Update: Three Appalachian Trail Hikers Need Rescue In Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Editor's note: This updates with plans to use a helicopter to pull the trio out of the backcountry.

Winter's latest punch to the East caught three Appalachian Trail hikers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park unprepared and needing to be rescued by rangers, who called in a helicopter to lift the three out.

The three men from Gaffney, South Carolina, -- Shawn Hood, Steven White, and Jonathan Dobbins -- had set out from Fontana Dam on Thursday with plans for a ten-day hike. But last night they called rangers to say they were cold and wet and needed help as they were unable to walk and had no shelter.

Responding rangers were able to reach the trio -- all between the ages of 21 and 32 -- and brought dry clothing and tents.

"They are being treated for hypothermia and possible frostbite. All three are very weak and cannot walk," said Kent Cave, the park's supervisory ranger. "Plans have been made to extricate the hikers using a helicopter from the North Carolina Helicopter and Aquatic Rescue Team (HART) early this afternoon."

Overnight temperatures in the park were reported to be "in the single digits and winds gusting to 35 miles per hour made wind chills near 20 degrees below zero," the park reported. "Blowing snow created drifts up to two feet. Rescue efforts were hampered by weather, road, and trail conditions, as well as the remote, rugged location. The men were located some 5 miles from the nearest trailhead."


It never seases to amaze me how stupid outdoors people can be. These are the type of hikers who should be charged for their rescue.

Cotton wearing idiots. In the old days, before cell phones, they would learn a valuable lesson and probably get out and never make such a mistake ever again. Unfortunately, in that area, there is spotty cell service at the Shuckstack tower so I'm sure they likely got hold of the NPS, who now toot their own horns and describe this as a dramatic rescue. Which it isn't.

I can't imagine a 10 day hike trhough the Smokys at this time of year with-out a weather report. Its not like this storm caught us by suprise. I agree they should pay for the cost of their rescue.

Given the combination of the weather conditions described in the story and the condition of the two hikers, I'd say they were very fortunate that help arrived when it did. The hike in by rescuers under those same conditions would not have been easy or pleasant, and while some may scoff at the effort, I'm happy to offer kudos to all those involved.

I didn't see 'cotton' mentioned. It's a good guess, but just that. Also, I'm not willing to let a pre-existing prejudice against the NPS in general flavor my opinion of the task of the rescuers.

Rick, they were wearing cotton items. From a recent update from the park: "The men were reported wearing mostly cotton clothing, which provides little or no warmth when wet. "

Last year I asked what responsibilities visitors have when they go in the backcountry. We only hear about the responsibilities of the park and rescue personnel.


Must agree with Jim, after spending many years in the business, I do agree that many first time users have sometimes little or moderate experience in wilderness travel, particularly off season hikes, backpacks. If I remember my Yosemite Park wilderness stats, this includes about 80% of the hiking visitors. That said, I feel support for these men in that they at least made the effort, ill advised as it was, and they probably did nothing worse than all of us on our first wilderness experience, they just got caught. Having been involved in numerous of these incidents (I do not claim to be the foremost expert on the issue however), I also compliment all involved in this arduous rescue. It was always one of the great parts of the job, helping those that needed help.

I stand corrected and had missed that. Thank you, Kurt.

Another thing you missed with your assumptions, Rick, is that the NPS has spent a lot of time touting their "rescues" in the Smokies and using it as a justification for a backcountry fee. Most rescues in the Smokies happen on Mt. Leconte, where a concessionaire runs a lodge with hot meals and a false sense of security draws dayhikers to the 6600 foot level. I emphasize dayhikers here because when you look at a breakdown of purported "rescues" in the Smokies, they involve non backpackers (eg people who don't pay a fee to use the smokies). These guys who were "rescued" and I use that term in the loosest of fashion, were probably walked out at a minimal cost to the NPS. Unless they employed a helicopter, I see no overhead costs associated here outside of regular ranger duties. As a matter of fact, the last big "rescue" along the AT in the Smokies involved a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter because the rangers couldn't get to Pecks corner shelter in the snow. They got turned around because of drifts. I suppose they never heard of snowshoes but they sure have a great arsenal of automatic weapons and a dandy shooting range on Mingus Mill and they drove to the trailhead at Smokemont in a 50,000 brand new 4wd. The backcountry news gets sensationalized all the time because it is titillating and foregin to most of the windshield tourists, 9 million of whom don't pay a dime to drive through and pollute the park that we backpackers now subsidize in the form of a user tax that excludes all other groups.

