Amid Global Pandemic, UK Alum Helps Others 1 Mountain at a Time

Climbing to new heights is something University of Kentucky alumna Brittney Woodrum has done both figuratively and literally for years.

By Whitney Hale

At UK, the Wildcat balanced stage productions, Student Activities Board events, an Education Abroad experience in Spain and a Disney College Program internship all while earning two bachelor’s degrees in arts administration and Spanish and a minor in theatre. Following graduation, she accepted a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to teach English in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Next up for Woodrum was a Princeton in Asia Fellowship teaching English and computer skills to Buddhist nuns in Yangon, Myanmar, and working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on a variety of initiatives from outdoor education to child safeguarding to women’s empowerment in Southeast Asia.

More recently, Woodrum thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in the fall of 2018 and embarked on graduate studies at University of Denver.

Now, as society learns to grapple with huge changes to life as we know it due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Woodrum is taking on a monumental challenge all her own — scaling Colorado’s 58 fourteeners (mountains above 14,000 feet) in just three months, while promoting humanitarian assistance for ShelterBox USA.

UKNow recently caught up with Woodrum, a native of Winchester, Kentucky, to learn more about her time at UK and her mission to help others one mountain at a time.

UKNow: What made you choose UK for your undergraduate studies?

Woodrum: The arts administration program provided everything I was looking for: a perfect blend of creativity and philanthropy.

UKNow: Why did you choose your areas of study at UK?

Woodrum: Arts administration provided a nice balance between mission-based, community organizations and the arts. As for Spanish, Spanish was initially my minor. I began my studies at UK with a double major in arts admin and theatre and a minor in Spanish; however, my Spanish courses ended up being some of my favorite courses.

UKNow: Any mentors who impacted you during your time at UK?

Woodrum: Tons! Within the Arts Administration program (now Department of Arts Administration): Dr. Geri Maschio (retired), Dr. Mark Rabideau (now at University of Colorado Denver). In Spanish: Dr. Raúl Lagos, Dr. Heather Campbell-SpeltzDr. Aníbal Biglieri, Megan O’Brien. In Theatre: Tony HardinZach StriblingRobert Haven (retired), Herman Farrell.

And perhaps most importantly: Dr. Tom Troland (Astronomy).

UKNow: Any favorite memories of your time at UK?

Woodrum: So many. Being involved in UK’s theatre program was always a fun time. It really felt like being a part of a family.

During my senior year, my arts administration cohort had a class where we had to create our own arts nonprofit from start to finish. It was a huge challenge but was perhaps the best learning opportunity I ever had. It was real, hands-on learning versus theoretical. By the end of the semester, we had created a fully functioning organization, which put on an arts event in the community. It was a huge success, and we had a ton of fun with it.

UKNow: After years teaching English abroad and working with NGOs in Asia, what made you interested in the work ShelterBox is doing?

Woodrum: When I began my master’s at the University of Denver, I was looking for a way to both get involved in my community as well as dip my toes into the humanitarian aid world. ShelterBox offered both of those things and met my interest with enthusiasm.

Furthermore, as someone who has tried to lead a minimalistic life, I revel in the idea that you don’t need much to be happy. That being said, it also makes me realize how many communities don’t have the security of life’s basic staples, such as shelter, water, food and dignity. No one should have to worry about where those things will come from; that’s ultimately why I love ShelterBox’s work and greater mission.

UKNow: How did you decide on this fourteeners challenge to raise money for ShelterBox and how does it work?

Woodrum: Over the past few years, I have taken on a number of physical challenges to raise money for causes I care about, such as hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise money for mental health research and cycling around the U.S. with an organization called Bike & Build to raise money for the affordable housing crisis.

When I first became a ShelterBox ambassador, I quickly learned that some of the ambassadors had a reputation for taking on physical fundraising challenges with the Box (such as cycling from Chile to Alaska with the Box, completing Ironman with the Box, and rowing the entirety of the Mississippi River with the Box). When I heard this, I knew it wasn’t so much a question of if but when.

When COVID-19 hit, I saw this as my opportunity and thought it was fitting that I should go out and find some physical mountains to climb as we as a global community were coming together to overcome the very abstract/metaphorical one that is the current pandemic. How it works: I am climbing all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers (mountains above 14,000 feet) with ShelterBox’s iconic aid box (weighing approximately 8 pounds) on my back. I am essentially living out of my car, traveling from mountain to mountain. In between climbs, I give virtual presentations to clubs, like Rotary, to raise funds and awareness for disaster relief particularly during times of COVID.

