01 /


TYPICAL DAY at the jewelry store. A 30-something man walks in, wanders over to a glass case and gazes down in the hope he’s making a decision that will lead to elation.

But this man is Charlie Wittmack, who leaves tomorrow on a quest to test the limits of the human body.

Charlie says this is the $25,000 engagement ring he couldn’t afford a decade ago. It’s a surprise. His wife, Cate, has no idea her husband is here. But really, this isn’t about her. It’s about a man who knows he might never be home again, trying to buy eternal forgiveness.

A salesman prattles on about the mundane details of each piece and drags Charlie around the store with an uncomfortable air of enthusiasm. Charlie eventually narrows it to a pink or a blue diamond with a solitaire setting. He tells the salesman he will call tomorrow, the last thing to do before boarding a plane to London. His secret plan is in place. If Charlie dies on this quest, his estate will pay for the ring.

“You probably think I have some sort of death wish, don’t you?” Charlie asks as he leaves the store. “But I’ll tell you right now, I don’t.

… I’m just a little bit crazy.

01 /


01 /


DES MOINES, IOWA Charlie Wittmack never says the word “death,” never utters the phrase “if I die,” but here he sits in his law office, planning for the end.

He has less than an hour to catch a flight to begin his 11-month, 13-country odyssey. He’s faxed the order for his wife’s $25,000 ring, photocopied his last will and testament, signed a 73-page legal trust and bought a $2.5 million life insurance policy that is 17 times his annual income, the maximum he could obtain. If a man is to be measured by how he cares for his family, let there be no doubt.

On the street down below, Cate Wittmack nervously waits to drive her husband to the airport. She and Charlie met 10 years ago, on the first day of orientation as paralegals at a D.C. law firm. She saw a funny guy in a Brooks Brothers suit and looked right past the muscular shoulders, sunburned skin and callus-covered hands that revealed a man who had spent his summer mountain climbing in California. He saw the woman he was going to marry.

“Love is not selfish,” Cate says.

Cate fully understands the danger of what’s about to take place. “Forget Me Not,” a memoir written by mountain climber Alex Lowe’s widow, helps her accept the fact that this might be the last time she holds her husband’s hand.

“Love is not selfish,” she says. “You can’t meet someone and then tell them to stop doing the things they love. Even if that means you might lose them.”

While Cate waits, Charlie frantically searches for someone to stamp “FOR YOUR INFORMATION” on a photocopied picture of his passport.

“Charlie, are you making up the rules as you go?” an administrative assistant asks.

He grins.

“There are no rules,” he says.

“There are no rules,” Charlie says.

Only three men are known to have completed the “Peak and Pond,” the name Charlie has given to a successful swim across the English Channel and successful summit of Mount Everest. But no one has connected the two with a 9,000-mile bike ride across Europe and Asia or a 750-mile run from India to Everest Base Camp. That’s what this 5-foot-7, 145-pound man plans to do in the quest he’s dubbed “The World Triathlon.”

Charlie and Cate sold their house and car and took out a $100,000 loan to cover expenses for the first leg. They hope sponsors will help cover the rest. Charlie spent more than two years training, riding a stationary bicycle in the basement of his grandmother’s townhouse, running up and down stairwells of buildings in Des Moines and traveling to Chicago every weekend to swim 10-hour shifts along the shores of Lake Michigan.

All that’s left now are questions. Lots and lots of questions. Like why? Why would an ultra-successful 34-year-old attorney risk everything -- his career, his life savings, his home, his marriage, and fatherhood -- all for some self-contrived quest for personal fulfillment?

What is he chasing? What is he running from? What is this man missing in his life that only adrenaline can replace? Or is he just hopelessly addicted to the rush that comes from the few fleeting moments when he feels alive?

“I do it because it gives my life meaning,” Charlie says.

Only one man has the answer. And for now, he objects to the question. Or at least he doesn’t want to deal with answering it.

“No true explorer has the answer to that,” he says. “We all try to come up with some bulls--- ‘Because it’s there’ or ‘Just do it’ or whatever. But there’s no way any human could justify any of this.

“I do it because it gives my life meaning. This means something.”

