March/April 2004
Charles Wittmack                                                     
Interviewed via email and by telephone from Iowa City, Iowa on January 26, 2004.
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From a
Love of the Mountains
to a
Love of the Law
© Copyright 2001-2014. Pamela Trudo. All rights reserved.

Q:  Will you tell a little about your background?

A:  I am an Iowa boy born and raised who grew up spending a lot of summers and winters wandering through the Rockies. My dad and I started climbing together when I was thirteen and I fell in love with the sport. Shortly after that I fell in love with reading and buried myself in classic British tales of adventures in the Himalayas. The Everest dream didn't take long to sprout. The Everest project began formally in 1997 and the academic element (that is the research, planning  and learning that goes into it) took me from a major in art history, to a business degree, and eventually to the law office of Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. where I worked as a paralegal. Many people find it odd that a love of the mountains turned into a love of the law, but it seemed like a natural progression to me!

Q:  What was your inspiration for climbing mountains?

A:  My inspiration for climbing came from the body of literature that provides the foundation to the sport. Climbers and mountaineers are traditionally a rather introspective and thoughtful bunch, and their literature is excellent evidence. A climber in Iowa spends far more time pouring over his books than ascending routes. These stories involve life and death, triumph and tragedy, and the most incredible love affairs you can imagine. When other kids were out playing baseball, I was inside devouring stories of Irving and Mallory, Boardman and Tasker, Simpson and Yates. 

Q:  After you made the decision to climb Everest, how did you prepare mentally, physically, and financially?

A:  Organizing an expedition to Mount Everest is very similar to founding a business in a foreign country. You have to hire a staff of Sherpas, porters, cooks and yaks. You'll need permits from as many as six different government agencies. You'll have to find food, which will then have to be transported to an extremely remote location. If you plan to use oxygen, the bottles will be purchased from a company in Russia, sent to the US for inspection, returned to Russia for filling, then shipped by truck to Nepal. It goes on and on. It's no wonder that expedition leaders are frequently former CEO's of major companies. The logistics are every bit as challenging as the climbing.

In order to prepare for this type of project you have to split your time between physical and mental preparation and research. During the months leading up to the expedition I spent around six hours a day training and another eight to ten handling media and logistics. And that was just during the final months when I was working on the climb full time. In the years leading up to the expedition, the focus was weighted much more heavily in research.

My physical training took me to five continents on more than a dozen expeditions. Some of the expeditions were designed for their length, others for the cold, and still others for the fear. On that foundation I built a workout routine that could be tailored to the specific Everest objective. The workouts included climbing skyscrapers in my hometown with an 80 pound pack; riding a track bicycle (with no brakes or gears) on long, hilly rides; running through parks with deep snow banks; and swimming workouts that focused on increasing lung capacity by swimming under water.

Q:  What was the reaction from family and friends?

A:  My parents have always been very supportive and encouraging of reaching for ambitious dreams. My sister is at Yale developing medications that will save the world. I have a feeling that's more what my parents had in mind, but they realized early on that my path was heading in a different direction. After more than a decade of adventures, they were my greatest team members when the expedition was finally ready to go. There were countless obstacles that we had to overcome together, and at each point they provided the support (emotional, administrative, and financial) that made the expedition a success.

Q:  What was the day you reached the summit of Mt. Everest?

A:  May 22nd, 2003.

Q:  What was the final assent like?

A:  The final assent was actually in two parts.  Everest is a mountain that is built like a pyramid. We climb it expedition style. And so we spend several months climbing back and forth between the camps and build a ladder that will in the end take four or five days to climb all the way to the summit. After we had spent two months building the supply ladder, we were ready to make the final summit attempt.

We had attempted the summit already once, around May 10th, but had been turned back because of really extreme weather . . .winds in an excess of one hundred miles per hour. We went down for a couple weeks. Came back up. We took an extra rest day because the weather was so bad in Camp Three, at which point my climbing partner suffered a pulmonary edema. His lungs had filled with fluid and he was hyperventilating. He had to descend and I went on to Camp Four.

I got to Camp Four about noon. That evening at 9:00 p.m. I took off for the summit. I was on the second team on the route. The Indian army was ahead of us by about an hour. They called back on the radio and said the winds were still too high: “We can't advance anymore. We're turning around.” They pulled the plugs on all the other expeditions because we had divvied up the ropes. Nobody could continue because no one team had enough ropes to make it all the way to the summit.

