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Epics: From Everest to law school


During Charles Wittmack’s assault on Mt. Everest in May, it seemed at times that the mountain was the one doing the beating.

Winds as strong as 80 mph blew him off his feet more than once. It was the worst weather in the recorded history of the mountain, and it meant he and his fellow expedition members spent long hours wrapped in down-filled sleeping bags looking at the walls of their tents. Their first two attempts for the summit were unsuccessful, and they didn’t have much food or oxygen to spare.

Wittmack ultimately persevered, and on May 22, the 26-year-old became the first Iowan to stand on the world’s highest spot. The effort, which cost tens of thousands of dollars and led to the amputation of fingers and toes of several of his teammates, is a lesson in overcoming obstacles. For Wittmack, who last week completed exams for his first semester at the University of Iowa’s College of Law, there are parallels between the two experiences.

“It was an epic experience, but finals were pretty epic, too,” he said. “I think law school is a massive endurance event. Anybody who can make it through their first year of law school could climb Everest with ease.”

He says intense study is required for both. He compares the discomfort one experiences on the mountain to the discomfort of 16 hours a day studying. He says the sensation of eye strain from reading too much is quite similar to that of snow blindness.

Wittmack grew up in Des Moines. After graduating from high school in 1995, he spent a semester in Kenya with a program called National Outdoor Leadership School. Upon his return to the United States, he got a job on a cross-country bike ride with then-Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger and 350 Iowans. The 5,400-mile trip took more than three months. He then went to work for Active Endeavors in Des Moines.

Wittmack developed an interest in climbing as a child, but it was while working at Active Endeavors that his interest became more focussed. He spent time talking to climbers, visiting trade shows, learning the skills necessary for a major trek and how to hone those skills. Once he decided to climb Everest, it was a seven-year process to acquire the funds (the permit alone is $10,000) and the skills necessary.

At first, it was a very academic process. Wittmack read a lot of books, memorizing facts about knots, glacial movement, plate tectonics and meteorology. He also had to research the business side of putting together an expedition, such as dealing with the steep taxes imposed by Nepal. He continued to research and take training expeditions while attending the University of Iowa, where he received his undergraduate degree in business administration in 2001. He then worked for the Arnold and Porter law firm in Washington, D.C., before returning to Iowa in November 2002 to train fulltime. He departed for the climb March 17, 2003.

After their second unsuccessful attempt for the summit of Everest, Wittmack and his fellow mountaineers had a difficult decision to make. They could turn back, or they could go off oxygen and make another attempt. To make another attempt would be to risk brain damage or pulmonary or cerebral edema, a condition in which pressure on the body forces fluid into the lungs or brain. If the lungs were flooded, one would essentially drown, and if the fluid was forced into the brain, hallucinations could ensue. Wittmack and Sean Burck, a CNN correspondent from Washington, D.C., decided to take the risk and continue. They could not walk away when all they’d fought for was so close.

They spent three days at an altitude of 26,000 feet without food or water and 24 hours without supplemental oxygen. Wittmack was the first non-Sherpa to achieve the summit from the south that year. Of those who reached the summit that day, he was only one to make it back with all his fingers and toes. He says the experience has taught him something he will apply in his future career.

“Never quit,” Wittmack said. “People say on Everest, after you’ve gone on oxygen, you’ve got just one try for the summit. It’s not true. People often misunderstand what the limit is. Limits can be pushed, and frequently, they don’t exist at all.”

In May, Wittmack will lead Iowans on a trip to the base camp of Mt. Everest. Information is available at www.TravelsWithCharlie.com.

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