There’s a charity component to all of this, with the World Tri raising money and working with Des Moines University to reduce the infant mortality rate in Nepal. But here in the conservative heartland, where family values and fiscal responsibility are woven into everyday life as seamlessly as the daily farm report, the pursuit of a deeper meaning is a concept some don’t understand. For everyone who cheers as Charlie pulls his donated World Triathlon Toyota Tacoma away from a send-off celebration at the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, there are others who write scathing critiques on the Des Moines Register website. They say Charlie’s selfish. A terrible father. A miserable husband. And the money he’s spending on his journey and raising for mothers in Nepal could be better used helping folks right here in the good ol’ USA.

“He wants to accomplish something that nobody else will ever be able to do,” says Charlie’s mom, Dee Wittmack.

Charlie absorbs the praise. He deflects the criticism.

All around town, Charlie the PR machine has told the story of how he’s spent a lifetime preparing for this. Says he dreamed of it as a boy after reading about Sir Edmund Hillary and Capt. Matthew Webb. In high school, Wittmack was more likely to write such a book than become its subject. But after his parents divorced in high school, Charlie became more daring. Different. And eventually, obsessed.

Now, he often feels like a man with no home. During the mundane routine of life at home and at the office, he dreams of escaping to the side of a mountain or the banks of a river. He convinces himself that’s where he belongs. But when he’s on that mountain or in that river and the days of an expedition add up and his body and mind begin to fail, he yearns for those emails, phone calls and overdue paperwork.

“He wants to accomplish something that nobody else will ever be able to do,” says Charlie’s mom, Dee Wittmack. “The problem is that may very well include him.”

The 10,000-mile route is littered with hazards. Charlie’s biggest fear is being hit by a car during the bike ride. His sister, Ellen, worries about him being kidnapped. In Kyrgyzstan, there’s the risk of traveling across a country that is mired in political turmoil. Brian Triplett, one of the men traveling with Wittmack, at one point asks “Do you think we need guns?” Charlie says no. And waiting at the finish line, of course, is Mount Everest, the ultimate game of life-and-death poker, where a quick turn of the weather and a bit of bad luck can kill even the most experienced adventurer.

The only thing that appears to be certain? No matter what happens, Charlie won’t quit.

“He doesn’t know how,” Dee says. “I told Cate, ‘You need to face the fact that

…he will not come home unless it’s
in a body bag.’”

02 /


02 /


DOVER, England Charlie is nervous. With his right arm wrapped around Cate’s shoulders and both feet in the sand at Dover Harbour, he silently stares at the crashing blue waves of the English Channel. He can’t see France.

It’s Aug. 7, and though it’s a cloudless, sun-soaked afternoon, none of the flabby channel swimmers training in front of him dare to venture beyond the concrete seawall. Not on a day like this, when the crashing breakers on the horizon make the violent channel waters look more white than blue.

The expression on Charlie’s face foreshadows the battle that will rage in his head in less than 24 hours: fear versus determination. A day earlier, at a tiny cafe in nearby Deal, Charlie was in one of those “nothing will stop me” moods in which he boasted that he doesn’t know what it’s like to be scared. “It’s simply an emotion that I don’t feel,” he said.

But now, the bravado is gone. Charlie just stands there, staring at the water, barely saying a word.

“I almost died the last time I was here,” Charlie says.

“I almost died the last time I was here,” Charlie says.

In the 134 years since Capt. Webb first crossed the busiest shipping lane in the world, fewer than 900 people have swum the English Channel successfully. By comparison, since 1953, nearly 3,000 have stood on the summit of Everest.

At its narrowest point, the channel is 21 miles wide. But changing tides force swimmers to complete 25 to 30 miles for a successful crossing. It’s the physiological equivalent of running some 140 miles. Nonstop. In 63-degree water. No one understands the pain better than Kevin Murphy, the self-anointed king of the channel. Murphy has crossed these waters 34 times, more than any other man. On this day, he coaches a group of aspiring channel swimmers a few steps from where Charlie and Cate look on.

“You get really, really ill. Just brutally sick,” Kevin Murphy says.

