Q&A: Doug Tumminello
Doug Tumminello is an attorney with Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons. On March 31, he left Denver to climb Mount Everest from the south, or Nepalese, side. This 29,035-foot climb traverses the route first climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Tumminello’s team raised funds for the American Lung Association and shared his expedition via Web publications and dispatches from the mountain to educate and inform. Upon his return to Denver on June 2, Doug shared some of his thoughts on the expedition with The Docket.
• How did you become affiliated with "Team No Limits"?
When we first started planning the climb, about two years ago, Dr. Larry Rigsby and I decided we wanted to put a team together instead of going as individuals. We thought it would increase our chance of success and safety if we were a cohesive group. There were five of us on the team, but two suffered knee injuries and weren’t able to go. We ended up being three members plus our Base Camp manager. We were sharing a permit to climb with other climbers so there were nine of us on the same permit and, essentially, we banded together as a larger group. Five of the six others had attempted Mount Everest before and ultimately, four of us made the summit.
• What is your climbing background?
I’ve been climbing for the better part of 20 years. I moved to Colorado from Virginia in the late ’80s when I was with the army at Fort Carson. Garden of the Gods is down there and that’s where I started rock climbing.
• How did you train?
I picked up my physical training in anticipation of this climb. As far as other climbing, I just climbed. I went to Alaska last year and climbed. The real key on Everest is to be in good physical shape. It’s not a very technical mountain and most of the difficult sections are fixed with ropes so you can negotiate those fairly easily without a lot of objective danger.
• Why did both of your team members have to quit?
They both had what appeared to be heart problems while on the mountain, which was too bad and required them to cancel their climb. It’s not something you anticipate, but it’s not terribly unusual when you’re climbing at high altitudes.
• Did you have any personal injuries along the way?
Health issues arise everyday. When I first got to Base Camp I actually suffered from altitude sickness for three days. I descended for a few days and felt better then went back to Base Camp. The real significant health issue I faced was at Camp II on the summit push, when I got dysentery. That laid me up for several days and jeopardized my summit push. I was able to recover and make it to the summit.
• Why were you interested in climbing Mount Everest?
Mount Everest is interesting because it is the highest peak in the world. It’s a mountain of great history and mystique. If you’re a budding or growing mountain climber, you’ve read the stories of Sir Edmund Hillary and George Mallory on Mount Everest. It has a great history and story behind it. Hiking in that region is absolutely beautiful. It seemed like a worthwhile objective.
• How did your family feel about your trip?
My wife and children were very supportive. That’s so important for a mountain like Everest, because it’s so expensive, time consuming and dangerous. You really need their support to do something like this. It was hard, but we were able to talk to each other a couple of times a week via satellite telephone and e-mail.
• What types of challenges did you face?
Illness, altitude and exhaustion. Those are some of the standard challenges on Everest, along with anorexia, dehydration and hypoxia — it’s hard when you’re climbing that high and working that hard to eat enough, drink enough, breath enough.
• What happened at the Khumbu Icefall?
The Khumbu Icefall is where the Khumbu Glacier spills down over a 2,000-foot cliff, so it’s very steep, and an area of crumbling and falling ice. To get through the Khumbu Icefall, there are some Sherpas who do nothing but fix the route through that area — they’re called the "Icefall Doctors." All the expeditions that go out there pay a fee to the Neppali government, which in turn pays the Icefall Doctors and provides them with equipment. They set the route using fixed lines to what looks like the safest route over ice towers, seracs and crevasses. It has ladders spanning them — those were put into place and we didn’t have to do that ourselves.
Khumbu Icefall is a treacherous area — that’s the area where two Sherpas, who were members of our team, were killed early in the trip. We all happened to be at the Base Camp when it happened. A number of Sherpas from a several different expeditions were carrying loads through the icefall to Camp I to establish the site. They were near the top of the icefall and a serac collapsed and that in turn collapsed another. It was like dominos. There were 10 Sherpas in a line when the ice came down. Five of them were buried; two managed to unbury themselves, but the other three were crushed. Two of the three were Sherpas from our team. The rest of the day we were trying to find out who was buried, injured, alive, missing or presumed dead, accessing the site to see if there were survivors. We determined quickly that there wasn’t a feasible way to recover the bodies because the area was covered with blocks of ice the size of cars. There was no way to recover them. The two who survived needed to get down and get medical treatment. They both came back later in the expedition and were strong and courageous. Everyone made the decision to go forward after talking to the Sherpas and assessing where they were and where their hearts were. If the tragedy was overwhelming for them, we would have canceled it, but they wanted to go forward. They’re incredible people.
• What motivated you during the tough times?
We had a number of challenges and sometimes it was tough to keep going. I was fairly confident I was going to have to hike down after getting sick at Camp II. The way things played out, I recovered and continued. Climbing is often about perserverence and having the determination to gut it out and stick with it until you get there.
Climbing is more than just a physical journey; it’s also very much a spiritual journey. Other things keep you going, like prayer, meditation and well-wishes from family and friends, which makes it easier when climbing is the last thing in the world you feel like doing. You have to be open and honest with your teammates and tell them what you’re feeling so they can come along and help you out.
• What were you feeling when you made the summit?
• What did you learn from this experience?
Physically and mentally, I didn’t know if I could handle a climb like Everest. Without a doubt it’s the toughest mountain I’ve ever climbed. It’s good to know I could overcome those difficulties. More than that, it’s so affirming of the relationships I have in my life — family, friends and colleagues. It’s a good feeling to know that I have people supporting and helping me out.
Everest was in the news a lot this year for the disasters happening on the north side of the mountain when people were walking by others in distress and leaving them there to die. I’m very happy to say that I didn’t see any of that in my climb; in fact, our team was part of two rescues where we helped other teams. That was the general attitude on the mountain. In my climbing background, I’ve seen climbers helping out others.
Along the way, Doug’s team suffered many hardships, including the loss of two Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall. In memory of the Sherpas that perished in the Icefall tragedy, Team No Limits has established a memorial foundation for the families of the Sherpas. The foundation has been spearheaded by Lanny Anderson, a law partner of Doug Tumminello.
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