It was that post-Christmas
dinner hangover, when youre so full it hurts to move. That evening
Terry Tinnells family sat around having one of those pie-in-the-sky
conversations, batting around the question: Whats the most beautiful
place youve ever visited?
All eyes turned to Tinnells brother-in-law, Jim Myers, an avid
outdoorsman who lives in Knoxville, TN, at the foothills of the Smoky
Mountains. Hes traveled all over the world. Everyone was eager
to know what his answer would be.
Mount Le Conte, Myers said without hesitation.
The third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
at an elevation of 6,593 feet, Mount Le Conte is a hikers dream
destination. It has five trails:
Alum Cave (5.5 miles, 2,560-foot net climb)
The Boulevard (8 miles, 1,080-foot net climb)
Bullhead (7.2 miles, 3,820-foot net climb)
Rainbow Falls (6.5 miles, 3,820-foot net climb)
Trillium Gap (6.5 miles, 3,300-foot net climb)
Though the site is stunning, fatalities sometimes occur as hikers
try to climb to Le Conte Lodge, which is at the mountaintop. Once
there however, the place is rustic and charming. The lodge is also
popular. With such high demand for accommodations, the management
must hold a lottery to determine who can stay overnight. Hikers, however,
are welcome to bunk in outdoor shelters. (Although, bear claw indentations
on a nearby restroom door are a reminder that campers may get some
unexpected company during the night.)
At the lodge, dinner is served every evening at 6 pm and typically
consists of a sandwich, chips and oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies.
Though a modest buffet, after hours and hours of conquering the mountain,
hikers often say its the best meal theyve ever eaten.
Challenges aside, theres a reason Myers said that Mount Le Conte
was the most beautiful place hes ever visited: The views are
breathtaking and serene. So when Myers mentioned the site, Tinnell
piped up with some regret. Though he and his wife grew up in the Knoxville
area and lived most of their lives there, they now live a good distance
away from the fabled peakjust north of Atlanta.
Ive been all over the Smoky Mountains and, for whatever
reason, we never went to Mount Le Conte, either one of us, Tinnell
told his family. I feel bad we lived so close and I never took
Cindy. Now I guess I never will. Myers disagreed with him.
I thought, why not? Myers recalled. We can do it.
Its not going to be easy, but we can accomplish this with the
right equipment and people. Tinnell had doubts.
I looked down at my chair and back at him like, are you stupid?
Tinnell recalled. That was the start of it. I looked around
the table and saw the look in everybodys eyes. Here was a challenge
that we could attack as a group.
Tinnell, 55, uses a wheelchair following his diagnosis of T12 transverse
myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. Hes not one to
ask for accommodations or make excuses. While the conversation occurred
during the 2011 holiday season, that wasnt the first time his
family had rallied around him with sparkles in their eyes.
He had learned to play wheelchair tennis and his family went all-in
to support this new hobby. He and his folks had always camped, backpacked
and kayaked and about six months after he began using the chair, his
wife spearheaded a camping trip just for the two of them. Tinnell
was anxious. In fact, he was so nervous that his mind raced ahead,
considering every aspect of the trip and how he would camp using the
He was so focused on the trip that he didnt realize his family
was up to something until he and Cindy returned to discover that family
and friends-about 30 people in all-had spent the weekend renovating
Tinnells home with accessible features. The house was built
in 1896, so the overhaul included a ramp out the back door, a new
bathroom and a main-floor office space, which was transferred from
Within the nucleus of this group, Ive seen that spark
before, Tinnell said of his extended familys team spirit.
He had a tear in his eye and a quaver in his voice. It is impressive
as well as humbling. And so Tinnell and his familys two-year
mission to get to the top of Mount Le Conte was officially launched.
First, he and Myers needed to determine who would make the trip. Tinnells
wife, Cindy, was a mandatory member of the crew. The fact that the
couple had never been to the top of LeConte was the point of the trip.
Tinnell wanted the rest of his family to go as well, so his 24-year-old
daughter, Erin, came along, as did his 25-year-old son, Julian. Tinnell
also invited Myers, his sister and his brother, as well as some lifelong
He only wanted family and close friends to go, but Myers convinced
him the team needed some muscle along on the trip for the heavy lifting.
Thats when Myers recruited a few of his kids friends,
20-somethings who knew how to keep going when the going gets rough.
Next step: Determine the transportation plan. Myers first thought
about using a wheeled stretcher, much like the ones rolled out to
rescue people from hiking trails when things go bust. Tinnell vetoed
No way Im doing that, he said, because Im
not going up there unless I help propel myself. I recognize Im
going to need help, but I want to participate.
The group decided on a three-wheel water wheelchair because of the
durability of the wheels and its ability to maneuver over rocky terrain.
A water wheelchair has oversized tires and sits in a more reclined
triangular position with one wheel in the front and two in the back.
It is often used for beaches or to assist someone getting in or out
of water through a ramped entrance.
Finally, the group had to choose the best trail to take.
Although my sister, brother and her husband have been to Mount
Le Conte every year at least a couple times over the last 20 years,
every weekend they hiked a different trail, taking pictures and making
a detailed account about what we could do to manage various obstacles.
They decided which trail would be our best option.
Myers admitted the decision was difficult.
We had done the Trillium Gap trail and when you go on it and
think you will be taking a wheelchair, you think, oh my gosh,
Myers said. Then we did Bullhead. We had hiked the Boulevard
so we knew it. When you start thinking about a wheelchair, you just
have a totally different mind-set.
Trillium is rough, and Bullhead is even longer and narrower,
but it didnt seem as rough. It was tough deciding, but we finally
settled on Bullhead. We revisited it and then Le Conte asked us to
revisit it again.
