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In Ascent of Everest, Wash. Teacher Puts Education on Pedestal

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In the first hours of last Friday--Nepal time--computer teacher Jason Edwards was trudging slowly up a snowy rock face toward the summit of Mount Everest with a teammate.

Two continents away in Puyallup, Wash., colleagues and students at Stahl Junior High School were stealing anxious moments at school computers checking Web sites for any news about his progress in the thin air at more than 26,300 feet above sea level.

Principal Michael E. Warr said everyone at the school had been on "pins and needles" after reports earlier this month of the deaths of several climbers descending from the 29,028-foot peak. The deaths turned out to have occurred on the mountain's northern approach, in Tibet, not the southern route being tried by Mr. Edwards' and about 10 other teams.

"Just the fact that there was a near miss, there was a substantial disruption that day," Mr. Warr said, adding that newspaper, radio, and television reporters descended on the school afterward.

Mr. Edwards' climb also turned out to be a near miss. Later on the morning of May 23, while Puyallup slept, Mr. Edwards turned back from his summit attempt after he experienced potentially serious vision problems due to the extreme altitude.

Two other climbers in the team, Canadians Jamie Clarke and Alan Hobson, reached the summit. The three climbers reportedly descended safely.

Overall, Principal Warr said last Thursday, teachers had achieved a balance in keeping students interested in the climb, while still going on with the normal curriculum.

Mr. Edwards, 38, likely would have appreciated that feat, because he and the other climbers on the team--called the Colliers Lotus Notes Mount Everest '97 Expedition--have had an educational mission, in addition to their strong personal motivations to be there.

They have been the main subjects for the Adventure Everest Online educational program, which has used the risky trek up the world's tallest mountain to fuel students' explorations in science, mathematics, language arts, and social studies.

Teachers at more than 500 schools in Canada and the United States paid a fee to subscribe to the Everest program and use the curriculum materials and events presented on its World Wide Web site, said Marty Edwards, the director of multimedia development at VR Didatch, the software company in Burnaby, British Columbia, that organized the program

The Web address is http://www.vrsystems.com/everest.

One on-line guest at the Web site who answered students' questions was Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 preceded Mr. Edwards up the southern approach to be Mount Everest's first conqueror.

The idea of combining exciting real adventures with educational content and serving it to students on a Web site has taken off in the past few years. Adventurers are using satellite and Internet technologies to communicate with students while crossing continents on bicycles and oceans on sailboats.

But the Mount Everest expedition may be the most dangerous to be used in this way.

During last year's tragic Mount Everest climbing season, eight climbers died on a single day, and a climber who was communicating with schoolchildren via the Web nearly perished.

But Paul Goebel, a Stahl Junior High science teacher who is taking over Mr. Edwards' class in the climber's absence, said: "The whole time through we've talked about how safe Mr. Edwards is. [The students] know him and know he is a safe person, too."

To keep the focus on education, organizers were cautious about reporting more than basic accounts of the accidents and deaths.

Camp Demolished

This year's climbers on the south approach have been taunted by an unruly jet stream that has risen to hurricane force and demolished one of the camps that are essential staging points up the mountain.

Just last week, a helicopter sent to evacuate climbers from one team crashed on landing, but the pilot and co-pilot survived.

In a e-mail message to Mr. Goebel, Mr. Edwards said he'd seen two bodies of climbers from a 1982 expedition that had emerged from a glacier. Mr. Goebel mentioned that fact to his students in a discussion of glaciation.

In messages directly to students, Mr. Edwards, an expert climber who had narrowly missed reaching the Everest summit on two previous expeditions, emphasized the importance of safety but also the value in taking risks to achieve significant goals.

Last week, Mr. Edwards sent them a final message before he began his summit bid, telling them: "We'll give it our best shot ... but whatever the outcome, know that our main goal is to make it home safely to family and friends. Enough said."

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