Everest veteran recalls climb's hardships

Everest veteran recalls climb's hardships

EDITOR'S NOTE: Brian Smith, a 1988 South Medford High School graduate, has been sending periodic e-mail dispatches to the Mail Tribune from Mount Everest, where he hopes to fulfill a dream of reaching the "roof of the world." He is the son of Larry and Linda Smith of Jacksonville.

When Brian Smith attempts to summit Mount Everest later this week, both his physical and psychological endurance will be sorely taxed, says Laurie Bagley.

The Mount Shasta, Calif., resident knows of what she speaks: She climbed to the roof of the world a year ago this Friday.

"One of the things that makes it very difficult is that you are there for a really long time in, for the most part, very unpleasant conditions," she said. "There is very little break from the relentless cold, from the lack of oxygen.

"And the higher you get, the more all that magnifies," she added. "It becomes mind over matter."

Bagley, 46, became the 26th woman to summit the 29,035-foot peak when she reached it on May 25, 2006. She was only the sixth woman from the United States to summit the world's tallest mountain via the north route.

Smith, 37, a 1988 graduate of South Medford High School and the son of Larry and Linda Smith of Jacksonville, arrived in Kathmandu on March 28. After suffering from high-altitude pulmonary edema at 23,200 feet, he descended to 11,000 feet to recuperate.

He is now back at Camp II at 21,200 feet, waiting for internationally known mountain guide Willie Benegas, who reach the top last week via the south route. After regaining his strength, the guide will attempt a rare second summit with Smith.

With Benegas, well known in the climbing world for his abilities, Smith will be in good hands, said Bagley, who met the climbing guide on Aconcagua in Argentina early this year. The peak, which Smith also climbed this year, rises to 22,241 feet, making it the highest in the Americas.

But Bagley, who served as an assistant guide on Aconcagua and will help guide a group to the top of Alaska's 20,320-foot Mount McKinley next month, said Everest is tops when it comes to challenging endurance.

"Once we got to about 21,000 feet, it was never easy," she said. "One of the biggest challenges I had was the difficulty to breathe. After 21,000 feet, that problem never went away for me.

"It was especially scary at night — I would wake up in my tent, feeling like I was suffocating," she added. "It felt claustrophobic in the tent."

But Bagley, who began using supplemental oxygen at 25,500 feet, learned to deal with the fear.

After all, climbing Everest had been a dream of hers since she was a 16-year-old teenager in the Redding area. Now a motivational speaker as well as a fitness coach, whitewater guide and mountain climber, she said she is fairly conservative when it comes to adventure.

"On Everest, I was prepared to turn around," she said. "A couple of times I almost did. You can't wait until you're over your head. By then, it will be too late."

Evidence of the danger waiting on the mountain is readily apparent to climbers in the form of frozen bodies. Several people have died on the mountain already this year.

"When you climb Everest, you see them," she said. "They freeze. They don't go away. There is no way to remove the bodies."

The point, she said, is that extreme altitude climbing is extremely dangerous.

"When you are on the toughest mountains, it's hard to say anytime that you are safe," she cautioned. "Sometimes Mother Nature just throws you a curveball."

As she moved up the mountain, Bagley forced herself to eat and drink plenty of fluids, even when she felt too exhausted to eat or drink.

"It gets hard to eat when you get up high on the mountain," she explained.

When her team made the summit, the weather was relatively good with temperatures no more than 30 below zero and winds never more than 20 mph, she said.

"All that changed on the descent — we got nailed by a storm," she said.

But her group, knowing that many deaths on the mountain occur during the descent, was extremely cautious, she said.

"After summiting, my mission was to get back down as quickly as possible," she said. "I was gasping for air. My oxygen was almost out. I had to move quickly but be careful at every step.

"Descending is every bit as treacherous and hard as summiting," she added.

She echoed the old axiom that summiting Everest is only half the challenge.

"I would encourage Brian to be patient, to wait for the right opportunity as opposed to any opportunity," she said. "Regardless of the outcome, he will have a life-changing experience. Summiting is the gift. But the journey itself is the real experience."

For more information on Bagley's climbing experiences, check out her Web site at

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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