UKNow: What made you first interested in mountain climbing?

Woodrum: I grew up hiking and climbing in Appalachia and the Red River Gorge. Few things make me happier than climbing.

UKNow: Did you need to train to prepare yourself for the fourteeners?

Woodrum: I am a triathlete, so I did a lot of cross-training. I cycled, swam and ran a lot. I also did a lot of focused strength training, focusing on building muscles around my knees and ankles.

UKNow: Beyond the physical demands, do you feel UK helped prepare you for this challenge and the other programs you have participated in since graduating?

Woodrum: Without a doubt! At first, I was hesitant to attend UK because of its size; I quickly learned, however, that its size also provided an endless amount of opportunities to meet new people and try new things. Long story short, it provided the perfect space to explore what I wanted to do and gave me a number of opportunities to grow as a leader.

UKNow: How many climbs do you average a week? 

Woodrum: I do about a mountain a day.

UKNow: How long does an individual climb take? What does a climb look like?

Woodrum: People usually take years to climb all of the fourteeners. Very few people complete them in one season.

As for my daily routine, I usually wake up around 4-5 a.m. and am hiking before 6. There are two schools of reason for this: 1) morning hikes are cooler and generally more enjoyable and 2) we are currently in “monsoon” season in Colorado, which basically means you can expect a thunderstorm every day after 1 p.m. The last place you want to be when a storm hits is on the peak of a mountain. Therefore, I always get started early to avoid that risk.

UKNow: Any cool memories so far?

Woodrum: So many. One of the best parts of this project is that it has brought together individuals from all different backgrounds and chapters of my life. The community has rallied behind me, and this project has been so inspiring.

One of the coolest memories, however, had to be on Mt. Harvard. I was climbing with a couple of friends when we met this young guy named Chase. We got to talking, and I learned that he was also living out of his car this summer, climbing all of the 14ers — just like me! As if that weren’t crazy enough, he was also from Kentucky! I couldn’t believe it! There must be something in the water! 

UKNow: What do you hope others learn from your challenge?

Woodrum: One thing I never anticipated was how many layers this project would develop. One of these includes getting individuals out in the backcountry who otherwise never would have. I have had several friends approach me, asking whether they could come out for a hike. I have even had some Colorado natives join me for their first 14er! It’s been incredible: all of these individuals from varying backgrounds, coming out to support me and ShelterBox’s greater mission. I always try to create a fun and positive environment when hiking, especially for newbies.

It’s also been fun to hear other, more experienced hikers on some of the more technical mountains. One time on a pretty intimidating traverse, there was this couple following my friends and me. They were pretty nervous initially, but when they saw me scaling a few rock faces with the ShelterBox, they said, “if she can do that with a giant box on her back, we can do it, too.” That was really wonderful to hear.

Ultimately, however, I hope others learn how much impact one individual can make. When I started this project, I didn’t expect to raise even quarter of my goal. My ultimate goal is to raise $1,400 per mountain for a total of about $82,000 by the end of the project. To this date, I have already raised over $55,000. Absolutely incredible.

UKNow: When do you plan to complete the challenge?

Woodrum: I began on July 10, and the goal is to complete it by Sept. 26. I am currently a week and a half ahead of schedule.

UKNow: Finally, how do you plan to celebrate finishing the challenge?

Woodrum: I am very excited to return to Kentucky and relax a little bit. As beautiful as these mountains are, nothing beats the beautiful green hills of the Bluegrass.

UK's Office of Nationally Competitive Awards recently announced that Woodrum was awarded a Boren Fellowship to travel to Yangon, Myanmar, for a year of intensive language study and intern at Yangon Bakehouse, a local initiative geared at providing professional opportunities for women across the nation. Upon completion of her master’s degree at University of Denver, she hopes to eventually work for an organization like ShelterBox, focusing on logistics in the field of humanitarian assistance.

ShelterBox provides emergency shelter and other essential items to support families who have been displaced by disaster or conflict. To help Woodrum reach her goal of raising $82,000 for the international disaster relief charity, visit her fourteeners project online at www.shelterboxusa.org/fourteeners.

Originally published in UKNow, Sept. 8, 2020