By Kristin Canning
Charlie Wittmack doesn’t let much stand in his way.
The Boone native is the first person to complete the “World Tri(athlon)” and the “Peak and Pond” — swimming the English Channel and climbing to the summit of Mount Everest.
Wittmack shared his journey to reach the highest point on Earth with Wartburg students Sept. 13. He described the “Seven Summits of Success” required for anyone to achieve their “Everest Dream.”
For Wittmack, the soon-to-be father of two, climbing Everest was the culmination of dream as a child when his older sister gave him a book about the world’s highest peak.
“It was filled with descriptions of these things I couldn’t imagine,” Wittmack said. “I fell in love with the book.”
Wittmack declared to his father that one day he was going to climb Mount Everest. His dad gave him a business card with “Mount Everest” written on the back to carry as a reminder of his goal.
Wittmack explained that the first summit of success is to “set your compass.” “Sometimes you have to pin your dream down so life doesn’t get in the way.”
The second summit of success is “breaking it down.” Wittmack started climbing with friends while he attended Iowa State University. He began failing classes as he tried to complete a climb every month.
“I had lost the academic side of my goal,” Wittmack said. He committed to spending 10-20 hours in the library for every hour spent climbing. Since he was spending more time in Iowa, he had to find a way to train with no mountainous terrain. He sprayed a silo with water in the winter and practiced climbing the ice waterfall.
“You have to be creative,” Wittmack said. “You have to use the things you’ve got to get the things you want.”
Wittmack shared a story about climbing the second highest peak in Mexico, called Popocatepetl, while describing his third summit of success — “learning to overcome fear.”
While climbing Popocatepetl, Wittmack and his team faced a volcanic eruption. “Because we were scared, the summit didn’t seem so important anymore,” Wittmack said.
He cited two reasons we become afraid: We are doing something we shouldn’t or we are experiencing uncertainty with newness. Wittmack said it’s important to understand why we’re afraid and overcome it to achieve our goal.
The fourth summit of success is “being prepared to change courses.” Wittmack said, “Sometimes the path we start on isn’t the path we end on.”
When explaining the fifth summit of success, “anticipate negative moments,” Wittmack shared a terrifying memory of his friend almost falling off El Capitan, a peak in Texas.
Wittmack then shared the sixth summit of success, “take advantage of adversity.” He told students to “find opportunity in times when others are falling.”
During a climb in the Alps, Wittmack and a friend chose to sleep outside in the freezing night rather than stay in a mountain lodge packed full of people. All of the other climbers turned around, thinking the mountain would be too packed to reach the summit the next day.
Many asked Wittmack if he thought he would make it through the night. “You’re damn right we’re gonna make it through the night,” he responded. “This is how we do it in America.”
Wittmack and his friend shared the unique experience of being alone on the summit the next day by taking advantage of a difficult situation.
The last summit of success is to “focus on the summit.”
Wittmack said he was finally ready to climb Mount Everest after years of training. At the beginning of his climb, he met a man named Riley who had lost both his legs while in military academy training and now used a wheelchair. Riley had dreamed of climbing Everest, but now he simply wanted to see the summit.
“The dreams were still intact, but had been modified,” Wittmack said.
Wittmack found Riley one day on top of a rock, enjoying the view of the summit from the first camp on the mountain. He had dragged himself to that point. Wittmack was inspired by the perseverance. “Riley said, ‘Anything is possible if you just focus,’” Wittmack recalled.
When Wittmack reached the fourth and last camp before the summit of the mountain, his journey became very difficult. The elevation can cause a person’s brain to swell and lungs to fill with fluid. One of his teammates turned around after experiencing medical complications.
The weather also created setbacks. There were 150-200 mph winds near the summit. Teams started to turn around. Wittmack knew something would have to change.
“It was my moment, and it was slipping through my fingers,” Wittmack said. “In the most important moment of my life, I let someone else lead. I resolved I would never do that again.”
Wittmack took charge and led his Sherpa friend through a storm to the summit of Everest, while all other climbers turned around.
“I didn’t so much climb as collapse. Snow got up to my waist. I was literally falling up to the summit of Everest.”
Wittmack reached the summit, achieving his lifelong dream at only 26. He raised the Iowa and American flags, and then began his descent before elevation took complete control of his exhausted body.
Wittmack stressed that his summits of success can be applied to any dream we have. Even after our goal is reached, Wittmack said, we must ask ourselves an important question: “What’s next?”