Rick, you didn't miss it. I hadn't updated the story with that tidbit.

SmokiesBackpacker, you raise an interesting question: Exactly how many SARs does the park staff handle annually, and what do they entail?

A very quick search through Traveler's 2013 archives found one rescue back in June of a hiker who was injured when a tornado tore through the area (interestingly, a backcountry ranger patrolling the area to assess damage and check on hikers found him), and just about a year ago another A.T. hiker was found dead in a shelter.

Now, there very likely were other SARs that we didn't cover. But it would be interesting to see the park's records on how many SARs it averages a year and at what cost. That's where the Park Service could offer more transparency, by posting that information on its websites, much as some parks post annual wildlife surveys.

This isn't to suggest the park doesn't need funds to cover backcountry SARs and patrols, but merely to raise the question of just how much does it cost on an annual basis? Even if there were zero SARs there likely is a need for backcountry patrols to ensure folks aren't getting into trouble or damaging resources, and, frankly, from a PR standpoint.

Dang, Smokiesbackpacer, give the broken record a rest!

re: "These guys who were "rescued" and I use that term in the loosest of fashion, were probably walked out at a minimal cost to the NPS. Unless they employed a helicopter, I see no overhead costs associated here outside of regular ranger duties." You need to go back and reread the above story, which was updated several hours before you posted your comment concerning the hikers' condition and other details.

As to "no overhead costs outside of regular duties" - can you confirm that no one was called in from off-duty, or no overtime was involved in an overnight rescue, or how many people participated in the incident, and for how many hours?

Perhaps the next time there's a rescue under similar conditions ("overnight temperatures in the single digits, winds gusting to 35 miles per hour, wind chills near 20 degrees below zero, and blowing snow") perhaps you'll be first in line to volunteer to hike in, spend the night on the trail and help out. Otherwise, your criticism sounds pretty hollow, and sadly, just another helping of your sour grapes about anything the park staff does.

For my part, I say "thanks for the good work!"

And so say we all, Jim.

The most recent rescue in our local park was through the night, off duty rangers including ranger management, fire department both paid and volunteer, and other on/off duty park employees. They carried the vivtim out, including swift water crossing. Everyone involved was a friend or neighbor. None of them have claimed to be "heroic", but that doesn't stop the victim nor myself from terming them as such.


One irony of the newly hired backcountry rangers in the Smokies is that they are furloughed in the winter time. There are plenty of uniformed law enforcers to do the job if needed, and rarely is it needed. As a Smokies volunteer, Jim Burnett, I have been involved in rescues multiple times, mostly from a personal backpacking standpoint where we have walked unprepared folks miles back to a trailhead or in one particular situation escorted a college age group 9 miles up Forney Creek because they apparently didn't realize that a downhill trail returns uphill and you may need a rain jacket and camping gear. They would all have likely been fine, just like those kids above, but here in the South, we see these things as our personal duty and not the responsibility of the federal government. Ironically, as a result of the smokies backcountry fee, visitation to the Smokies backcountry has dropped almost %30 in the first year. Here is a link, which is currently inoperable (bureaucracy at work) https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/Park%20Specific%20Reports/Monthly%20Public%20Use?Park=GRSM

This is the NPS wisdom at work. Reduce backcountry visitation, which is what they want in the first place. I give them kudos for that success. Keeping people out of public lands is one thing the NPS seems to have mastered.


In other news, pitchers and catchers report on February 12th. Which is, of course, the fault of malignant NPS management.

Stupid and unprepared yes. Pay for rescue? No matter the depth of stupidity the taxes and fees collected should cover the cost of rescue, however there are certainly gray areas.

From Knoxnews.com:

The cost for a rescue operation can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Total search-and-rescue costs for 2010 hit $99,107.91 with 106 incidents. Four involved fatalities.

