 47-year-old Jacksonville resident has continued his ongoing flirtation with life and death.
Smith now works for a local company that transports the dead to funeral homes. Last Wednesday, he had a busy night picking up three bodies.
"Most people in Jackson County get their last ride with me," Smith says.
Apart from his unusual day job, you'd think Smith would settle down with memories of the day he stood atop a 29,035-foot peak. But that remarkable feat now seems less lofty to Smith than the humanitarian work he's undertaken in Nepal since then through an organization he founded, Helping Assist Nepal's Disabled, www.handnepal.org.
The nonprofit helps get medical attention to Nepalese with disabilities in remote villages that have only basic health care.
"A great victory story for me is a boy named Dirgha," he says.
While working at Shanti Sewa Leprosy/Disability home in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2013, Smith met a 13-year-old orphan boy, Dirgha Raj Shahi, who was born without a hip on his right side. Dirgha means "long life" in Nepalese. The boy, now 16, doesn't have leprosy himself and, in spite of the extreme poverty he has endured, taught himself how to speak four languages.
After much research, Smith found a surgical solution that would require taking the boy to India, funded through his organization as well as his own time and effort. "The donations mostly came from the good people in Jackson County," Smith says.
Before the surgery could take place, Smith hiked 100 miles round trip on a trail through rough mountainous country to a remote village in Nepal where Dirgha was living at the time.
The boy had to walk from the village to Kathmandu. "He just limped along, and his femur just floated in the muscle in his leg," Smith says. "He'd been walking that way all his life, and he was always in pain."
After three weeks lining up Dirgha's citizenship and passport, they journeyed to India for the successful surgery where a hip was attached. Still, the boy's right leg was two centimeters shorter than the left.
"His back is really twisted as well," Smith says.
Smith plans to return to Nepal in April to visit Dirgha and bring a special pair of shoes obtained by his sister, Amber Shields, a local nurse, that will compensate for the difference in the length of Dirgha's two legs.
"He's kind of become my little brother," he says.
Smith's taste for adventure was evident even as a toddler, says his father, Jacksonville resident Larry Smith and a former park ranger at Crater Lake.
"You should have seen him when he was 3," Larry says. "He was climbing on everything."
Larry says his son grew up exploring the wilderness around Crater Lake. Brian followed in his father's footsteps for a while and was a park ranger at Mount Rainier in Washington.
By seventh grade, Brian, with books about mountains spread out before him, told his family he wanted to summit Mount Everest and continued that interest as an adult as he raised a family that now includes four children.
"When he named his son Everest, I knew he was serious," Larry says.
After Brian got home from his Mount Everest trek, Larry says his son described how he felt as his lungs filled with water.
"He told me, 'At first you're praying to live, and then you're praying to die,'" Larry says.
Brian Smith wrote a series of articles for the Mail Tribune about his climb, and he's been featured on TV shows as well.
Over the past years, Smith has helped out in various relief efforts, helping the Nepalese Army Rangers pull bodies out of the rubble after a devastating earthquake in April 2015. He's also helped pull the bodies of hikers off the treacherous mountains as well.
"My nickname was 'The Specialist,' " he says.
Medical centers were destroyed in four villages after the earthquake, so Smith helped build birthing centers for women to get the medicine and care they needed for their deliveries.
In one case, he moved 1,000 pounds of food in a dump truck to one of the new medical outposts. "We had 46 births after putting (the birthing center) in," Smith says.
About three years ago, Smith met his current wife, Mako, who lived in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union.
After a three-month internet romance and an invitation from Mako, Smith traveled to Georgia, which he describes as having a similar climate and topography to Oregon, with the Caucasus mountains to climb.
The Georgian people are extremely welcoming and refer to a guest as a "gift from God," Smith says. He recalls lots of toasts with vodka and wine that would put most westerners under the table.
"They say a Georgian man can drink five to six liters of wine at a 'supra' (feast)," he says.
Smith stayed for a year and a half, teaching English in a country that didn't require a visa.
Back in the states, Smith says he's been waiting three years for his wife to get immigration approvals to stay in the country permanently.
Even though he's a bit older, he still has mountains on his mind. Smith tried to scale the highest mountain in the continental U.S., 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in California, but was pushed back by weather.
"I've climbed (Mount) Rainier a number of times," he says. "Now I have to train for it."