The trick is after you've gotten up to Camp Four and have gone on supplemental oxygen, you really can't come off of it. You have physiological problems. Either your brain or your lungs fill with fluid…cerebral or pulmonary edema. I was climbing with Sean Burch, a guy from Washington, D.C. And we came back down to Camp Four and we said, "Look, this is the only time we have to do this."

We had had a lot of money invested in the project and a lot of time obviously. And for our careers, this was our window of opportunity. So we decided we were going to go for it. We were going to sit at Camp Four and go up with supplemental oxygen and see what happened.

We stayed a day at Camp Four off the oxygen and kept a real good eye on each other. We were O.K. and we made it through the day. That was our second day without any food or water. Above Camp Three you really can't eat. Your body doesn't digest food because you're so hypoxic . . . so low in oxygen. So, it starts shutting down its vital organs.

We started at 8:00 p.m. that night. We got out of our tents. The sky was clear. Stars were above us. And, below us was a lightning storm. It was at about twenty thousand feet, six thousand feet below us. It looked like a dance floor down there. It was just spectacular. We kept walking. But we knew there was a time limit because that storm was coming toward us. We had to get from Camp Four to the summit and back before the storm hit us. It was a race.

From Camp Four to the summit is only a mile and one-half . . .three thousand feet of climbing. It took me twenty-two hours round trip. I was the first down in the year 2003.

Q:  Did you have any time to appreciate being on top?

A:  Not at all. I was the first Westerner and I was breaking trail. A few Sherpas passed me on the way to the south summit. By the time I reached the south summit, the winds were in excess of forty miles per hour. It was basically white-out conditions.

From the south summit to the true summit is like walking on a wood plank. There is a very steep ridge on both sides. Very difficult climbing. And it's all at twenty-nine thousand feet. It’s a very dangerous part of the climb. You don't want to be out on the ridge with high winds and once you're out there, it's very difficult to get back safely unless the weather cooperates. On the summit you are in a very dangerous, a very exposed, position. I had to make the decision and I decided to go for it.

My goal was to prove that I had made it and to get home safely.

Q:  You had a Sherpa to prove that you had made it to the top, didn't you?

A:  The Sherpas can be difficult. Their voice can be purchased. The rules were in the old mountaineering days that you would go to the summit and take something with you. Whoever went there the next year would bring it down and that would prove that you had been there. They would leave something there of their own. And it would go on like that in a cycle. Today there are so many climbers on the route, it doesn't work. You can pass something off to somebody else.

What you have to do is take a photo of the Rongbuk Glacier, which is a glacier that can only be seen when you climb from Nepal to the summit. The problem is that if you are in a white-out, you can't see the Rongbuk and you can't take a photograph of it. So, I was sitting there trying to think of what to do and suddenly, to my good fortune, a couple guys walked up from Tibet. One of them was a native Tibetan dressed in the traditional garb. I took their photograph and they took my photograph and this was how we both could prove it.

Q:  Will you ever go back?

A:  Oh, absolutely.

Q:  How was the fear factor?

A:  This project for me was seven years of training. One of the legs on that stool of preparation is training for the fear. Mentally you prepare and train to be afraid like that. It's something that you have to learn how to deal with.

Q:  I would think that your body would be telling you and your brain would be telling you not to do it.

A:  You learn a lot about yourself. On the summit attempt, on almost every step, I was thinking, "Turn around. Turn around." And just when I would be about ready to do it, the clouds would clear and something about the conditions would improve enough to convince me that I could continue on.

Q:  Is it as trashy up there as I have heard?

A:  It really isn't. There are a lot of rumors that Everest is a big garbage heap. Those are all totally false now. It was true to a certain extent. But there have been several environmental expeditions over the last five or six years. Huge American expeditions have gone there and have picked up every scrap of paper and fabric off the mountains. It's really quite clean now.

Q:  You said earlier in the interview that your love of mountains progressed to love of the law. Would you explain that?

A:  I was a bookworm as a kid. I went to college and I started a travel service so I could go and climb these mountains I wanted to climb. I would take colleagues of mine on backpacking trips and I would charge them just enough to cover my own expense. I did that for a couple of years. I had a liberal arts degree that I thought would allow me more time to be away from campus.

