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9/11 Tribute Climb, Linville Gorge. Veterans take on "The Daddy"

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Our destination and objective was bold and risky.

Linville Gorge Wilderness, located in Western North Carolina, is rugged with steep terrain, dense undergrowth, slick slabs, and loose scree. It is an adventure-climbers sanctuary. Following a maze of rocks and roots through a narrow and occasionally very exposed trail and an 80-foot rappel, the descent to the base of our objective, “The Daddy”, took four hours — double the time we budgeted.

Our team consisted of three Misty Mountain guides: Jonathan, San, and photographer, Gavin; one Catalyst guide, Huck, and two military veterans, each with distinct physical challenges and cruxes to overcome.

Gene Whitehead, a Navy Seabee, is visually impaired from macular dystrophy, and Michael Breed, Air Force, is recovering from a hemorrhagic stroke and a craniotomy; they both signed up for Catalyst’s 9th Annual 9/11 Veteran Tribute Climb. Although Gene and Michael were not new to climbing, this particular route would be a highlight of their climbing career, if successful. The risks were high if things went sideways, but after several pre-trip conversations outlining the mental, physical and logistical obstacles, the guides and veterans were willing to meet the challenge.

“The Daddy” is a classic 500-foot, 5-pitch, 5.6 route on wondering faces and cracks with good edges, flakes, and blocks. The route offers pleasant exposure making the climbing feel airy and slightly intimidating; the views of the surrounding lush gorge and buttresses are strikingly rewarding.

Now at the base of the route, we were grateful we made the gnarly descent trail and rappel without incident (other than minor scraped shins and elbows). Here, we took a break to catch our breath; we fueled up with a quick snack and water, then geared up for the five pitches to the top. We discussed our plan of attack, noting the only retreat now was up! Onward and upward, we started the climb.

At 12pm Michael began the first pitch following his guide, San, on top rope. At 12:30 pm, Gene began the pitch following our guide, Jonathan. Each pitch ends at a proper belay ledge, affording space for the team to sprawl out comfortably. Pitches Two, Three and Four went smooth and we were making good time for the group. Our spirits were as high as the birds of prey circling above the gorge. The weather was perfect for the climbing: the wind was light and breezy, cooling us from the bright afternoon sun; the clouds rolled by offering occasional shade, and the humidity was low making the quartzite rock sticky and cool to the touch. Perfect conditions for the final pitch Five, a beautiful left-facing corner guarding the top of the summit.

As we each topped out the last pitch at 5 pm, congratulatory high-fives and hugs fueled our emotions and excitement. Following a short scramble to the true summit, we took photos with the American Flag and honored those fallen heroes of 9/11/2001. We each shared stories of where we were that day and of our gratefulness for the sacrifices that brave servicemen and women make to secure our freedoms.

The true success of a climbing adventure is the ability to return to family and friends safely. The vertical climbing was over, but we had to make haste to return to camp before dark, where dinner, prepared by our Chef, Josh, was waiting to greet us.

The hike out was just as intense as the hike in, except now we were mentally and physically fatigued. Slow-going, we arrived at the Chimneys, our final leg of the trail. With the alpine-glow sunset gloriously illuminating the sky, we all reflected on the day, and why ultimately we were all brought together for this tribute climb.

After 12.5 hours of continuous moving, we staggered into camp at 8 pm to be welcomed with all-we-could-eat turkey chili and fire-made cornbread to nourish our weary bodies. Satisfied and overjoyed with our success, we gathered around a campfire to end the epic day with perma-grins and sharing stories of our “highs and lows” of the ascent.

We had just made climbing history.

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