What made La Colombe CEO Todd Carmichael, 15 years into building his coffee roasting and cafe business, leave his lattes behind for the brutal, frozen wilderness of Antarctica?
I wish I could give you a well-thought-out answer, but the thing is I still don’t know. All I know is that I’d made a decision. I knew where I was, and I know the circumstance of it, but I needed to do that. I wasn’t passionate about it and it wasn’t something that was a calculation. It was something that I was absolutely compelled to do.
Did something happen to you? Did you maybe think you were going soft or complacent?
There is an ingredient to that, which is I think a life unchallenged is one that is very bland and if your intention in life is a big one, then you have to remain challenged all the time. And the challenges need to be almost outside of your comfort zone that they’re realistic. So, I know that there’s that piece. There’s another piece which is, ultimately, I would like to end my life with the idea that I had a hero and that hero was me. I would really like to be my own hero. I like that I would be the hero figure in this tableau, which is my existence.
You’d like to admire yourself.
Or, at least, just be a little bit proud internally. Not externally. I want to always know how deep the tank is. When I was a kid, I worked in gas stations and we’d have to take these sticks and put them down and dip the tanks and see how much gasoline was down there. Antarctica is that. You want to touch the bottom and you want to measure what you’ve got.
You set the world record, according to the World Record Academy.
What did you do? How far down did you go?
From the coast to the pole, it’s 700 miles. If you just absolutely leave everything there is on the ice and you leave nothing behind, you lose 65 pounds and you haven’t spoken to anyone for a month and a half and you’re completely mentally and physically exhausted and you’re a day away from your organ failure. Then you get to the pole in 39 days, 7 hours, and 49 minutes.
[At another point in the interview, Carmichael said that a key element was never to sweat, because in the cold, which reaches to 80 below zero, frozen sweat would be fatal. His refuge was his tent, where it reached a relatively balmy 20 below zero at times. The wind was ferocious and dropping a glove or any piece of equipment was the same as losing it, since it would quickly blow away and there was no energy to spare to chase it. He hiked pulling all his belongings on a sled.]
What was it like when you finally got there? Was somebody waiting for you?
No. There’s a station at the South Pole and there are these laboratories there that are working with things to do with the big bang theory and math and science.
Where there people there? How did they react when they saw you?
They were pretty surprised. It was like an astronaut just all of a sudden knocking on the window of a space shuttle. They were really freaked out … how did this person get here? I was in bad shape. I had only 20% of my lung capacity left. The inside of my lungs were completely frostbitten. So, I could breathe in, but it was really difficult for me to breathe out. My toes were frozen. My fingers were frozen. My face was pretty damaged and my left eye was iced over. It looked like I had cataracts, and I was talking nonsense, for them. But I remember what I was saying. It meant something in my world.
What were you saying?
I was sleep-deprived and I was malnourished and I’d been in isolation and severe circumstances. There were days it was 100 below. I’d go weeks without seeing past my hands. It was white-out. It was really tough to navigate in. I had developed a relationship with my sled. I called her "the Pig." I put everything into her, including my worries. So, she became a character and I became a hero. I would make sure that she didn’t have worries by telling her we’re going to be fine and we spent a lot of time together. Four miles, five miles from the pole, she was empty. There was no more food left. There was no more anything left. It was just my tent and I kicked around the supplies. My GPS is gone and I was hollowed out. She was hollowed out. And I unhooked. When I unhooked, it’s been 695 miles where we were together. I got down on my knees and I apologized. I remember I spent a lot of time saying goodbye. It was like abandoning a dog in the forest. I’m like, "I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m coming back." I hiked into the pole, just me.
Could you see the South Pole at that point?
Yeah, you could see the pole for about a day and a half. It didn't seem to get any bigger. It just seemed forever. There were some mental complications, because there was an airstrip and the airstrip was like black ice. When I stepped on the airstrip, I realized there were no more footprints. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go back and find the Pig. I called her "Betty ,"too. I couldn’t find Betty. So, I was going to walk back. So, I stayed on that side of the airfield for about an hour just pacing, until I saw a red figure in the distance. Somebody had put a puffy jacket out. They went outside. I realized that oh, that person will know. Now, obviously, I could have easily found my footprints on there. I saw the person. I said, "I left Betty. I left the Pig. I’ve got to go back to the Pig. I’m telling this person and I remember she said to me, "Do you want to go to the pole?" I went, "Oh, yeah, I need to do that." Do you want to hear this?
