Bob Sullivan: Pediatrician, Allergist …Mountain Climber?

by | Jun 2024

AT WORK, Bob Sullivan is a pediatrician, an allergist, and an immunologist. He treats the children of Lynchburg for asthma, eczema, and any number of allergies. He finds joy in making them feel better.

In his free time, Sullivan climbs mountains — not just any mountains, either. He has summited Mount Everest in Asia, Denali in Alaska, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, and a number of other peaks around the globe. Such impressive feats should have impressive beginnings, but for Sullivan, it simply started with Lent.

Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie, moved to Lynchburg in 1997, both taking jobs in pediatrics at F. Read Hopkins Pediatric Associates. It was around nine years later that he began thinking more about fitness afterhis father survived a heart attack, and Sullivan was determined to make a lifestyle change.

“I had actually given up slothfulness for Lent because my father had had a heart attack,” Sullivan explained. “It made me just kind of think about things, and so I wanted to get back into shape.”

At first, he was just running. Then, the family took a trip to Alaska, where he met a man who had just climbed Denali — the highest peak in North America. Sullivan decided summiting the mountain would be a good goal to strive for in his efforts to get back in shape. To climb the mountain, however, he had to do a lot more than just run. He took training courses, climbed smaller mountains as practice, and tested his ability to survive glaciated areas and high altitudes. 

“There’s a lot of preparation,” Sullivan said. “It’s becoming physically fit and then pushing yourself to a level beyond what sometimes you feel you might have been capable of.”

Bad weather forced him to turn back on his first attempt, but Sullivan returned the next year and made it to the top. He’d reached his fitness goal, but he didn’t stop there. His high altitude test had been on Mount Kilimanjaro — the highest peak in Africa. After summiting Mount Kilimanjaro and Denali, completing the other continental high points was a no-brainer.

“I was like, ‘Okay, well, I’ve done two of the seven summits now,’” Sullivan said. “I’d done a lot of reading about that, and I just decided I would try and climb some other ones.”

Mount Rogers, the highest natural point in Virginia, stands at just over 5,700 feet. The smallest of the seven summits — the Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania — is over 16,000. Of course, one of those seven was Mount Everest, which Sullivan summited in 2012 alongside a medical team through the Wilderness Medical Society. For that climb, Sullivan said, he was in the best condition of his life.

“You want to be able to take care of yourself, even though you’re on a team, and you need to be prepared — that if someone is injured or has fallen — that you’re capable of helping to rescue them. It was important for me not to just have a guide take me [on] a leash, but to actually be an active participant in the climb.”

He had to do exactly that on his way down from Everest, continuing to camp without his team’s guide and helping stabilize another climber who had fallen. There was a lot of spiritual growth involved in the experience, Sullivan said, as he learned to work with others for a common goal and trust that the outcome was not totally in his hands.

“Climbing mountains is like a cathedral for me; it’s a way I would get closer to God,” Sullivan expressed. “I was very blessed to have made it to the summit and come down safely.”

After that climb, Sullivan finished the seven summits, becoming the 397th person in the world to have completed the challenge and around the 100th to do a final eighth mountain. 

He rarely climbed alone, and while there isn’t an alpine climbing community in Lynchburg, the international community is very diverse.

“I climb with people from Switzerland, from Sweden, from South America, from Peru, from Turkey, one from Wales, Scotland — just people from all around the world. It’s really interesting to sit down when you’re at camp, and you talk [about] everyone’s different experience.”

Sullivan occasionally climbed with his wife and children. His daughter, in particular, took a shine to the activity. Often, Sullivan would be the guide on those climbs.

“There’s a lot of responsibility in that because you do need to be self-reliant,” Sullivan said. “That’s your family, and you don’t want any of them to get hurt.”

After all, climbing mountains can be hazardous. It is impossible to control the weather, the rock falls, the avalanches, or any other hazards. Summiting, Sullivan said, is different from the goal.

“My first goal is to do it as safely as possible, and a success for me is just coming back,” Sullivan said. “There are dangers that [are] beyond your control, and you just have to weigh the costs and benefits and make sure that, at least, you’re in good shape so that you give yourself the best odds.”

It is a lesson that works both on the mountain and in real life. Like Sullivan, you, too, can do incredible things if you try. You don’t need to climb mountains, but take those first steps to care for yourself and embrace your hobbies. You never know what you might learn or who you might meet in the process. GN 

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