“You get exhausted. You get really, really ill. Just brutally sick,” Murphy says of the feeling during a swim. “You spend about half the time out there thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ and the other half asking yourself, ‘When is this going to stop?’ And the only answer is, ‘When you get to the other side.’”

For Charlie, even getting to Shakespeare Beach, where his channel attempt will begin early tomorrow morning, has been a chore. Since stepping into the source of the Thames more than a month ago, he’s twice been plagued by amoebic dysentery, an intestinal illness that has sent him to the ER with bouts of uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhea and a body temperature of 104. He’s collided with an underwater pier, required an escort to help him avoid a sunken battleship, been stung by jellyfish and needed a coast guard rescue when shifting tides left him and his support kayak stuck on a mud flat.

He’s constantly exhausted. His skin is nearly raw from spending 10 hours a day in the water. And two days ago, his dad dropped the support kayak on Charlie’s right foot, ripping the nail from his big toe. It’s the fourth nail he’s sacrificed on the swim.

“He wasn’t making any sense. His speech was slurred. It wasn’t good,” says friend David Murphy.

What’s happened between his ears has proved just as difficult. Spending each day with his head buried in dark, murky water leads to mind games. One day he stews about an email fight with Cate. The next he worries what college James will get into. And the day after that he fantasizes about Thanksgiving dinner.

Major national sponsors have not yet materialized. Nor has much national media attention. And for the past week, Charlie has been traveling with Cate and James as well as his divorced parents and his stepmom. It’s made each night’s family dinner feel like some sort of Lifetime reality show.

But tomorrow, when Charlie tries to cross the channel, he’ll want family there. He’ll want Cate leaning over the side of the support boat blowing him kisses. He’ll want his dad pumping his fist and cheering should he make it to the other side. And he’ll want James waiting for him at the house they have rented.

Before that can happen, Charlie has to conquer the ghosts of 2008. That year, 15 miles into his journey across the channel, Charlie became hypothermic and his body began to shut down. His legs stopped working; he could barely lift his arms out of the water; and his body drifted farther and farther from the support boat.

“Why not just get into a boat and sail across?” Kevin Murphy asks.

“I remember the pilot asking what was my son’s name,” Charlie says. “And it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I have a son.’ And then I yelled ‘JAMES!’”

Seconds later, Charlie’s father-in-law, a doctor, made the decision to end the swim.

“It was scary,” says close friend David Murphy, who was in the boat that day. “He wasn’t making any sense. His speech was slurred. It wasn’t good.”

On the boat, Charlie fell unconscious. The crew wrapped his body in blankets. After Charlie woke, they began forcing warm beverages down his throat. In four hours, he said he was back to normal.

“That was a lesson in what we did right,” Charlie says now. “The fact that I could push a swim that far and have a team in place that could make the right decision and stop me at the point when I couldn’t go any further, that’s a success story.”

Tomorrow, a repeat of that tale would mean failure. But this time, Charlie has one major asset in his corner: He’s wearing a wet suit. For a man who constantly seeks the extreme, the decision wasn’t easy. But Charlie’s 5-foot-7, 145-pound frame won’t keep his body warm in the icy channel water. And gaining enough weight to provide natural insulation would make the imminent bike ride a grueling nightmare. So Charlie decided to wear the suit. It’s a decision the king of the channel critiques with one word: cheating.

“Why not just get into a boat and sail across?” Kevin Murphy asks. “It’s like if I went in a triathlon and said, ‘Well, I can’t run real well, so is it all right if I wear roller skates?’ Or, ‘I’m not real good at cycling. Can I use my motorbike?’ They would say no way because it makes it easier to finish. He’s doing the same thing with that wet suit.”

When told later of Murphy’s comments, Charlie says very little. But in a couple of days, while having dinner with Cate at an Indian restaurant, he reveals

…just how much it bothered him.

02 /


03 /


Charlie opens his eyes. He thinks two things: Get out of the road and get help. Now. Some 40 foreign faces hover above him, showing a mix of surprise and fear. He knows what they’re thinking because he’s wondering the same thing. How am I not dead?

Minutes earlier, on a narrow, two-lane stretch of the M-32 highway in Kazakhstan, Charlie was riding on the side of the road when a silver car traveling 50 mph tried to make a pass behind him. But the car hit Charlie. His bike crumbled beneath him. His head slammed against the rear passenger door. His body fell to the ground. And he slid some 30 feet along a sizzling patch of asphalt.