Yeah, I’m loving it. Keep going.
So, I say, "Yeah, yeah, I need to go to the pole." Now, remember, my face is completely duct-taped, because I’m so frostbitten that it’s super painful. I had just duct-taped my head and my face and my left eye. So, I’m looking through a hole in duct tape. So, I went to the pole and I wouldn’t touch it, because I decided I couldn’t touch it. I mean I’m there. So, I qualified. I got the world record, but I won’t touch it until I get Betty. And, [the woman I met] started to look at me like the guy you meet on the street. I’m a wack job. I’ve got tin foil on my head, right?
You’ve got duct tape on your head.
I haven’t eaten in a couple of days. Out there at that temperature you’re blowing through calories. So, it’s extremely hard for your brain to function. So, they brought me inside and I’m emaciated. I can barely climb stairs. I just set a world record, but I can hardly ... they sit me down. It was New Zealand time, breakfast. I smell food. I smell syrup. I could smell, because at 40 below your nose doesn’t work. I could smell maple syrup. She’s trying to talk to me and I’m trying to make sense. I’m like, "Don’t be the crazy guy to her." Now, somewhere in the ice around the pole are my supplies. They’re buried in the ice, but I don’t have any energy to dig the ice out and find my supplies. My tent is four or five miles back with Betty the Pig. So, [the woman says], "I don’t know what to do. We’re not allowed to just give food away and I don’t know how to deal with this." She goes, "I’m going to go get my manager." I stop her and I say, "Lady, just give me that bottle of syrup," because in my mind I’m thinking that’s got to be 4,000 calories, and with 4,000 calories I can get down, I can get the pick and I’ll get out of her hair. "Just give me that syrup." I can imagine myself drinking it, right?
And, now I’m beginning to unthaw. I haven’t showered in two months. So, I’m really smelly and I’m weird, looking through one eye. This lady panics and she leaves. I’m setting there dejected and trying to find my center of gravity and this [other] woman comes over. She’d been listening to the conversation. She brings me these two grapefruit-size cookies, mounded like a big snowball, half a snowball, with frosting. She goes, "Would this help?" I’d never seen anything like it. I could smell vanilla. I grabbed the first one and I ate that thing like a German Shepherd. I’m good, right. As I’m just finishing the first one, the first one and I’m licking my hands. These are hands that haven’t been washed in two months, right?
Everything’s black and everything. These two fingers don’t bend anymore. I see the lady come with the manager. I turned and I started eating the top of this one.
Before she can take it from you.
I left. I left the building. I went back out on the ice while I was eating it, because I thought I had enough calories. I’ll be fine. The problem is I went outside and I hadn’t slept in a couple of days. I had 4,000 calories and I’m doing the math. If you slept four hours, it’s still going to be light. It never gets dark. There was this shell [structure] that’s sitting on the ice here and there’s no floor. It’s more like a tent. It’s more like a place you’d put tools. So, I climb inside and I think I’m just going to sleep here. I just laid down on the ice and I fell asleep. I wake up about five hours later and there’s four people in there and they’re shaking me hard like a doll. I’m away and I’m looking around and I’m panicky. I look around and there’s blood everywhere.
I’m coughing up blood because my lungs are just so burnt. I’m like, "What ... is all this blood?" When you see blood on white ice, it’s very dramatic. They’re going, "Oh my God, can you hear me?"
I’m going, "Yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine." It’s kind of a fight because I’m kind of [acting] drunk. I remember they said, "We’re going to pull your boots off." The last thing you do on the ice when you know you have frostbitten feet is pull your boots off. You can’t. So, we have this big kind of, "No, no, no, no. Leave me alone. Just leave me alone." If you pull your boots off out there ...
You’re going to pull your toes with them.
Or, you can’t get them back on and now you’re going to lose your foot. The guy goes, "Listen to me. What’s your name?"
I say, "My name’s Todd," and I’m talking about Betty and I’ve got to get Betty. And he says, "What are you talking about?" [He said,] "We went out and we’ve pulled your sled in" with a ... snowmobile. He goes, "If we pull your boots off and you have frostbite, we will invite you in to the clinic."
I realized then, "Take them off, baby." Then everyone went "Oh, my god" and they carried me in the clinic. I spent those two days, and that was Christmas. So, that’s my story.
Next: On how La Colombe CEO Todd Carmichael decided to bring on a new majority investor: "I call him my brother."