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Despite close call, Barnhart scales Mount Rainier for charity, self

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DSC00091.JPGMeasuring at about 12,300 feet above sea level, Disappointment Cleaver on the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier has lived up to its morale-breaking name over the years.

As the final mark on a brutal journey up the Cascade Range peak, one of the tallest mountains in the United States, the treacherous knife-edge ridge earned its name because climbers in the past thought it was the top of the mountain. When they learned they still had more than 2,000 feet to go up the razor-sharp mountain - well, their hearts either sank or swam.

At this point in the 32-hour mountain climb, there is no going back. You get one more drink of water, one more bite to eat, and then it's either scale the final, most demanding part of the mountain or turn back.

"They make you make the decision whether you're going to the top or you're going back," said Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, who climbed the mountain in Washington last week. "You have to make the call. Do you have enough left in your gas tank to go? Or are you done? Then once you get up there, you have to get back down. You can't just get up there and be done. You have to have juice left to get back home."

Barnhart faced a similar decision last year. Just short of Disappointment Cleaver, Barnhart had to decide whether his ailing knees, which he had previously busted on rocks, would be able to make the final push. Wisely, he chose not to.

A year later, though, Barnhart wanted more. He wanted to go back and prove to himself that he could climb the mountain. He wanted to finish the deal, a concept that sounded all too familiar.

Just a year earlier, Barnhart had preached to his department, staff and student-athletes the importance of finishing. Barnhart admitted he never purposely connected the two (his mission to the department to finish championships and his goal to scale the mountain), but ironically, coincidentally - whatever you want to term it as - the UK athletics director managed to do exactly that last week with an inspirational climb up Mount Rainier.

Despite treacherous conditions, the least of which included a nasty sun burn, lack of appetite, fatigued legs and shortage of breathable air, Barnhart conquered the mountain this time around.

Climbing to raise money and bring awareness for Lighthouse Ministries, which is in the process of fundraising for its new building that will allow it to expand its ministry and community outreach, Barnhart reached the peak of Mount Rainier, a massive volcanic crater that rests above the clouds.

"I wanted to finish the deal," Barnhart said. "It was everything I thought it would be. It was exhilarating and beautiful. The scenery is about as good as you can describe. It is a beautiful, beautiful area. God created a big, big world out there and it is special. From 13,000 feet, to watch the sun rise over the Cascades was unbelievable. To get to the crater and be in the crater like that is unbelievable."

Barnhart was escorted to the top of the mountain by Rainier Mountaineering Inc. tour guide Walter Hailes, who just so happens to be a Kentucky alum. When Barnhart reached the top of the mountain and was able to enter the summit with a friend and UK graduate, his emotions got the best of him.

"It was pretty surreal," Barnhart said. "It was amazingly quiet in the crater. The crater is really big inside and the wind calms because you are sitting down in the crater a little bit. The minute you step into the crater it gets real calm, and then all of a sudden you realize you made it.

"I'm one of those guys that get emotional about those things. It was emotional for me because you work hard trying to get ready. When you achieve it and get it done, it's good. My buddy had been up there and he was waiting for me, so he was fired up. Everybody was taking pictures. It was good stuff."

DSC00136.JPGThe climb certainly wasn't without its dangers, and, in fact, Barnhart nearly paid the ultimate consequence for the risk he took in climbing the perilous peak.

On his way down the mountain, Barnhart stumbled a little bit, caught a spike and slipped on a snow bridge atop a steep crevasse. He was a half-foot away from the edge of the bridge. Another foot would have been a fatal drop-off.

Asked what he was thinking after he fell, Barnhart was clearly shaken by the incident.

"I was thinking I better get out of here, so I just got up and went on," he said.

On his way down the mountain, though, Barnhart said he didn't have a choice but to get up and keep moving. The mountain had plenty more obstacles to come.

"You are going over crevasses that are significantly deep," Barnhart said. "I don't want to make drama out of that, but you'll cross a crevasse that might be a couple hundred feet deep, maybe more than that. You see nothing but blue ice as you look down. The trail sometimes gets very, very narrow. You are on the edge of the mountain and literally not much room to negotiate, going through ice falls, rock falls. You have to pay particular attention to everything you are doing."

Physically, Barnhart is beat up from the exhausting trip. His legs are fried, his feet are covered in blisters and his face, particularly around his lips, is dried and burnt from the sun and whipping winds.

"I felt like a raccoon coming out," Barnhart said.

The biggest hurdle, however, was topping the mental peak in his head.

"It is not a day hike," Barnhart said. "Some people assume that you sort of stroll up the side of a mountain until you get to the top. It's a lot more than that. It has everything to do with the physical fitness training part of it, but mentally there is a lot more to it even than I surmised after last year in terms of understanding what was ahead of you at 12,000 feet and above - the crevasses, the snow bridges, how difficult it was coming down the mountain.

"Never having been at that altitude before, you sort of lose your appetite. I wasn't hungry. They want you to eat every break you can, about every hour. They want you to take some food in and replenish the calories you burn. You burn a truckload of calories. I didn't have trouble (eating); I just wasn't hungry. It took away my appetite. I had to force myself to eat. I've had enough trail mix. I don't need any more trail mix for an awful long time."

With all things considered (the difficulties and the dangers of the trip weighed in with the triumph of reaching the summit) Barnhart was asked if he would consider doing it again.

"I told my wife I'm probably done with that one," Barnhart said. "She says, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' "

She has good reason with that inclination. When Barnhart started to reel off the possibilities of some future adventures, some of which include scaling the 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro and a bicycle trip across America, he sounded more like a man who yearned for rest than one who wanted to retire.

"I'm curious if I can go higher," Barnhart said. "That intrigues me a little bit. I'm interested in those things if we can tie it into charity and raise some money along the way. I'd be for that, but we'll see. There are lots of little thoughts going through my mind. We'll give those a rest and give my body a rest, and then I'll start back and figure out something to do. I always need something to do."

Conquering challenges included.

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1 Comment

Dear Mitch - What a great accomplishmnet, love the story. Would like very much to see you and Connie at some point in time. Now with Tom going to school at UK might get a change to say hello.

All the best,

Larry and Dang West

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  • Larry West: Dear Mitch - What a great accomplishmnet, love the story. Would like very much to see you and Connie at read more