For a few seconds, Charlie was unconscious. But now he’s awake with nothing but those strange faces staring at him. He crawls off the road insisting, “I’m OK, I’m OK,” but no one understands. And if they did, they wouldn’t believe him. Charlie surveys his body looking for damage. He wiggles his toes. He drags his hands along his legs, his arms and, eventually, his chest. He turns his head to the left, to the right, then up, then down. He blinks. Nothing seems to be wrong.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” Charlie says.

He isn’t a deeply religious man, but since the beginning of the World Tri, Charlie has begun each day by crossing himself. And back in Prague, while searching for something he could listen to on the bike ride, he downloaded the largest free audio file he could find -- the Bible. Now he wonders if a higher power has his back.

He needs the inspiration. All along, Charlie had dreamed of his family traveling with him for much of the World Tri. He envisioned coming home each night to Cate, James and a hotel room, hut or tent full of praise. But after arriving in Europe, after the channel swim, a lack of money changed everything. The film crew was sent home. Cate and James left. And the support vehicles Toyota donated were ditched at the Prague airport. There was a brief conversation about quitting, but Charlie could barely say the word. Instead, he bought a bike trailer on eBay, loaded it with 75 pounds of gear and headed east. Alone.

“I don’t like that he’s out there by himself,” Charlie’s mom Dee says.

“I don’t like that he’s out there by himself, but I don’t think he could handle coming home,” Charlie’s mom Dee says. “It would be so demoralizing. I’m not sure he could live through that.”

And so Charlie pedaled on, through rain, snow, sand and dirt. He ignored the kids in Poland who chucked tomatoes at him. And he trusted the guard at the border between Poland and the Ukraine who refused to permit entry on a bicycle and forced Charlie into the back of an unmarked van to enter the Ukraine.

Charlie biked alone until Russia, where government regulations as well as his safety required him to have an escort. An American security company provided a driver and translator to travel with him, paid for with the help of a $50,000 check from the Toyota dealer in Des Moines.

But on the day his greatest fears come true and he’s left lying on the side of a road in Kazakhstan, the escorts are in the next town, waiting for his arrival. By the time Igor and Vadim arrive to help, Charlie’s in shock. His body shakes. His right side is numb. He calls Cate to tell her what happened, insisting that he’s fine. But he isn’t. Though his body has somehow walked away nearly unscathed, he’s mentally in pieces. For two days he lies in bed, replaying the accident over and over in his head.

“I was piling on mentally,” Charlie says.

“I was piling on mentally,” he would say later. “It got hard.”

On the third day, inspired by a friend who had died on a ride across America, Charlie hops back on the bike and heads toward Kyrgyzstan. When schoolchildren line the road to cheer, all he sees is the face of his son, James. He tries to shift into a harder gear, but there isn’t one left. His speedometer says 33 mph.

Up ahead he sees his next challenge: the Himalayas and a trio of snow-covered 14,000-foot peaks. As he pedals on over the course of the next days, those same gears begin to fail. He rents a replacement. It breaks. He rents another. It’s stolen. He rents a third. But it, too, can’t handle the terrain and also breaks. So Charlie goes back to his original wheels he hauled from Iowa.

He climbs the Himalayas with that one gear, but it’s too much. He cycles too hard, climbs too fast and, just like a climber on Everest, his body struggles to acclimate to the changes in elevation. He’s hallucinating. He has lost the vision in his right eye. He’s lost his balance. He knows what it means -- a cerebral edema, his brain is filling with fluid.

At the same time, he can’t stop coughing. He struggles to breathe. It’s the high-altitude double whammy that every climber tries to avoid. A pulmonary edema, as well.

As he lies in a lodge in a remote village on the Tibetan Plateau, his body and mind are beginning to crumble. In addition to the edemas, his intestine begins to bulge out of his side. He thinks he might have a hernia. And outside his door, wild dogs are howling. He knows what they’re waiting for.

They want him to die.

