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Triathlete Lawyer Travels Into Everest’s Thin Air for Charities

Charlie Wittmack
Charlie Wittmack, an Iowa laywer, poses for a photo on a speedboat heading back to England after completing a swim across The English Channel as part of a 10, 000 mile World Triathlon. Photographer: Andy Stoll/ via Bloomberg

Charlie Wittmack woke up on the asphalt of a Kazakhstan highway last weekend after being knocked unconscious when a car rear-ended his bicycle at about 40 mph.

The 33-year-old bespectacled lawyer at Des Moines, Iowa’s Davis Brown Law Firm said he suffered no serious injuries, just swelling in his right knee, hip and hand. He added the incident to the list of setbacks on his 10,000-mile attempt to complete an intercontinental journey he has dubbed the World Triathlon.

He completed a 275-mile (443-kilometer) swim in August from Cricklade, England, to Cap Gris-Nez, France, during which he was stung by jellyfish and had to be rescued after becoming stranded on mud flats of the Thames Estuary before crossing the English Channel. Wittmack’s latest mishap occurred in the middle of an 8,875-mile bike ride from France to Nepal.

“It was a true miracle to walk away from that,” Wittmack said. “I was pretty scared.”

Wittmack, who is using the expedition to raise money for educational charities including Des Moines University’s Global Health program and Topics Education, said he wants to reach China by Oct. 21 and complete the scheduled bike leg of his journey by Dec. 1 in India. To get there, he will have to cross snow-covered mountain passes in Kyrgyzstan. Due to political and ethnic violence in the country, Wittmack is currently traveling with armed escorts, paid for by sponsors including MIR Corp., a Seattle-based adventure travel company.

Once he dismounts his bike, Wittmack plans to run and hike 950 miles from the Bay of Bengal to the top of Mount Everest. The expedition began July 1. Over 11 months, the trial lawyer will cross 13 countries.

“This was just something I always wanted to do,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’ve been working on it a long time.”

Financial Problems

Wittmack’s biggest obstacle may be money. Due to a lack of funds, Wittmack said he biked through Poland and Ukraine alone.

The project, including the charitable donations, will cost about $1.2 million, Wittmack said. The university’s Global Health program will use $600,000 to provide a team of doctors and students to educate girls in Nepal about safe sex, prenatal care and maternal health issues. Mothers in Nepal are 100 times more likely to die during childbirth than women in the U.S., according to the university.

About $250,000 is being used by North Carolina-based Topics Education to create an online curriculum tied to the expedition. Educational modules will be used to teach students in various regions about earth science issues such as alternative energy, water quality and climate change.

Additional funds will be needed for translators and guides in areas deemed “not safe to go in blindly,” said Brian Triplett, Wittmack’s 26-year-old logistics coordinator and communications director.

Seeking Funds

“We’re still seeking sponsorships,” Triplett said.

Wittmack’s wife, Cate, and 2-year-old son have joined him for parts of the journey. Convincing his spouse to go along with his plan became easier when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer two years ago, he said. She’s now cancer free.

“It was a pretty scary thing to go through,” he said. “We realized that maybe we shouldn’t be taking the time for granted so much and maybe we shouldn’t put things off.”

Wittmack first got the idea for the trip at age 14 when he was a member of his high school swim and cross-country teams, he said. While working in an after-school job in a bike store, he read books about Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest, and Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel.

Little Boy’s Dream

“It’s just an idea I came up with when I was probably too young to know better,” he said. “As a little boy I just found myself thinking, ‘What could be the world’s toughest triathlon?’”

In 2003, Wittmack became the first Iowan to reach the summit of Everest, a journey he spent seven years planning. In 2008, he abandoned an attempt to swim the 21-mile English Channel after being pulled out of the water due to freezing temperatures after 15 miles. He wore a wetsuit during the swim portion of his current expedition to help withstand the cold. An experienced ocean marathon swimmer, Wittmack finished first in the 32nd annual 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West in Florida two years ago.

First American

When he completed the trip’s swim leg, Wittmack became the first American to scale Everest and swim the English Channel.

At 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, Wittmack typically spends his days wearing a suit with a starched collared shirt at his office.

“I definitely don’t look the part,” Wittmack said. “But I just keep putting one hand and foot in front of the next.”

Wittmack plans to return to the law firm, which allowed him a leave of absence for the expedition.

“I’m already missing the office,” he said. “There’s a comfort in life when the days are sort of planned out for you and you can enjoy dinner with your family. These expeditions strip away all of those comforts. That’s why I do it. So I don’t take those simple things for granted, but I do look forward to getting back to my office someday.”

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