The crew at Le Conte Lodge requested that the team review their plans
to make sure it was not only doable, but also whether it was their
best option. After Myers revisited Bullhead, he had second thoughts
about the trail. The crew at Le Conte knew Bullhead was more difficult
than it mightve initially seemed.
So we changed our mind and actually went with Trillium, and
it ended up working out, Myers said.
Trillium Gap is the 6.5-mile trail that climbs 3,300 feet-a rough
trail that is an average length but the second steepest of the five.
Still, based on Myers and other family members research,
it seemed like the optimal path for the wheelchair the group had chosen.
They decided to do a test run at Kennesaw Mountain, but the trail
there is gravel. Mount Le Conte is pure wilderness.
Once they sorted out the logistics, the family crossed its fingers
for a date to spend the night. Mount Le Contes lottery system
opens each year on October 1, and hikers can request up to three potential
dates. Tinnell wanted the management at Le Conte Lodge to know they
were coming, whether they got a date or not. (Remember the cabins
with the bear claw indentations?)
Prior to October, I called the general manager at Mount Le Conte
and told him what we were trying to accomplish, Tinnell said.
He told me he couldnt help with getting us in; it was
simply the lottery system. Second, he tried extremely hard to talk
us out of attacking the mountain.
General manager Tim Line knows the dangers of hiking Le Conte. Hes
from nearby Knoxville and began working at the lodge in 1977. Hes
also seasoned when it comes to safety and what it takes to make it
up the mountain. Hes seen people die trying to scale it, and
hes seen people who wished theyd never laid eyes on that
mountain. To toss aside being politically correct for a moment, Mount
Le Conte is not recommended for someone who uses a wheelchair.
His concern was safety, Tinnell said. He didnt
want people to get hurt.
He and Line went back and forth via e-mail regarding when Tinnell
aimed to hike the mountain, how he planned to do it, which trail they
intended to use and when the staff should expect his party so they
could be preparedjust in case something went wrong.
"One of his last e-mails was, I hope youre all prepared
for the task of what youre trying to do,'" Tinnell added.
Quite frankly, every season the Le Conte Lodge staff treks down the
mountain on rescue missions for people who thought they were prepared
to hike the mountain but were not. Tinnell thanked Line for the advice
and then got back to planning.
It just so happened I was turning 55 on May 15, so I thought
if youve got to go during the week, it would be cool to spend
my 55th birthday at the top of Mount Le Conte. We put Wednesday, May
15, as our third choice. We put Friday night, May 17, as our first
choice and Thursday night, May 16, as our second choice. They did
the lottery and we got in for May 15, my birthday.
To be clear, the hike up and back down wasnt all cake and champagne.
It took the group seven-and-a-half hours to hike a trail that people
typically complete in less than five hours. Still, the time was faster
than Myers anticipated. He knew the journey would be difficult and
he was right. In Tinnells words: My brother in-law, Jim,
is smarter than me, so I should have known when he was intimidated
that I should have been nervous.
I had no understanding of how difficult it was going to be,
Tinnell continued. As an example, one gentleman who went with
us is 30 and an exercise fanatic. He does hiking-trail marathons as
if traditional marathons are not difficult enough! He told me at the
top of Le Conte that that was the most difficult thing hed ever
Myers knew the trip up with Tinnell would be rough, but he relied
on advice from one of his hunting buddies to keep him on task.
One of the guys I hunt with is an Army vet who served in Vietnam,
Myers explained. Ive been in the woods with him numerous
times and when something would go south, Id be ready to go back
to the house and he would say, Were infantry. Were
going to adapt and overcome. I entered May 15 with that attitude:
This isnt going to go smoothly. Things will happen, but were
going to adapt on the fly and complete the task.
It was a grueling seven-and-a-half hours up the mountain. Tinnell
wore out a new set of gloves on the way up as he pushed the wheels
whenever he could. Other times, the group had to bench press
him and his chair over 3-foot-tall boulders along the trail. The team
welded a crossbar behind the chair so that more than one person could
push while going up.
Near the top, the trail opens to a grassy clearing where hikers simply
stroll the last few yards to the lodge. It was perfect weather for
a perfect day: 66 degrees and one of the clearest days Le Conte had
seen all season. When youve made it to the clearing, youre
home free and Tinnells party was thrilled to have arrived there.
Myers said that last mile was slow motion because everyone was fatigued
and they knew they had time to spare before darkness set in.
Once Tinnell and his party reached the clearing, the entire lodge
staff and guests for that night awaited them, clapping and cheering.
They took pictures with Tinnell, peppering him with questions, eager
to be a part of his experience. He and his party of hikers were lauded
like rock stars!
The first person to congratulate Tinnell was Line, the lodges
general manager who had urged Tinnell to reconsider.
Nathan Kirkham, assistant site manager at Le Conte Lodge, wrote the
following on the staffs May 16, 2013, blog:
Terry Tinnell, with the help of 14 strong friends and a service
dog named, Cocoa, became the only person we know of who reached Le
Conte Lodge in a wheelchair.
Kirkhams blog went on to echo Lines warnings of the treacherous
conditions of climbing the mountain.
The success rate for such attempts is abysmal in this inherently
dangerous pursuit, Kirkham wrote. Le Conte Lodge general
manager Tim Line, who has been affiliated with the lodge since 1977,
can remember no other happy endings when someone attempted the top
in a wheelchair.
The words offer a chilling reminder that the feat Tinnells crew
accomplished is not for everyone. The hikers who had passed the group
earlier that day knew that, too. Other hikers told Tinnell they heard
he was on his way up and wanted to meet him. Day hikers, who had planned
to go back down the mountain that afternoon, waited around until theyd
had a chance to meet him. A lot of the people had passed us
on the trail, but I didnt expect them to be waiting for us or
to give us...
in ABILITY Magazine
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