03 /


04 /


A few days before he begins the push toward the summit of Mount Everest, during some of the monotonous downtime at base camp, Charlie sits in a tent with Brian Block, one of his climbing partners, and the two explore life’s bigger questions: Why are we here? What’s the purpose? And what does it mean to truly live?

Five days after Cate told him to stop whining, suck it up and go to Everest, Charlie packed his gear and began the 200-mile trek from Kathmandu to base camp. With each step of the hike, he wrestled with the decision he made on the border of India and the uncovered miles he had left behind. The latest battle of Charlie the family man vs. Charlie the adventurer had a new winner. Dad. Now Charlie tries to accept the fact that the dream of the perfect line connecting the town of Cricklade in England to the summit of Everest is over.

“As an explorer, I appreciate the fact that things don’t end up like we expect them to,” he says. “But as an individual, I don’t like those stories to be mine.”

“As an explorer, I appreciate the fact that things don’t end up like we expect them to,” Charlie says.

Charlie and Brian have climbed together for years, both of them suffering from the same addiction to adrenaline and the extreme. But on this day, sitting in a tent at base camp, Brian sees a different Charlie than the one who left Iowa nearly a year earlier.

“He was almost monkesque in the way that he was talking,” Brian would say later. “He was saying things that were not the competitive, do-or-die Charlie that pushes right through anything insurmountable. He was seeing the world with greater perspective. He was talking a lot about Cate and James.

“You got the idea that he wanted this to be over. He wanted to go home.”

Charlie’s thoughts about home are as complicated as any. James’ trip to the ER proved to be nothing more than a scare. But his boy is growing up. He no longer likes talking to his dad on the phone. And he refuses to participate in video chats with Charlie. And then there’s Cate. She’s the one who didn’t want this adventure in the first place, who needed a battle with cancer to help convince her it was a good idea. Yet every time Charlie tries to quit, she’s the one piecing him back together and encouraging him to continue.

“He wanted to go home,” says Brian Block.

He knows he wouldn’t be here without her. And yet he’s put her and his family through hell to get here. He feels guilty. He wonders: What are her dreams? What are her expectations of him as a husband? Does she want a big house? A fancy car? That ring she was only supposed to get if he died? How does a man who left his family for a year say thank you?

So, right there on the side of Mount Everest, Charlie pulls out his satellite phone, calls Cate and starts looking for answers. What does she dream life will look like when he returns home in less than a month? Cate tells Charlie to slow down, relax and focus on the task ahead. He’s supposed to be having fun, remember? Enjoy the journey. They’ll talk about this later.

The last time Charlie climbed Everest, in 2003, Cate was also on his mind. But she initially was furious that Charlie would risk his life climbing a mountain, and the couple split until Charlie showed up on Cate’s doorstep on New Year’s Eve in 2002, begging her to reconsider. Eventually she did, realizing that she and Charlie were far better together than apart. Five months later, Charlie left for Everest. There, he wrote poems and love letters to Cate and called her on a satellite phone.

“I know he wants the perfect end to the story,” Cate says.

When he pushed for the summit that year, Charlie endured some of the worst recorded weather in the mountain’s history, forcing him to go three days without food or water to make back-to-back summit attempts. Back home, Cate waited by the phone to hear that her boyfriend was still alive. On his second attempt, Charlie, then 26, became the first Iowan to summit Everest. Hours later, Cate received a call from Charlie’s dad that everything was OK.

This time, Cate will follow Charlie’s progress online with the help of a GPS device he’s carrying with him. Every time a tiny orange dot appears in a different place on her screen, she knows her husband is moving. He’s alive.

“You’d have to be crazy to say you are even attempting it,” Charlie says.

Although the rules have changed and Charlie says he’s no longer willing to die to reach the highest point on Earth, that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. Charlie’s OK with frostbite. He’s accepted that he might lose a few fingers or toes. But what else? How much swelling of the brain can he endure? How much fluid can he allow to fill his lungs? And how incapacitated can he become before it’s time to turn around?

Cate worries that her husband might feel the need to prove himself after failing in India.

“I know he wants the perfect end to the story,” she says.

