When Montana went smoke-free last year, the American Lung Association was partially behind the push. And when Liz Poletti and Alison James reached the top of Grand Teton, the American Lung Association was there, too.

Poletti, 57, scaled the iconic mountain last summer as a fundraiser for the Montana and Wyoming chapter of the ALA — an organization James helps lead.

Fittingly known as “Reach the Summit,” the climbing program has helped generate thousands of dollars over the past few years for the ALA’s smoking cessation programs, asthma education, and its push for clean indoor and outdoor air.

While climbing the mountain was tough for Poletti, who harbors an inherent fear of heights, raising money may have trumped the actual climb in difficulty. But a few dollars here and more there helped her reach her goal.

“I wrote to my distant relatives, my family and all my friends,” said Poletti, who raised $5,000. “I went around to the businesses in town and I looked a little farther toward some bigger corporate entities. I had to peck away at it.”

Poletti worked the Tetons as a seasonal employee back in the 1970s. An avid backpacker, she saw climbing as something other people did.

But Poletti jokingly admits that she’s not getting any younger. The opportunity to climb Grand Teton — and do it for a cause — was a big chance to step outside the box.

“I was really scared of the climb itself,” she said. “But you just have to put your trust in the guide. You just have to say, ‘This is it,’ and reach up and do it.”

Reach the Summit began seven years ago in Oregon with climbs of Mount Hood. The program started three years ago in Montana and Wyoming.

Since then, the program’s popularity has grown and new climbers, like Brian Coble, have joined the cause. The Carroll College athletic trainer plans to climb Grand Teton this summer.

“My dad was a smoker for most of his life, and he passed away in 2008 of lung cancer,” Coble said. “This has that personal side for me. I’m doing it to honor his life — that’s a big motivation for me.”

Coble, now 38, grew up in South Carolina. He began climbing recreationally while living in Oregon.

Now that he’s in Montana, the prospect of climbing Grand Teton in his father’s memory was a chance he couldn’t let pass.

“My family wasn’t really into the outdoors scene so much,” Coble said. “I found my way into the outdoors in college. In the climbing world, Grand Teton is one of those mountains that’s high on people’s list.”

Coble won’t be the first to carry a loved one’s memory to the top of a mountain. Last year, Portland resident Patty Unfred topped Mount Hood in memory of her sister, Cathy Davis, who died of lung cancer at the age of 39.

Davis had graduated from Carroll College and her husband, Tom, along with her two children, Shae and Sudha, now live in Butte.

“I brought Cathy’s picture, and one of Cathy and Tom with Shea and Sudha (so the girls can say their picture was on top of Mount Hood), and I carried Tom’s wedding ring,” Unfred wrote in her blog. “It was a special moment.”

James has heard such stories before — the personal reasons that drive nonclimbers up some of the West’s most iconic mountains.

In her position as development manager for the ALA, James doesn’t just promote climbing for a cause — she actually climbs. She scaled Grand Teton this past summer with Poletti.

“It’s a challenging undertaking,” James said. “You’re up there and you can’t rely on anyone to get you down.”

Climbers earn each breath when slogging up Grand Teton. That makes it a perfect campaign for the ALA, which aims to raise awareness on respiratory health.

“Because it’s a fundraiser for the Lung Association, breathing hard helps it hit home,” James said. “So many people we work with and talk to every day are just trying to get through the day breathing.”

To find out more, contact the American Lung Association in Montana and Wyoming at 442-6556, or log on to www.ala-nr.org.

Reporter Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or mkidston@helenair.com

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