Total search-and-rescue costs for 2011 increased to $133,068.03 with 108 incidents and five fatalities.

Total search-and-rescue costs for 2012 reached $253,550 with 104 incidents, two involving fatalities.

Kloster said they average about 100 search and rescues a year. Most are carry-outs for a broken leg, blown knees, broken ankles and medical incidents such as hypothermia or heart attacks, he said.

The money to cover the costs of search-and-rescue missions comes from three sources — depending on the amount.

The local national park offices pay expenses from $0 and $100. The Southeast regional office in Atlanta pays between $100 and $500. The national office picks up any costs over $500, he said.

“Obviously, the National Park Service can’t predict how much they’ll spend on search and rescues all year,” he said. “On the Lueking search, we spent over $75,000. All costs associated with that search were paid for out of our Washington office.”

Kloster said the budget sequestration led most national park managers to cut back on travel for rangers — such as those who also serve as wildland fire responders. The unintended benefit is that those same rangers are now available for search-and-rescue duty at their home parks.


The article is rather interesting (even if the format is lousy) and details the problems with a lack of funds in general in the park.

There have been a lot of less than intelligent comments posted here through the years, but here's one that just about tops them all: ". . . . . but here in the South, we see these things as our personal duty and not the responsibility of the federal government."

Isn't website anonymity wonderful? Most people would be very embarrassed to have their name displayed along with something like that.

Most people would be very embarrassed to have their name displayed along with something like that.

If that is true, you just identified why this country is going down the drain. I would be quite proud to say that I believe in personal responsibility rather than government dependency.

And I too believe the "rescued" should pay. Just like we do in every other unfortunate event. Health, car, home, possessions .... If we don't take proper precautions we insure or we pay.

Contextual reading. Remember contextual reading. Go back and read the post from which this clip was taken. Personal duty? Whose?

Duty to rescue these guys or duty to stay out of trouble in the first place? Duty to pay for rescue? And is the South the only place that values personal responsibility? Or is this just one more example of a very long and tiresome tirade against park administration standing in the way of one who feels very strongly that he is ENTITLED to what he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it, and where he wants it, without accepting the personal responsibility of paying for it?

Well, it was southerners, in a southern location, requiring the assistance of the federal government. Lee has a point. The statement is ironic in this case (and rather moronic, but we won't go there).

In this particular case, the hikers were unprepared and lacking in basic knowledge needed for the situation. But, even the most prepared and knowledgeable hikers run into situations that no amount of knowledge or preparedness can overcome (like the guy who had a tree fall on him).

Actually, this situation is a metaphor for what is happening in this country. Do you think that if there was nobody to perform a rescue and if they couldn't rely on calling out on a cell phone that they would have been so irresponsible? We have taken away the "cost" of being irresponsible and as a result, people have become irresponsible knowing the government will bail them out.

The purpose, dating to hunters and gatherers bonding into a group living in one cave, for groups from neighborhood watch up to the UN, is to protect the weak and vulnerable and to provide for what one person can't do for themselves.

To hypothesize that, absent a rescue function people would no longer get intosituations requiring rescue is at best naive.

To hypothesize that, absent a rescue function people would no longer get intosituations requiring rescue is at best naive.

Indeed it would be naive if anyone actually hypothesized that. But nobody did.

and to provide for what one person can't do for themselves.

Unfortunately we are providing for people that won't do for themselves, because they know they don't have to.

"Unfortunately we are providing for people that won't do for themselves, because they know they don't have to."

You mean like all those banks, auto companies that were bailed out by taxpayers and all those special interests that would destroy our environment because no one is making them act responsibly? I have to agree with that.

Please stay on topic....

Lee - The banks (in the aggregate) have paid back their loans and then some. But I agree, the auto companies should not have been stollen from their rightful owners and given to the unions.

But, to stay on topic, I think there is little doubt that peoples' increasing reliance on technology and expectation of free rescue has increased their propensity to take risk and reduce their efforts to prepare.

". . . there is little doubt that peoples' increasing reliance on technology and expectation of free rescue has increased their propensity to take risk and reduce their efforts to prepare."

Ach, mein Gott im Himmel!

We agree!

