Nfld. & Labrador

From molars to mountaintops: N.L. dentist sets out to conquer 7 summits

Dentist Shannon Barker is on a quest to reach the highest summit on every continent. He recently completed his second climb, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina.

Shannon Barker started climbing 2 years ago and he's already climbed 2 peaks

Two very different sides of Shannon Barker. The dentist and the mountaineer. (First Street Dental/Facebook)

When people go on vacation because they need a break, they tend to go somewhere relaxing. When dentist Shannon Barker takes a break, he climbs a mountain.

Not just any mountain, either. Barker specifically seeks out the highest summit on each continent. First, Mount Elbrus in Russia, and most recently Mount Aconcagua in Argentina.

"You've spent so much time being goal-oriented toward this one goal and when you get to the top, there's a huge emotional release," Barker said.

"Most people that summit these mountains tend to cry at the very top."

Barker was born in St. John's but grew up in Labrador City, and he's been seeing dental patients out of a practice in Mount Pearl for almost 20 years.

With two of the world's highest peaks under his belt already, it's hard to believe that he's only been climbing for two years. Barker's passion for climbing took hold quickly after being inspired by friends.

"I met a friend who had done Kilimanjaro and she showed me pictures and looked fantastic and I was very intrigued," Barker said.

"Fast forward two months later, another friend of mine who had also climbed Kilimanjaro said, 'I'd like to climb Mount Elbrus.'"

A group of climbers atop Mount Elbrus in Russia. Elbrus is the highest peak in Europe. (Chiara Picao)

Barker decided he would too, and he signed himself up for the journey and began training, travelling up and down Signal Hill in St. John's three times a day to begin his physical conditioning. 

As the peak is covered in snow and ice, climbing it required Barker to familiarize himself with the tools and techniques, such as crampons — spikes you affix to your mountaineering boots — and ice axes.

After the success of his first summit, Barker planned and prepared for his trip to Argentina, a trip he returned from only weeks ago. Barker said he found it to be a far more difficult climb.

'More than I can chew'

"Taking on Aconcagua, initially I was excited. Until I got there and learned the gravity of what I'd signed up for," Barker said.

"I felt that a few points in time I've bitten off more than I can chew."

A big struggle was Barker's body trying to acclimate to higher elevations than ever before.

The higher the altitude, the less oxygen in the blood. Bodily functions and physical movement are increasingly impaired based on elevation, with some altitude uninhabitable to humans.

On Barker's first day in South America, the group's guide drove them to the border of Chile and Argentina. That was an altitude of more than 4,000 metres, then they hiked past 4,500 metres over the course of two hours, and had lunch there to help acclimate them to that elevation.

This Aug. 19, 2011 file photo shows Mount Denali in Denali National Park, Alaska. (Becky Bohrer/The Associated Press)

"That hike was more strenuous and technically challenging than all of Elbrus," Barker said.

But Barker rose to the challenge and crossed the second summit off his list. He credits his success and his survival on the instincts and expertise of his guides and climbing partners.

Barker is heading to Alaska next, where he will attempt to summit Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. 

He hopes the winter conditions and the need to pull your own sled on Denali will prepare him for the ultimate challenge of conquering Mount Everest. 

"That feeling of achieving that goal and the camaraderie with your teammates, you do this together, you each help each other up that mountain," Barker said.

"That feeling I'm chasing … it's a nice feeling."

With files from Maggie Gillis