While Charlie is on Everest, his mom, Dee, is trekking to base camp to meet her son. So, too, are 14 Iowa cancer survivors sponsored by Charlie, the Livestrong Foundation and a Des Moines doctor. Charlie hopes the treks might turn into a larger national program. He’s also signed a three-year commitment -- should he make it home -- to work with Save the Children, a global nonprofit, to raise money and help reduce the child mortality rate in Nepal.

At the same time, Charlie has big plans for his final act. Since England, he’s hinted at climbing without oxygen. And Cate has no idea, but Charlie is considering an attempt to become the first person to cross the Everest-Lhotse Traverse, the treacherous stretch that connects the two 8,000-meter peaks.

“If you do a bit of research, you’ll learn that I purchased a permit for Everest and Lhotse,” Charlie writes in an email. “If you asked me, I would deny it. You’d have to be crazy to say you are even attempting it.”

So which is it? A new enlightened Charlie who puts family first or the same old man pushing himself to the limit?

Perhaps Everest will provide the

04 /


05 /


05 /


Before visitingMount Mitchell, the highest point in North Carolina, Charlie, Cate and James stop for lunch. Dad encourages James to finish his sandwich so he has energy to make it to the top.

“And so nobody dies,” the 3-year-old responds.

The path from the parking lot to the observatory atop the 6,684-foot mountain is paved asphalt. It’s a simple walk. Charlie insists nobody will die. But like any curious, chatty toddler, James isn’t finished.

“We need oxygen?” he asks.

“No,” Charlie answers, “this isn’t that big.”

“Ropes?” James asks. “I don’t want to fall.”

“You don’t need ropes, James,” Charlie tells his son.

“We need oxygen?” James asks.

Six months ago, in the middle of the World Tri, Charlie said he hoped James would not follow in his footsteps. But now that he’s returned home, Charlie wants to take his son to the five highest points in the United States, maybe even before James is 10.

“If he’s ready, if he has the desire, I’d love for him to experience that feeling,” Charlie says. “I’ve gotten so much out of seeing the world. I want him to have that.”

Cate, who loves to travel, shares Charlie’s sentiments. To a point.

“Hiking to Everest base camp is incredible, and I want him to do that,” she says. “We will take him someday. But we go to base camp, we look at the mountain, say ‘Hey, isn’t that cool?’ and then we come home. You don’t need to climb over that crevasse.”

Charlie notes that James already is learning to swim. He bikes around a circular track near his grandparents’ home in Charlotte. And he runs everywhere. When Charlie jokes at dinner one night that the boy might be ready for a World Tri, nobody laughs.

“They were all pretty pissed about that,” he says.

Two weeks after returning to the U.S., Charlie combs his hair, wipes the dust off his briefcase and heads out the door. But something isn’t right. It’s the suit. He hasn’t formally buttoned up in more than a year and a half. But today he’s heading back to the law firm. He needs the money. There are loans to pay, preschool tuition to save for and health insurance to secure.

His lack of comfort in the situation is yet another example of the constant tension between his two professional lives -- Charlie the adventurer vs. Charlie the lawyer. It’s the reason he had that breakdown on Everest and made that emotional phone call to Cate -- whom did she marry, the lawyer or the explorer? The answer, essentially, was Charlie. In an email she sent her husband after he reached the summit, Cate’s answers were simple. She wants to continue to live in Charlotte and pursue her writing career. She wants to have another baby. And she wants Charlie to find a lifestyle in which he can be happy and present with his family while happy and inspired by his career. The expensive materialistic nonsense doesn’t matter.

“She needs her husband. She needs her family. She doesn’t need a goddamn ring,” Charlie says.

As Charlie read the email, he thought back to that $25,000 ring he picked out the day before he left.

“That’s Charlie the lawyer,” he says. “I thought that if I died, that would be the biggest regret in my life is never getting Catie an engagement ring. And then I almost died and realized how f---ed up and backwards that was. It wasn’t what mattered at all. What matters is my physical presence. She needs her husband. She needs her family. She doesn’t need a goddamn ring.”

When Charlie arrives at the office for his first day back, he’s told there isn’t work for him. The firm has hired new attorneys and frankly didn’t expect him back. Especially this soon. Charlie takes it as a sign, and the two sides agree to meet again after the summer. But more than likely this is the last day for Charlie Wittmack, attorney at law. Sure, he owes $100,000 in bank loans and his $60,000 life savings has vanished, but he now says he would have spent “10 times” that to have the same experience.

