Editor's note: This updates the story with rangers rescuing a backcountry hiker who sustained multiple injuries from being hit by a tree.
A military helicopter was used Friday to airlift an injured hiker from the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the wake of a tornado that raked the area and left behind a jumbled tangle of trees that made a foot rescue impractical.
Park officials said 53-year-old Nathan Lipsom, of Cambridge, Mass., was discovered earlier Friday by a backcountry ranger who was patrolling to assess damage and check on hikers in the wake of Thursday's powerful storm. The man had been hiking along low Gap Trail when the storm hit around 4 p.m. and sustained multiple, unspecified, injuries, a park release said.
The ranger discovered the man about 11:30 a.m. Friday. He remained with the patient and relayed medical and location information to the park incident commander. Park staff organized a rescue operation and dispatched a park medic to the site to further evaluate and stabilize the patient’s condition.
Due to the vast number of downed trees that made a quick ground rescue unlikely, the park requested a Blackhawk helicopter through Haywood County and the State of North Carolina Division of Emergency Management. The helicopter was able to airlift the hiker out of the backcountry about 6:45 p.m. local time Friday. He was then flown to the airport in Asheville, North Carolina, and transported by ground to Mission Hospital.
The winds, delivered by what the National Weather Service described as an EF1 tornado, forced the closure of some trails in the park's backcountry due to downed trees.
Park officials said the Gabes Mountain Trail and Snake Den Ridge Trail in Cosby, and Baxter Creek Trail and Big Creek in Big Creek had been closed due to scores of downed trees. Along with the trail closures, the park also closed “B” Loop of Cosby Campground due to damage. There was no estimate for reopening the trails or the campground at this time.
“We are in the process of assessing the condition of all of the trails within the storm affected area,” said acting Chief Ranger Steve Kloster. “Hikers and equestrians may want to confirm trail openings by contacting the park’s Backcountry Office or by visiting our website before planning routes through this section of the Park.”
The storm, which hit hardest on the northeastern-most section of the park, was the tail end of a storm system that swept through the Midwest through much of Thursday, the park reported. Air monitoring stations at Clingmans Dome and Look Rock recorded winds in excess of 60 mph.
For the most up-to-date closure information, visit the park’s website or call the Backcountry Office at 865-436-1297.