When Luke Timmerman was growing up on a small family farm outside Platteville, Wisconsin, the work was never done. He would haul buckets of water, throw bales of hay, fix fences under the hot summer sun and shovel out barns in the thick of winter.
Nothing is likely to compare, however, to his plan for this spring. He will be climbing Mount Everest.
Sometime before midnight in May, if all goes well — from Camp 4 at 26,000 feet on the South Col of the mountain — he will head out for the final 3,000-foot push to the top of the world.
Along with his oxygen bottles, ice axe and climbing gear, the wiry 42-year-old will be carrying to the summit a banner with the logo of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. An author and former Seattle Times reporter who now publishes the Timmerman Report, his own online newsletter, he has made his Everest aspirations part of Climb to Fight Cancer, a distinctive fundraiser for Fred Hutch.
“I decided that if I was going to do Everest, I wanted to do it for a good cause,” said Timmerman. “People run marathons for causes, and everyone knows climbing Mount Everest is extremely difficult. So I thought that might captivate people’s imaginations.”
He also hopes his trip will inspire others to consider raising money for Fred Hutch research through Climb to Fight Cancer. Since the program began organizing expeditions to mountain peaks in 1997, more than 1,200 climbers have drawn in more than $8.3 million.
With his Timmerman Report, which tracks the business and science of drug development, he has brought together a clientele of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, many of whom were interested in what he calls “my climbing hobby.” His hope was to tap into that network and get them, he said, “to donate in a big way,” and, in turn, inspire others to give.
To date, according to his personal fundraising page, he has raised more than $314,000, and he hopes to exceed his goal of $325,000.
Timmerman has also scheduled two fundraising Cancer Summits, with a line-up of speakers from the pharmaceutical and financial worlds he covers in his blog. The first will be hosted at Fred Hutch on March 5. Among the 18 speakers at the Seattle forum are local leaders of Juno Therapeutics, Seattle Genetics, Adaptive Biotechnologies and Nohla Therapeutics, as well as Hutch Vice President of Business Development & Strategy Dr. Niki Robinson.
That will be followed by a similar Boston Summit on March 7 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hosted by Sanofi and featuring talks by luminaries in the biotechnology and financial communities of the Boston area.
You can Climb to Fight Cancer
Would you like to raise money for Fred Hutch by joining one of this season’s Climb to Fight Cancer expeditions? Averaging 60 climbers per year, Climb to Fight Cancer trips are led by experienced guides trained to take even first-time climbers to the top of popular peaks on four continents. This spring, as Luke Timmerman works toward the highest of them all, a separate group of adventurers will be trekking to Everest Base Camp — one of 11 other Climb to Fight expeditions this year.
Timmerman will fly to Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 27. After another flight to the Himalayan mountain town of Lukla, elevation 9,383 feet, he will spend about 10 days trekking — and acclimating to the high altitude — until he reaches Everest Base Camp, the gathering place (17,600 feet) for expeditions to the summit. For the next month, he will be doing training climbs with expedition members and acclimating to the thin air of the Everest environs.
He will be traveling with a group of 10 climbers led by Alpine Ascents International, a Seattle-based guide service that has led mountaineers to peaks around the globe for three decades. The team also will have three guides who have summited Mount Everest multiple times.
It would be easy to assume Timmerman’s trip is the apex of a lifelong dream. In fact, he only began mountain climbing in 2004, when he and a pair of old University of Wisconsin roommates, Bryant Mangless and Matt Reiter, had a reunion in Seattle and decided: “Why don’t we climb Mount Rainier?”
“I was able to summit that first time, and a lot of people couldn’t,” including his former roommates, Timmerman recalled. But they had all been bitten by the bug. “We made it an annual thing. We try to climb one big mountain every year.”
For years, they climbed in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. Then, in 2013, they traveled to Alaska and took on Denali, the highest mountain (20,310 feet) in North America. They all summited.
“Luke’s determination is unmatched by anyone I’ve met in my personal or professional life,” said Mangless.
Last year, the trio set their sights on Aconcagua, in Argentina, at 22,841 feet the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. It was on Aconcagua that the three friends had their biggest scare. On their way up to base camp, Reiter began to feel poorly. He was out of breath, and his lips turned blue. He had to get down as fast as possible to save his life. “I had to get helicoptered off the mountain,” he said. It turned out that Reiter had a blood clot in his heart, and three in his lung.
“Luke wanted to give up the trip, and fly down with me,” he recalled. But unable to join him, Timmerman and Mangless stayed on the mountain and eventually climbed to the summit. This May, his college pals will be rooting for Timmerman from home.
Timmerman’s pluck and skill caught the attention of Jangbu Sherpa, a guide on the trip to the Argentine peak. A member of Nepal’s legendary Sherpa ethnic community that earn their living guiding mountaineers around the world, he has summited Everest himself twice, and he expects his ascent with Timmerman in May will be his third.
“He respects the mountain,” said Jangbu. “He is strong, for sure, but also a team player. Luke is very positive. He knows what he is doing. He takes care of himself and helps the group as well.”
Timmerman’s wife, Tracy Cutchlow, and 6-year-old daughter, Geneva, are foremost in his mind. His thoughts are also with Fred Hutch, its scientists and the bravery of cancer patients who stand to benefit from unprecedented research advances made in recent years.
Until he leaves for Nepal, Timmerman is building up his strength and endurance. He runs every morning, bicycles to and from work and, on weekends, takes popular hikes on Cascade mountain trails with a 40-pound backpack. He has signed up with a personal fitness trainer. “They are putting me through a lot of exercises I’ve never done before,” he said.
There are risks in every mountain climb, including those in the Cascades, and obviously, those risks are greater on the highest mountain in the world. Timmerman is matter-of-fact about the dangers and confident that his guides understand the mountain and the route to the top.
“I’ve always been a cautious climber,” Timmerman said. “There is a saying attributed to legendary Seattle-area mountaineer Ed Viesturs, ‘Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.’”
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.