A Mountain to Climb

A Mountain to Climb: A High Country hiking program helps at-risk teens overcome adversity
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Towering over Linville, with a peak elevation of 5,946 feet, the globally recognized nature preserve and diverse wildlife of Grandfather Mountain lures and challenges hikers as it has for generations, sometimes offering transformative experiences.

One such hiker was Jason Matthew Nipper, who especially enjoyed trekking Grandfather Mountain with his parents, Cheryl and James, and brother, Jimmy. Even while suffering from anxiety and depression, Jason found that time on the mountain brought him peace. Despite his own struggles, he always tried to help others. Sadly, in 2014 at age 26, Jason passed away from complications of mental illness and substance abuse.

(Pictured left) Founders of The Jason Project, Cheryl and James Nipper (right) Hikers take in how far they've ascended

After his passing, Cheryl and James Nipper founded The Jason Project, Inc. to encourage and inspire at-risk youth. The nonprofit’s flagship program, The Grandfather Challenge, is now in its fourth year and takes students from five counties—Avery, Caldwell, Catawba, Gaston, and Lincoln—on a series of four hikes at Grandfather Mountain covering a total of 20 miles. Each hike is capped at 10 students—who are all outfitted with hiking boots, socks, backpacks, and raincoats—and includes two professional hike leaders and two chaperones. Hikes get progressively longer and more challenging, culminating in the seven-mile Grand-Daddy Hike, including the 5,946-foot Calloway Peak. Along the way, participants (ages 13 to 18) struggling with problems at home or school, low self-esteem, mental disorders, or drug addiction gain a sense of accomplishment and confidence.

“The reason we do this program is two-fold,” says Cheryl. “The primary reason is to honor Jason and do something in his name so other people will know about him and will add goodness in the world somehow. The second thing we want is to help others, and that starts with Jason’s personality. ... He loved helping other people.” The Nippers believe real-life lessons in the wilderness setting can have a tremendous impact on participants.

Peak Resilience - Upwards of 200 kids have participated in The Jason Project, which helps local at-risk students develop confidence and leadership skills by completing arduous hikes on Grandfather Mountain.

“Studies have shown that being in nature in general relieves anxiety and creates a sense of well-being,” says James. “But at Grandfather Mountain in particular, the hikes and trails are so difficult, the kids come away with a feeling that they have completed a major challenge, all while being mentored by adults who teach them leadership values and how to visualize how they may cope with their own struggles as they move forward. ... We have the kids write in journals and allow them to express their thoughts, fears, and hopes for the future.”

In May, The Jason Project is taking efforts a step further with a pilot overnight program called The Appalachian Trailblazers, a two-day, 14-mile moderate hike along the Appalachian Trail focused on personal goal-setting and leadership development. It’s just one more way to perpetuate Jason’s legacy while helping so many others. 

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For more on The Jason Project, e-mail james@jamesnipper.com. Donations are received at GoFundMe.com/TheJasonProject.

Photographs (3) courtesy of the Jason Project, Inc (portrait) courtesy of James and Cheryl Nipper