It was that post-Christmas dinner hangover, when you’re so full it hurts to move. That evening Terry Tinnell’s family sat around having one of those pie-in-the-sky conversations, batting around the question: What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever visited?
All eyes turned to Tinnell’s brother-in-law, Jim Myers, an avid outdoorsman who lives in Knoxville, TN, at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. He’s 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 hiker’s 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 it’s the best meal they’ve ever eaten.
Challenges aside, there’s a reason Myers said that Mount Le Conte was the most beautiful place he’s 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 peak—just north of Atlanta.
“I’ve 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. It’s 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 everybody’s 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. He’s not one to ask for accommodations or make excuses. While the conversation occurred during the 2011 holiday season, that wasn’t 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 chair.
He was so focused on the trip that he didn’t 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 Tinnell’s 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 upstairs.
“Within the nucleus of this group, I’ve seen that spark before,” Tinnell said of his extended family’s 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 family’s 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. Tinnell’s 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 buddies.
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. That’s 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 that plan.
“No way I’m doing that,” he said, “because I’m not going up there unless I help propel myself. I recognize I’m 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 didn’t 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 might’ve 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 Conte’s 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 couldn’t 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. He’s from nearby Knoxville and began working at the lodge in 1977. He’s also seasoned when it comes to safety and what it takes to make it up the mountain. He’s seen people die trying to scale it, and he’s seen people who wished they’d 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 didn’t 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 prepared—just in case something went wrong.
“One of his last e-mails was, ‘I hope you’re all prepared for the task of what you’re 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 you’ve 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 wasn’t 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 Tinnell’s 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 he’d ever done.”
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. “I’ve been in the woods with him numerous times and when something would go south, I’d be ready to go back to the house and he would say, ‘We’re infantry. We’re going to adapt and overcome.’ I entered May 15 with that attitude: This isn’t going to go smoothly. Things will happen, but we’re 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 you’ve made it to the clearing, you’re home free and Tinnell’s 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 lodge’s general manager who had urged Tinnell to reconsider.
Nathan Kirkham, assistant site manager at Le Conte Lodge, wrote the following on the staff’s 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.”
Kirkham’s blog went on to echo Line’s 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 Tinnell’s 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 they’d had a chance to meet him.
“A lot of the people had passed us on the trail, but I didn’t expect them to be waiting for us or to give us such a warm welcome,” said Tinnell’s daughter, Erin.
“It was beautiful,” she went on. “That moment when we got there and saw those people applauding us, we knew we did it. We weren’t just proud of ourselves, but other people noticed what we did, too. We wanted to let people know if something happens in your life that isn’t so great, you can still live your life and do things you’ve always wanted to do.”
“It was overwhelming,” Erin recalled. “We were exhausted and tired but had a feeling of accomplishment. People we didn’t know were saying “congratulations,” and that they were glad we were there. It was gratifying to see how it impacted their lives. All these people were telling me afterward that my dad is such an inspiration and a hero, and I’m thinking he’s always been my hero.”
Tinnell spent time talking with several of the guests, as well as the lodge staff and then, his family celebrated his 55th birthday in style. “We unwound pretty good that night,” Myers laughed.
The next morning, however, they had to go back the way they’d come.
“I thought going up would be a complete effort and coming down would be a breeze,” Tinnell recalled. “It did take more effort going up, but coming down was equally challenging.”
Heading back down the mountain, he was inches from going over the side of Mount Le Conte, bringing to mind all the worrisome warnings that go along with attempting such a climb-wheelchair or not.
On the trip up the mountain, people had pulled and pushed Tinnell. Going down, members of the group walked in front, pointing out rocks and ditches in the terrain, while one person guided the chair.
“I had the thought coming down that I was so tired from the day before that if the chair got away from me, I didn’t know if I could control it,” said Myers, who was the first to push Tinnell on the way down. “I was that fatigued. It wasn’t long afterward that one of the young people almost lost Terry.”
Tinnell recalled the scare.
“We were about 3 to 4 inches from the edge of the trail on the left,” he remembered. “It dropped off about 80-90 feet there. The right tire hit a rock and threw me up, causing the front wheel to turn sharply to the left. I started over the side of the mountain, but I saw a tree limb and grabbed it with both hands, letting go of the chair. The guy pushing me grabbed the same limb with his left hand and the chair with his right. We dangled in the air.”
Five members of the group bolted to the rescue, while Tinnell’s wife and sister were in shock. It struck them that all the beauty of the previous day could be erased in a heartbeat.
“I didn’t think I was going to die, but I thought if something happened, it would be painful and really bad,” Tinnell said.
Working together, his group steered both men and the chair back to safety. They collected themselves, tried to calm down and ultimately carried on.
“It got our adrenaline going, but we all had a successful outcome,” Tinnell said. He lived to tell the one about hanging from a tree limb 80 or 90 feet up.
Tinnell defied the long odds, but whenever the subject comes up, he first gives credit to his crew of family and close friends who joined him on the journey. The most important member of that party is his wife, Cindy, with whom he always wanted to share the experience.
Now, Tinnell has an answer when someone asks: “What’s the most beautiful place you’ve been?”
“Of course, at this point, it’s Mount Le Conte,” he said laughing. “In addition to the location, it was the process of what that group of folks did for me in combination with the sheer beauty of that mountain and the Smoky Mountains as a whole.
“Our motto was FFA,” Tinnell continued. “If you choose the right friends, family and attitude, you can climb any mountain.”
by Josh Pate