Eventually, I decided I needed a business degree so I could do this seriously. I enrolled in the business school at the University of Iowa and went through that program. I loved business. I was trying to find out how this Everest climb was going together.

It's like starting an international business. They're very expensive. You've got a lot of employees. You don't speak the same language. There are all kinds of regulations in Nepal you are trying to understand.There are a number of permits. There are government ministries you are trying to get approval from to get your business operational. You've got unions you are trying to deal with. Labor relations. The fee structure as to how you pay your Sherpas is totally bizarre.

And, you are trying to get this all organized in your head. It took getting a business degree to try to figure it all out and figure out the marketing.

The next step for me was getting a job as a paralegal at Arnold and Porter, a law firm in Washington, D.C.

Q:  How did you get that job?

A:  I went to the east coast and interviewed with firms all up and down the east coast. I went out and did the interviews. Came home. A few months later I got a call from A&P. I was in Seattle and drove all the way from Seattle to Washington, D.C. I started to work and continued to build these tools. I got to work on some nonprofit's there . . .drafting articles of incorporation and by-laws. And I got to do a lot of pro bono work. It was one more way for me to figure this out.

With the legal skills, I was able to come back to Iowa and founded a nonprofit organization that does adventure-based educational programs for kids in primary and secondary school: The Adventure Institute.

Q:  You started The Adventure Institute when?

A:  In October 2002.

Q:  Was it a step up from taking colleagues on expeditions?

A:  It was really different. Iowa has been suffering from a crisis academically. We have a lot of nontraditional programs in Iowa as far as education goes. Since the economy has petered out, we have had a real financial crisis in the state. What happened was that high schools in the state were no longer able to go on field trips to science museums or anything like that.

The Adventure Institute was originally tied to the Everest project and was going to be a one-shot deal. But the teachers liked it so much, that we continued doing it. I wanted to bring a museum-quality expedition into the schools. It starts off with a two-hour program. We have a video and rock music and slides and we rappel out of the rafters and we have a bunch of interactive stuff for the kids to play with. They were excited about something central…in this case, it was the Everest project.

We were sneaking in all these lessons. Bernoulli's Principle, for example: how pressure works in elevation. Cooking at altitude. How glaciers work. Calculating slope. How much weight to put in a backpack. How to divide up the weight for an expedition. First semester we had the introduction. Second semester, one day a week, they were using all their classes for this Everest expedition. When we were on the expedition, we e-mailed them back questions and different activities to work on. They were acting as part of our expedition, as part of our support team back in Iowa.

Q:  How many schools were involved?

A:  There were about twenty schools and a little over twenty-five hundred kids.

Q:  Did you go to law school to help you found the nonprofit organization?

A:  I just really fell in love with the law when I was at Arnold & Porter. When I was younger I wanted to be in politics. I thought that was the way to really make a difference in the world. As I have gotten older and have worked at A & P, I saw that the law is really where things change. In a courtroom there aren't any special interests. It is one place where one individual on the street is as powerful as the biggest companies in the world. There aren't the special interests on the Hill or the PAC's and lobbyists and campaign funds. It's just two parties with an issue. And it doesn't really matter what their background is.

Q:  When did you start law school?

A:  Just this fall.

Q:  And you attend the University of Iowa law school?

A:  That's right.

Q:  How is the experience so far?

A:  It's been really interesting. I'm still sorting it out after the first semester. It's interesting because what happens in the classroom is different from real life. I think so. Maybe it's the difference between the practical nature of the law and the theoretical basis of the curriculum.

Q:  And you've seen the practical side before you entered?

A:  I've seen the practical side to some extent. And, I enjoy the theoretical side. It's trying to get all those balls up in the air at the same time.

It has been a huge challenge. And the dean of students asked me to do an academic achievement program: training for Everest versus the first year of law school. I think Everest has nothing to compare to the first year of law school. This is so much harder.

Q:  Where do you want to be five years from now?

A:  I don't know. I have a new adventure going called Travels With Charlie. We're leading trips all around the world now. We've got our first trip going back to Base Camp in May. In August there will be a trip through the Alps. Over Christmas we're going to have a trip down to the Andes. I want to keep doing entrepreneurial types of things and use the law degree as a tool to continue to do those things.

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