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In the shadow of Everest

Brian Smith's chest is racked by coughing spasms. His cuts don't heal in the thin air. He wakes each morning inside his tent with his sleeping bag covered with ice. And he is bone tired.

Consider his e-mail sent Tuesday about the night he spent at Camp II, elevation 21,200 feet:

"It was cold and the air thin," he wrote. "Having a case of the Khumbu cough going did not allow for any deep rest as a deep, violent coughing fit was never far away, and always left me breathless and exhausted."

Smith, 37, a 1988 graduate of South Medford High School and the son of Larry and Linda Smith of Jacksonville, is climbing Mount Everest in the pursuit of a lifelong dream. His trek began March 26, when he arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The Mail Tribune will follow his Everest challenge by carrying portions of his e-mail journal as he climbs the world's tallest peak. The complete text will be available online at www.mailtribune.com.

The plan is for Smith's six-member team to summit late next month, conditions permitting.

"Having dreamed of being here since 1985 I remind myself each day to not get complacent but enjoy being here at all times," he wrote on Thursday. "I constantly remind myself that I am walking across the exact same ground as Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Jim Whittaker and many other famous mountaineers who made history from the exact location I am writing from right now."

Earlier this week he was temporarily back down at the 17,500-foot base camp, recuperating from the cough named after the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, a 2,500-foot climb to reach Camp 1 at nearly 20,000 feet.

That means the real estate investor had more than two vertical miles to climb before achieving his dream of standing on top of the 29,035-foot peak next month.

He knows full well that dreams can be crushed by weather, injury, illness or whatever else Everest throws at the climbers.

But the former triathlete is undaunted, although he misses his family back in Loveland, Colo., including wife Helen, daughter Chloe, 6, and son, Everest, 3.

"I find that I still feel emotional every time I gaze up at Mount Everest," he wrote. "From base camp we cannot see the summit, but from just above Camp I the summit towers 9,000 feet directly over the top of us. The sight always leaves me emotional and choked up.

"The first time I climbed above Camp I, I was alone," he added. "I spent several hours standing on the edge of a deep crevasse just gazing up at the highest point on the planet. I never grew tired of the sight and only left when the afternoon clouds and snow swallowed up the summit."

In an interview with the Mail Tribune before beginning his trek to Everest, Smith talked about the call of high mountains.

"Mountain climbing gives you a chance to know yourself," he explained. "You are totally alone in your thoughts. And, of course, the views are amazing.

"But you also thrive on the ability to handle hardship where others can't or won't go," he added. "There are a lot of hardships with high altitude and winter climbing. There is a calculated risk."

Chris Boskoff, owner of Seattle-based Mountain Madness, the firm Smith hired to lead him to the top of Everest, perished in an avalanche on Genyen Peak in southwest China last November. Boskoff was helping organize Smith's climb.

Killed with her was longtime companion Charlie Fowler, who, like Boskoff, was a world-class climber. Fowler's sister, Ginny Hicks, and mother, Christine Fowler, live in Jacksonville.

Before heading to Nepal, Smith toned up by traveling to Argentina earlier this year to climb Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet the highest peak in the Americas. He later climbed two nearly 20,000-foot peaks in Mexico.

But Everest has long been one of Smith's climbing goals. In fact, when he was in the ninth grade in Medford, he often dashed over to the city library during lunch break for books on Mount Everest.

His love of hiking and climbing began as a youngster in Crater Lake National Park, where his father was a park ranger before becoming a schoolteacher.

During his senior year in high school, he made his first winter ascent of Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range at 14,409 feet. He has made 33 ascents on Rainier, where he did a stint as a park ranger after high school. However, he noted he is a cautious climber, having turned back 24 times on Rainier because of deteriorating weather.

But Rainier is no Everest. Thus far, Smith estimates he has hiked more than 50 miles, including side trips up "small," 17,000-foot peaks just to reach base camp on Everest.

In an April 19 e-mail, Smith noted the hardships are more than contending with thin air. For instance, he has had only four showers in the past 21 days.

"We all laugh about how we spent $55,000 to risk our lives and suffer for two months up here on Everest," he wrote. "What a weird group we are. At the same time we are having the time of our lives at the most famous location on the planet."

He also noted that it is a small planet: He discovered after talking to base camp manager Ted Anderson that Anderson is a 1993 graduate of South Medford High School.

"Crazy how we grew up so close together in the Rogue Valley and met for the first time at 17,500 feet on Everest," Smith observed.

In Tuesday's e-mail, he noted he has been through the Khumbu Icefall three times round-trip as he climbed between base camp and Camp I.

"The first time through, the Khumbu was a fascinating and very spooky, unstable place," he wrote. "There are many double and triple extension ladders that wobble and sway as you carefully cross over seemingly bottomless crevasses."

He acknowledges there is plenty of hard work ahead to reach the top. His team's plan calls for climbing to Camp III at 24,000 feet by May 1, then spending time getting acclimated to the increasingly rarefied air. From there it will be to Camp IV at 26,000 feet, entering what climbers refer to as the Death Zone.

The final push to the top of the world is scheduled to occur sometime between May 15 and the 25th, he said, noting the climb above Camp IV likely will be the toughest part of the arduous adventure. Climbers are utterly exhausted at that point, often going 50 to 55 hours without sleep, he observed.

"Our biggest daily challenge up here is staying healthy," he wrote Thursday. "Nearly everyone on our team has been sick. ... A simple cold can end a high altitude climber's dream."

When his team leaves Camp III, members will be carrying oxygen tanks, he said. However, they will spend the night at the camp without supplemental oxygen.

"I somewhat dread that night as I hear the suffer factor is very high without oxygen," he wrote.

Still, Smith believes he will summit the earth's highest mountain.

"I am very optimistic that I can reach the summit as long as I stay healthy," he wrote. "My cough definitely had me discouraged as it has lasted for about three weeks and forced me to descend from Camp II a couple days ahead of the team on our last climb.

"But for the past two days it has almost gone away," he added. "Now I have to be very careful to not get it back again."

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

South Medford High School graduate Brian Smith is photographed at 18,000 feet on Mount Everest, with base camp behind him. He hopes to summit the world’s tallest peak in mid-May.