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Man on the Edge

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Gladwyne’s Todd Carmichael (Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli)On this rainy spring morning, Main Line Health & Fitness is packed, its first floor humming with the sounds of treadmills, stationary bikes and the muffled music from a spin class. Todd Carmichael is there, and he’s a man on a rather unusual mission: He’ll be spending two weeks this fall hiking across Death Valley, the hottest region in North America.

The Gladwyne entrepreneur isn’t your typical gym rat. Truth be told, there’s nothing typical about Carmichael, 45, who holds the world record for reaching the South Pole—on foot.

A few times a week, Carmichael does his full-body strength-training workout under the watchful eye of MLH&F owner Roger Schwab. Today, Schwab is doing double-duty, training both Carmichael and Eric Bazilian, of the storied local rock band the Hooters. “These two like to push each other,” says Schwab.

As they warm up on stationary bikes, the two talk nonstop—Carmichael about his upcoming jaunt to Death Valley, and Bazilian about his group’s summer tour of Europe. Then the real work begins. Six-foot-3, lean and muscular, Carmichael goes from machine to machine performing each exercise to the point of failure. “Todd’s an extremely hard worker,” says Schwab. “I’ve never met anyone quite like him—he truly is a once-in-a-lifetime type of guy.”

Carmichael shrugs off the praise. “I’m just a dude,” he says. “Everyone has a challenge in life; there are people who are sick, who are unemployed. It’s not right for me to set myself apart and say, ‘Look at me—I’m a superhero.’”
 

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Maybe not, but Carmichael has enjoyed his share of enviable success as the owner of world-renowned coffee company La Colombe. And in at least one case, his wandering spirit and social consciousness have carried over into his home life: He and his wife, singer/songwriter Lauren Hart, recently adopted a 7-year-old Ethiopian girl named Yemmi. Oh, and he has three dogs, takes out the recycling on Thursday, and the trash on Friday.

“I think I’m like any other guy—more so than many may admit,” he says. “Doesn’t every guy have a need for adventure? Doesn’t every guy wonder what he’s capable of?”

But here’s the difference: Carmichael actually lives out his fantasies.

“Some of these expeditions I don’t love to the core, but I understand his passion for it because I have a passion that I follow in music,” says Hart, who’s learned to be a patient and open-minded wife. “It’s an abstract motivation that he has, and I have it too in my own life.”

Last November, Carmichael left the comforts of the Main Line to live on the ice for nearly six weeks, becoming the first American to make a solo expedition across Antarctica in less than 40 days—39 days, 7 hours and 49 minutes of walking (sometimes crawling), to be exact. For 14 hours a day, he pulled a 250-pound sled packed with supplies. The temperature plummeted to minus 40, the wind was relentless, and the route veered uphill for a grueling 700 miles. Early on, his skis broke and two satellite phones froze, cutting him off from the outside world.
 

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It took more than two months for Carmichael’s body to fully recover from the beating it endured in Antarctica. He’d lost nearly 50 pounds and broken four bones. His feet were black from frostbite, one eye had frozen shut, and his lungs had nearly done the same. Yet on the flight home, when he could’ve been thinking about a nice, long break, Carmichael’s mind raced with thoughts of Death Valley.

Thing is, Carmichael isn’t the vacationing type. He’d rather spend his off-time training. He bikes from the Main Line to the Jersey Shore and back. For up to eight hours at a time, he pulls tractor tires or a weighted rickshaw along Conshohocken State Road on roller skis. When he’s on the StairMaster, he faces the wall in silence, simulating the real-life environment of his solo expeditions. In between all of this, he extensively researches the areas he’ll explore. And why?

“People who ask me that question are looking for a canned answer—and I don’t have one,” says Carmichael, lounging on a leather sofa in his office at the La Colombe warehouse in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond section. “Doing these expeditions feeds me. I just have to do it.”

Carmichael embraces the conviction that a grand life is best achieved by resisting self-imposed boundaries. And while that may seem like a lofty ideal, it drives his compulsions to attempt seemingly impossible feats. “I was told by many that Death Valley is suicide—that solved it for me. It needs to be done,” says Carmichael. “Of course it’s not suicide. It just needs some focus and a great deal of preparation.”

