School superintendent to climb Everest for charity

Published: May 15, 2006 | 4136th good news item since 2003

His weathered face is etched with deep furrows, as one who carries many burdens. He has lasted a contentious decade, after all, as schools superintendent in Cabarrus County.

He also has survived a heart attack he suffered while rappelling down a 180-foot cliff, far from any hospital.

But a strange thing happens when Harold “Butch” Winkler puts on his mountain climbing gear and his game face: He looks totally ready for adventure.

“Adventure” is his word for it. “Crazy” might be yours.

Next month, Winkler plans to climb two-thirds of the way up Mount Everest in Nepal and also to the summit of an adjacent Himalayan peak.

It’s an effort to raise money for the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital at NorthEast Medical Center in Concord. He’s aiming to attract $30,000 in donations.

People ask whether he has forgotten his age.

The 61-year-old Winkler, who had a heart attack nine years ago, knows his limits. He doesn’t expect he’ll be able to make it all the way to the top of the world’s highest peak – 29,035 feet.

But he’s determined to make it to at least 20,000 feet, maybe even 21,000.

Winkler has climbed extensively in North Carolina, and on other famous hunks of rock, such as the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and Mount Rainier in Washington state. His previous highest elevation was 14,400 feet five years ago, when he climbed a cloud-shrouded Rainier.

If he makes it to 20,000 feet, that will be more than a mile higher.

“Everyone who climbs has a ceiling,” he said.

Although he’d love to conquer the summit of Everest, he said, “I don’t think I’d make it back.”

He latched onto climbing 17 years ago when a school resource officer asked him to go out with a local SWAT team. Later, they went rappelling. He was hooked. After dozens of climbs on cliffs and mountains, he knows the equipment – crampons, climbing poles and Alpine boots – and the dangers.

At Yosemite National Park in California, he climbed on rock ledges the width of a dime.

He’s in shape. To get ready for Everest, he’s been training for months. He runs five miles a day with a 50-pound backpack. He does 700 stomach crunches a day.

He knows what can go wrong at high altitudes. On rugged Rainier, he was weak from altitude sickness (also known as hypoxia, getting too little oxygen) because he climbed too fast. Or he could get pulmonary edema, when fluid accumulates in the lungs.

The scariest experience so far?

At Table Rock, in the remote Linville Gorge area of Western North Carolina, he once fell 70 feet from a cliff because a sliver of rock gave way.

After several pieces of anchoring equipment popped out of the rock, his very last piece stopped him, so he didn’t hit the ground.

In 1997, also at Table Rock, he suffered his heart attack while rappelling. It could have killed him, because he had to wait for hours before help came.

He was taken to the nearest hospital, in Morganton, and stabilized. He was transferred to NorthEast, where doctors performed angioplasty and put in a cardiac stent to improve blood flow. But he started throwing up blood because an ulcer had ruptured.

He’s alive today, he said, because of the dedication of doctors at NorthEast.

Now, NorthEast is building the Jeff Gordon hospital. The Jeff Gordon Foundation gave NorthEast $1 million, and Gordon has pledged his ongoing support for the children’s hospital as one of his main charitable interests, said Jim Monroe, executive director of the NorthEast Medical Center Foundation.

Published in Teachers
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