First- and second-graders at Greenbriar West Elementary School have their heads in the clouds lately. But that's just fine by their teacher.
Next week, Gabrielle Burch's class begins to follow her husband's attempt to climb Mount Everest. Sean Burch, 32, hopes to become the seventh American to reach the top of the world's highest mountain without additional oxygen.
In between skin temperature readings and oxygen saturation measurements, he will send regular dispatches to the class through e-mail and a satellite phone. Gabrielle Burch also plans to communicate with her class regularly from Everest Base Camp, the launching pad for climbers, where she will be cheering her husband on.
"It's important for my kids to know what he's doing," said the teacher of the multi-age class. "As children, they have so many things they'll be wanting to become. Just to be told they can do it, I wish I'd had that when I was in first or second grade."
On a recent afternoon, Sean Burch visited with the class to detail his preparations to scale the 29,035-foot peak and show off his equipment. For a few hours, the school's library was transformed into a virtual base camp as camping and mountaineering equipment was strewn across the floor and colorful Nepali prayer flags lined the walls. Children inserted whole legs into boots and crammed a half-dozen of their little bodies into a sleeping tent meant for three. They pounded the floor with trekking poles and ice axes.
They peppered the climber with questions:
Where do you sleep?
Why don't you use oxygen?
Are you scared you might die?
"I am," answered Sean Burch. "Being scared is not necessarily a bad thing. Being scared might help keep me alive."
According to everestnews.com, there have been 175 deaths on the mountain since 1922.
Besides measuring his skin temperature and calorie intake on his upcoming climb, Burch also intends to take Viagra, the medication best known for helping men with erectile dysfunction, to combat altitude sickness. Doctors say the chemical in Viagra increases blood flow in the lungs.
For his talks with children, however, the fitness trainer and instructor stressed the importance of good eating and exercise habits. Gabrielle Burch said the class can learn about latitude and longitude as it tracks Sean's movement and also compare the flora and fauna of the United States and Nepal.
She will be able to e-mail the class and post digital photos through the Fairfax County school district's Web site licensed from Blackboard Inc., a Washington-based educational technology company.
Sean leaves next Thursday for Nepal, while his wife plans to join him in mid-April and hand the class over to a substitute. The couple, who live in Oakton, exchanged wedding vows last year on Mount Whitney in California, the tallest peak in the continental United States.
Two weeks ago, fresh in the children's minds was the snowstorm they had just witnessed. It was the worst first-grader Michael Sciorra had seen in his 63/4 years, leaving so much snow that he couldn't go to school for a week. He imagines Everest climbers will have to contend with even more. "Mountains get more snow," Michael said. "They run away from avalanches and stuff."
The children's eyes widened at the mention of frostbite and avalanches, the leading cause of death on Everest. "It can be really dangerous," said 8-year-old Ruth Wondemu, a second-grader.
Still, the aspiring singer chose not to dwell on the scary parts of Burch's climb. "I learned you can do whatever you want when you grow up," she said.
Before he left the class, Burch signed T-shirts adorned with his Web site's logo, www.seanburch.com. With a black felt-tip marker, he scrawled, "Dream high."