Luke Timmerman looks back on his summit of Mount Everest

Seattle biotech writer returns from his epic Climb to Fight Cancer for Fred Hutch
Luke Timmerman on Everest
Luke Timmerman stands at Camp 4, on the South Col of Mount Everest, after he returned safely from the summit. Behind him is the South Summit, a 28,704 foot landmark that shields the view of the summit, which is 300 feet taller. Photo courtesy of Luke Timmerman

On May 22, Luke Timmerman was standing on the summit of Mount Everest.

One month later, he was back home in Seattle, sipping a latte at an Eastlake Avenue coffee house, reflecting on what he had done.

Not only had he just climbed the highest mountain in the world, he used his adventure to raise $339,000 through Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Climb to Fight Cancer program. He came home to television interviews and hundreds of supporters in awe of his achievement, grateful for his fundraising prowess and relieved he was safe.

“Now I am getting back into the swing of things, with my family and my work,” Timmerman said. “I am reintegrating.”

That means spending all the time he can with his wife, Tracy Cutchlow, and their 6-year-old daughter, Geneva; and returning to the helm of Timmerman Report, an online newsletter he founded to cover the biotechnology industry, which he first wrote about as a business reporter for The Seattle Times.

“He is such a strong guy. I can’t imagine he could have done anything more to prepare for this,” Cutchlow said after her husband had returned safely to basecamp. “There was no doubt in my mind he could make it.”

Camp 4 South Col
The stark beauty of the Himalayas as seen from Camp 4, on the South Col of Mount Everest. Photo countesy of Luke Timmerman

His half-hour stay on the peak of Everest will always be etched in his memory.

At 29,029 feet, the summit is a small pyramid of trampled snow studded with weather-beaten prayer flags left by previous climbers. It was 6:30 a.m. when Timmerman, Alpine Ascents expedition leader Ben Jones and three others were the first of their group to reach the top. The wind — which roared at 80 to 100 mph on the high flanks of the mountain in the early days of May — was a just a gentle breeze. In the bright morning sun, the snow-capped Himalayas were spread beneath and around them. With the clouds far below the summit, visibility was at least 100 miles.

“It is exhilarating to know you are finally there, after all that effort,” Timmerman said. “It was years of prior climbing, months of training, and two months on the mountain itself, where your patience is tested.”

To avoid the “traffic jams” of queued up climbers who want to head for the summit as soon as the weather permits, Jones had delayed his expedition’s summit push to May 22, almost to the last day of their climbing window. So in addition to perfect conditions that glorious morning, the Alpine Ascents expedition team had the mountain to themselves.

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. There is still time to sign up for this season's climbs, or you can whet your appetite for climbs to come in 2019.

They had time for high-fives, backslapping and mugging for the cameras. Timmerman and the others could even take off their oxygen masks, and breathe unassisted the cold thin air.

“Luke was fantastic on this climb,” said Alpine Ascents guide Eric Murphy. “He displayed tenacity through a few tough moments, was steadfast in his commitment to the team and offered his friendship, support and a sense of humor to everyone.”

Indeed, there were times when Timmerman was not so certain he would reach the top. On summit day, the challenge was the bitter cold. As they set out for the peak, the temperature at Camp 4 was about 20 degrees below zero.

“We made in up in just shy of eight hours,” Timmerman said of the summit day. “My feet were numb a good six of those eight hours.”

'At what point does frostbite set in?'

As the team climbed through the wee hours of the morning, their route lit by their headlamps, Timmerman kept trying to wiggle his toes. “I was concerned about my feet,” he said. “At what point does frostbite set in? At what point should I tell the guide?”

About three hours into the climb, he hollered to expedition leader Jones that he had a problem. Jones, on his fifth trip to the Everest summit, advised a series of leg swings to boost circulation to his feet. At a rest point at 27,500 feet, Jones instructed one of the Sherpa guides to raise the setting on Timmerman’s oxygen bottle a notch, temporarily boosting his oxygen flow to the highest level. That seemed to help. Then Jones also began slapping Timmerman’s boots. At this cold, desolate and dark spot known as the Balcony, it was a morale boost. “I felt like I was on a sports team, and the coach was slapping my back,” Timmerman said.

Once on the summit, even though the temperature was a few degrees below zero, Timmerman’s worries abated. He was aware that most accidents occur on the way down from the top, but was fully confident the most difficult part was over. “Those who get in trouble use every ounce of energy just to get to the top, and then they’ve run out of it. I knew I had plenty left,” he said.

Timmerman in Seattle
Luke Timmerman founded the biotech newsletter Timmerman Report and is the author of "Hood: Trailblazer of the Genomics Age," a biography of Lee Hood, co-founder of Seattle's Institute for Systems Biology. Photo by Meryl Schenker

Timmerman returned from the trip with all his toes intact, not even a toenail discolored. Although free from frostbite, he still experiences some numbness in his right foot, which his doctor thinks will continue to improve with time.

Earlier in the trip, Timmerman said he struggled with the thin air. “I had one sleepless night at Camp 2 (21,300 feet),” he said. “When you wake up gasping for breath, it feels kind of like you are drowning. It gets scary. Negative thoughts get into your head, like, “How will I ever climb tomorrow?’”

Thoughts about cancer patients seemed to pull him out of it. “I did think about the folks at home, and not wanting to let them down. I told myself this is hard, but other people have it harder,” he said.

A moment of 'tremendous possibility'

Safe in Seattle, Timmerman said he was humbled to learn that Hutch scientists had been closely following his climb. His day job as a biotechnology writer had convinced him that cancer research had reached a pivotal stage, and he saw his climb not only as a way to raise money for such research, but also to affirm “at this moment of tremendous possibility,” the importance of science itself.

“People told me they were inspired by it,” he said. “I’m just fortunate to have partnered with the Hutch on this. It was a very rewarding experience. I’m thrilled it raised the money it did, and that it raised awareness of Fred Hutch on a national level.

“Everybody has some goal, some dream in mind that seems out of reach; but deep down a lot of people know that if they apply themselves, they could probably do it,” he said. “It’s what animates so many people.”

Now that he is back at sea level, Timmerman will have plenty of time to parse the meaning of his adventure, but already he has placed it in context:  “It’s certainly the most visible thing I ever achieved in my life,” he said, “but special moments — getting married, the birth of your child — they rank higher.”

Editor’s note: Luke Timmerman will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Safeco Field on the evening of Thursday, Aug. 2, when the Seattle Mariners host the Toronto Blue Jays.

Luke Timmerman at summit of Mount Everest
At the top of the world, Luke displays a banner for Fred Hutch's Climb to Fight Cancer program. He also shows banners for two corporate sponsors, Sanofi and 10X Genomics, whose donations covered the cost of his expedition. Photo courtesy of Luke Timmerman

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. 

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