“I just know I have to try,” Charlie says.

“When I look down the road 10 or 20 years, that’s the regret,” he says. “That I didn’t continue to chase that feeling. I know if I practice law I’ll definitely never find it again. So I think it’s better to chase it. I don’t know what it is. And I don’t know how we’re going to do it. I just know I have to try.”

For now, there are plans to write and speak about his experiences on the World Tri. But anyone who knows Charlie knows that will placate him for only so long. After all, this is a man who, less than 24 hours after completing his 12-hour swim of the English Channel and complaining he would never do something so miserable again, told Cate the exact opposite.

“I think I could put on a few pounds and come back here and do it without the wet suit,” he said that night.

No matter how hard he tries, he can’t help himself. It’s in his DNA. On Everest, Charlie told Brian that he planned to stop climbing and, like famed New Zealander Russell Bryce, would start a career planning and managing Everest climbs for others. Brian laughed.

“The fire always comes back,” Brian says of Charlie.

“No way he stays at base camp,” Brian said later. “He’s got that fire, that addiction. You can put a huge bucket of wet water on it, but it never goes away. The fire always comes back.”

Cate knows this. He might not be the same man she met in in that D.C. law firm a decade ago, but he’s the man she married. Charlie can promise this or that, he can profess a newfound commitment to being there for his family, but she knows the addiction that breathes inside him. She knows there will be a day in the not-too-distant future when Charlie walks in the house and begins a sentence with, “I have an idea.”

“I expect it,” she says. “This year, I spent a lot of time thinking how this is it. Forget it. I’m never going to let him do anything like this again. It’s the stupidest thing he’s ever thought of. I can’t believe I went along with this. But now that we’re through the process, if he feels he has opportunities to do other types of adventure travel or expeditions, I want to support that. But there will be parameters that very clearly protect our family and his safety.”

“I need to find the next thing,” Charlie says.

The day Charlie arrived in Charlotte, he and Cate agreed they wouldn’t make any major decisions for six months. They will continue to live with her parents in North Carolina, where James is enrolled in school this fall. But a few days later visiting family and friends back in Iowa, Charlie’s bug is back.

“I can’t do it,” he says. “I’ve only been in Des Moines for 24 hours and I’m freaking out. I need to find the next thing.”

And that’s when the ideas start flowing. He talks about heading to Everest next year and completing the run from Calcutta that he quit. He tells the story of driving over the Mississippi River in December and fantasizing about swimming or kayaking the entire 2,320-mile waterway. He mentions the Iditasport Extreme, a 350-mile walk/run/ski/snowshoe/bicycle race that follows part of the path of the famed Iditarod dogsled race.

“I just ordered the bike,” he says.

Then he starts talking about a mini World Tri, an American “sprint” version.

“What are the biggest events in the U.S.?” he asks. “The biggest swim is the Manhattan Island swim. And the biggest run is the Badwater Ultramarathon, from the bottom of Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney, 135 miles. If you connected the two of them with a cross-America bike ride …”

Charlie pauses. He lets his brain further absorb the idea that just came out of his mouth. He smiles.

“And I think the dates line up,” he says.

A few weeks later, Charlie’s story takes one final twist. And of course it’s yet another test of his never-ending quest to find balance between the two Charlies -- dangerous and addictive vs. stable and traditional.

“Cate’s pregnant,” Charlie says.

The baby is due in February. Three months later is the beginning of the next Everest season. So there’s no way Charlie will be heading back to the Himalayas, right?

“It’s 50-50.”
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for He can be reached at Follow Wayne on Twitter @espnWD. Follow ESPN_Reader on Twitter: @ESPN_Reader


Read the ESPN the Magazine story through the eyes of Charlie’s wife, Cate Wittmack. Watch the “Outside the Lines” TV feature and discussion. Listen to “The Sporting Life” radio interview. Charlie Wittmack chat wrap.
A special thanks to Charlie Wittmack, his family and associates for sharing this story with Wayne Drehs and ESPN.



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