Carmichael expects to be fully prepared by October, when he’ll embark on a 250-mile trek with his 350-pound sled loaded down with food, water and gear. “It’s a very rough territory,” he says. “I’ll be traveling at a snail’s pace, carrying all that weight in extreme temperatures of 120-plus degrees. It’ll come down to brute strength.”
 

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Carmichael was introduced to death as a young adult with the suicide of his mentally ill father. “I became acutely aware of the shortness of life,” says Carmichael. “I’ve always wanted to make my life as bold, big and exciting as it could possibly be.”

Carmichael traces his love of adventure back to his childhood in Spokane, Wash. “Boredom was never an option for me as a kid,” he says. “My mom would say, ‘How could you be bored? Go explore
your world.’”

The bike was Carmichael’s outlet. He’d ride for as long as he could. At 11, he began hiking the hills around his home. He started running as an early teen, completing his first marathon at 15 and an ultra-marathon (100 miles) two years later. That same year, he hiked 120 miles through the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area on his own.

Carmichael entered the University of Washington on a full scholarship for long-distance running. During college, he worked at Starbucks, his first taste of the coffee business. After graduating with an accounting degree and a specialization in international tax law, Carmichael moved to France, where he worked as an attaché for a Saudi prince.

In his spare time, Carmichael sailed his 1927 Barquette Marseillaise yacht across the Atlantic and back. He hiked countless deserts, and explored the Congolese jungle, the Sahara and Namib deserts, and Zimbabwe’s scrub plains.

In 1993, Carmichael embarked on a new adventure, starting his own coffee company. “I spent years working 15-hour days, sleeping on this couch we’re sitting on,” he says. “From day one, the goal was to have the best coffee company in the states, and I never wavered from that goal.”
 

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After researching several U.S. cities, Carmichael came away convinced that Philadelphia was on the brink of a major restaurant renaissance. “The first time I was visiting downtown, they were putting the fish up outside of Striped Bass,” he says. “I visited right before Thanksgiving in 1993. I sold everything I owned and moved to Philadelphia from France by mid-January 1994.”

Carmichael founded La Colombe with business partner Jean-Philippe Iberti. Today, it has four locations—two in Center City and two in New York. Every year, it roasts several million pounds of coffee for some of the best restaurants in the world. “We do basic coffee as well as we can, and people have responded,” he says.

Ten years after he moved to Philly, Carmichael met his future wife, who was hosting NBC 10’s The 10! Show at the time. He was there for an interview about an upcoming Antarctica exhibition. He called Hart from the ice to ask her on their first date. Less than a month later, they were engaged. “Lauren is the most amazing woman,” Carmichael says. “From day one, she’s been accepting and encouraging.”

While crossing Antarctica last December, Carmichael learned he was a father: He and Hart had been matched with Yemmi for adoption. “There are 2.5 million children in Ethiopia without parents,” says Carmichael. “Lauren and I weren’t adopting a child to help the world; we adopted a child to build a family.”

That in mind, Carmichael still plans on continuing his expeditions—though they’ll be shorter. “[It’s] one way a father can show a child that nothing is really that impossible if you put your mind to it,” he says.
 

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Prior to his solo Antarctica adventure, Carmichael approached veteran broadcaster Nancy Glass about producing a documentary. “I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and I’ve never met anyone like Todd,” says Glass. “I never had any doubts that he would accomplish what he set out to do.”

Glass has teamed up with reality-show heavyweight Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) to produce a History Channel series that will focus on Antarctica and five future expeditions. The upcoming trips haven’t been confirmed yet, but Carmichael’s wish list includes first-ever traverses of the world’s highest active volcano (South America’s Nevado Ojos del Salado), the planet’s deepest canyon (in Peru) and the northernmost piece of land on the globe (Oodag Island).

In the meantime, he’s got a few other things in mind, including a solo bike trip across the United States for his 50th birthday. He wants to do it in less than 10 days, so he’ll ride close to 22 hours daily.

When asked if he’ll ever stop this insanity, Carmichael laughs.

“I don’t think I’ll ever finish,” he says. “At 85 years old, I’ll certainly have shorter limits. Maybe at that point, all that I’ll be able to do is walk around my neighborhood or mow my lawn. And I’ll be doing it.”

To learn more about Todd Carmichael, visit toddcarmichael.com.
 

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