Grand Teton Vs. Cancer: A Weekend In Linville

In July 2018, Alyson, Nathan, Mike and Matt will travel to Grand Teton National Park and attempt to summit its tallest peak, Grand Teton, at 13,776 feet. They will do so to raise awareness for pediatric cancer and funds for Vs. Cancer. They will blog their training and trip on www.alycatswalkabout.com. You can contribute to their campaign here.

By: Nathan Rode

A few weeks ago, the Grand Teton Vs. Cancer team spent a weekend in Linville Gorge, NC. It’s part of the Pisgah National Forest and has been referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East, with the Linville River winding through the bottom of steep cliffs that offer stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Between college and permanent residency, Alyson and I have been in North Carolina for 15 years. This was our first trip to Linville and it’s quite obvious we’ve been missing out.

The point of the weekend excursion was to get in some cold-weather camping—though it wasn’t cold—as well as some hiking and outdoor climbing. We planned for the last weekend of February because our crazy travel schedules wouldn’t be that crazy just yet and we expected winter weather, especially being in the mountains. But we had one of North Carolina’s typical fake springs where it was sunny and beautiful one day and rainy the next. The temperatures weren’t what we’ll experience on Grand Teton, but we accomplished much of what we set out to do anyway.

Everybody finished work on a Friday and we gathered at Mike’s house to load all the gear into the car. If you don’t remember, Mike is our experienced climber friend that will be leading us on this expedition. We jammed hiking packs and climbing equipment into the back of Alyson’s new Hyundai Tuscon and spent the next three-plus hours talking plans and jamming out to 90s on 9 on XM radio.

The plan was to camp out on one of the roadside pullouts on the road leading up to Table Rock Mountain, then drive to the parking lot at the top in the morning. Unfortunately, we were waylaid by a gate. So we parked the car, gathered our gear and hiked the last mile or so up the road. We even cut through the woods at one point, practicing our rock scrambling with heavy packs. We finally reached the top, set up camp and then set out for The Prow.

The Prow is a section of cliff face that descends about 500 feet from the ridgeline down to the Linville River. We were going to rappel down, then climb back up. The last time I went rappelling, I was about 13 years old and I hated it. That experience was replaying in my head as we hiked out and set up, but once I started going, it wasn’t so bad. I had one slip that did a number on my hand, but overall, my 33-year-old self handled it much better than the 13-year-old version.

For Alyson, it was her first time rappelling and she is not a fan of heights. She got through the first rappel fine, though not without some anxiety. On the second pitch, she had a slip of her own and, well, I’ll let her words describe that moment. As she posted on Facebook at the end of our trip…

One of the most terrifying moments of my life occurred yesterday. Some of you know of my uncontrollable fear of heights. This weekend, the Grand Teton Vs. Cancer team went out to Linville Gorge for our first training. Part of that training is rappelling. I have never been rappelling before, let alone 500 feet in the air. Needless to say, I was a little uneasy. As I began my second rappel down, I slipped off the wall. Due to the angle of the rope, I was slingshot into the air and around the other side of the mountain face. I screamed and my belayer pulled the bottom of my rope tight so that I was no longer swinging.

At that moment, I clung to the side of a mountain like Spiderman, shaking uncontrollably and trying not to look at the 500-foot vertical drop below me. My teammate above said when I was ready, I could ask for the slack to be put back in my rope to begin working my way back around to the other side of the mountain face. I was paralyzed with fear, absolutely afraid that if I asked for slack, I wouldn’t be able to control it. But then I thought about why we were there, the children who are faced with the same fear when they are told they have cancer. They have the doctors supporting from above with their families holding tight to that bottom of the rope. But it’s the kids who have the hands on the rope. It is those kids that need to fight past their fears and work to get back on track. After shedding a few tears, I took a deep breath and asked for slack in my rope. Slowly, I worked my way down to the lower ledge where my team pulled me in.

I am not trying to summit Grand Teton just for fun. I want to summit Grand Teton to push myself to achieve something I thought I could never do. These kids continue to be my inspiration to live each and every day with that goal. So I kindly ask for anyone who can to please make a donation to our Vs. Cancer page. Help us give these kids the courage and support they need to conquer this mountain.

Alyson made it to the next ledge where she caught her breath. At this point, due to a later start, it was time to climb back up. Mike went first, setting safety gear along the way. I was next, being belayed by Mike from the top so I could remove the gear he set. That was a new challenge for me. I had only been on an indoor wall before and my only concerns were where my feet and hands go next. Now I had to stop at certain points, make sure I was stable, remove gear from the cliff face and clip it to my harness to it wasn’t lost to the gorge hundreds of feet below. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but it certainly wasn’t as hard as I was expecting.

Alyson made her way after me, followed by the fourth member of our team, Matt. We repeated the exercise for the last pitch with the sun setting and Mike topping out as darkness fell across the area. We hiked back, turning our headlamps off for a time to use the bright, silver lighting of a nearly full moon. Once we were back in camp, we had our dinner around a fire and soon passed out after an exhausting day.

On Sunday, our plan was to get some more climbing in, but a storm came through during the night and the next morning was cold and wet—very undesirable conditions for clinging to rock. So we packed everything up, headed back to the car and stopped at a popular Mexican restaurant on our way home.

It was a short trip and certainly didn’t go as expected or even hoped at times, but it was a good experience and another step toward completing our goal.

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