What "Off-Season"? Recent Rescues Keep Rangers Busy at Shenandoah National Park

Dark Hollow Falls in winter, Shenandoah National Park.

Winter can be a fine time to enjoy the parks... if you're prepared and use good judgment. NPS photo of Dark Hollow Falls in winter in Shenandoah National Park

Park visitors occasionally ask rangers, "What do you find to do during the off-season?" There's rarely a shortage of work any time of the year, and a recent series of incidents at Shenandoah National Park offers a reminder that the term "off-season" is often a misnomer.

Much of the country has been pummeled by unusually cold and wet weather in recent weeks, and Shenandoah is no exception. Serious winter weather makes life difficult for city folks, but it can be downright dangerous in remote areas. Information from the park summarizes the challenges posed to park employees by "off-season" conditions and visitors.

On December 18th, the park was forecast to receive substantial snow. In preparation for the storm, the park’s interior was evacuated and roads were closed. On the following morning, the park received a call for assistance from two hikers who had parked at the closed barricades and hiked seven miles into a backcountry cabin after the storm had begun.

These folks apparently decided "closed" only applied to vehicles, not hikers, but what followed explains why the park took that preventive action before the storm.

The hikers explained that they thought they were prepared for snow but that they had found they weren’t ready for the nearly four feet of snow that was on the ground. Rescue efforts involved bringing in the park plows to access the party and extract them. The plows encountered drifts up to seven feet high along Skyline Drive and took several hours to reach the stranded hikers. The hikers were cold and exhausted when the rescue personnel reached them later that evening.

Sometimes people can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but perhaps the following close call is a reminder to look up as well as down before stopping for a lunch break.

On January 15th, a man and woman were eating lunch below an ice covered cliff about ten feet off the Whiteoak Trail when a large chunk of ice broke free and fell about 25 feet, hitting the woman on the back. She sustained multiple bone fractures and other injuries, including a punctured lung. The roads and grounds crew plowed open a snow and ice covered fire road to expedite the evacuation, averting a lengthy carryout over icy terrain. The woman was then flown to the University of Virginia Trauma Center and was reported in stable condition the following day.

The motto "Be Prepared" shouldn't be limited to Scouts, and a generous dose of good judgment wouldn't hurt either.

On the evening of January 28th, the park received a report of an overdue day hiker on Old Rag Mountain. The man was reported to have significant medical issues and was not prepared for the extreme cold weather conditions that existed at the time. In addition, a winter storm was forecast for the following afternoon.

Hasty searchers that night were unable to locate the man. Containment was set up overnight, with full search efforts beginning the following morning, including the utilization of the U. S. Park Police's Eagle 1 helicopter [from Washington, D.C.] for aerial search and hoist operations.

Eagle 1 inserted a searcher on the summit using the hoist while four other ground teams searched the trail corridors leading to the summit. After several hours, the man was located near the summit by the searcher who was inserted. He was extracted by Eagle 1 ... , transported to waiting a ground ambulance, then taken to the local hospital.

A total of 14 NPS and 26 volunteer searchers ultimately were assigned to the search. Eagle 1 was piloted by Jeff Hertel and crewed by rescue technician/paramedic Timothy Ryan.

It's probably enough to make some park employees long for the "busy" season. At least the weather is usually a bit more cooperative.