"And I too believe the "rescued" should pay. Just like we do in every other unfortunate event. Health, car, home, possessions .... If we don't take proper precautions we insure or we pay."

Wouldn't the payment of taxes and fees be the cost of insurance so that you would be rescued if something unfortunate should happen?

"Wouldn't the payment of taxes and fees"

I would rather the taxes and fees goes toward the preservation and maintainance of the park for those that don't do stupid things and that those that do, pay the additional cost of their indiscretions.

In other words, like outside the parks, I don't want to be forced to pay for bad decisions by others.

What constitutes a bad decision is an interesting question to consider. I think there might have been a discussion of this elsewhere in the Traveler?

Hiking into a snow storm without proper shelter or provisions is a bad decision. As is quoting someone out of context in order to decieve.

It was interesting to see a TV interview with two of these individuals, who said they'd been "planning this trip for 6 months."

Since this incident received a fair amount of media coverage, let's hope anyone else considering a similar trip was paying attention to the lessons learned. The forecast for the Smokies and southern Blue Ridge for Monday and Tuesday is as bad or worse as it was last Thursday, with snow, subzero lows, and wind chills of -30 or below expected.

One does wonder what "planning . . . for 6 months" would have meant in this case.

These are the more dramatic cases that make it easy to point fingers.The fellow on the Chilkoot trail with a pacemaker who couldn't hack the hike, probably should have had a better soul to soul with himself about 'just how wise is this'.

Much more common are the simple misfortune. Example - my wife, as a young adult, long before I met her, was on a simple day hike in Colorado and stepped in an unseen hole. Snapped her ankle and had to be carried out. Surgery left hardware in her leg to this day. She had proper boots, just had a misstep. Statistically, these are much more frequenly the case.

Yes, in the absence of relevance, there comes personal attacks. Just about what I have come to expect from the same NPS that brought you Billy Malone, Ranger Danno and Smokies Backcountry Fee scandals. It really is culturally ingrained from the agency, apparently.

Those are the more nuanced cases I had in mind, Rick. I've had a handful of similar events where, despite planning and preparedness, after a "mistake" (if one could call it that) here or there, things could have gone south pretty fast. Those "gray areas" that Edmond mentioned, in which it's not clear what constitutes a "bad situation" or even a "mistake" might be pretty hard to define.

SmokiesBackpacker, you seem to be quite an expert on back-country rescues!

The story that I saw, quoted the hikers as blaming the NPS map for erroneously misrepresenting how hard the trail was. Not sure if that's a result of their "6 months of planning" (which included "Googling" the trail), or are NPS maps really that bad? They were going up, down, and sideways! I guess any mountain trail is going to be hard when you're carrying TEN DAYS OF FOOD IN CANS.....Sadly, though, you really can't charge people for rescues like this. People, who are genuinely hurt, won't call for a rescue if they can't afford it. White Mountains, in NH, is (or was) famous for charging for "idiot" rescues, which I believe at one point they had a notice at the entrance mentioning the 12,000$ rescue "fee".

Just wondering how many people here have gone on rescues in the moutains, The Smokys are not like the Yosemite and so forth. But being on a SAR is dangerous for us that go. Any rescue can be intense or dramatic, weither bring a body down, rain and snow, having to stand in cold water to your knees to help ensure the litter gets across the log bridge. Then you have the appreciation from the elderly lady that fell and hurt her back, the small women who carries out her husband's pack and hers with no complaint, the husband who wants to buy you a beer after carrying down his injured wife, etc. There are lots of people that just are not prepared, unknowly putting themself and those that rescue them at risk. Hiker's die, hikers freeze to death, hikers fall to their death, hikers get lost. So I say thanks to those that risk their life to help really injured people to those that risk their own life. Thanks all rangers.

People, who are genuinely hurt, won't call for a rescue if they can't afford it.

Somehow, I don't think that someone is going to die on the trail because they were afraid they couldn't afford the rescue.

There are clear cases of idiocy - for which the victim should pay. There are clear cases of pure accident, which should be part of the normal course of business for the rescuing entitity. Yes there will be some "gray" areas but administrations and courts make gray area decisions every day. The public shouldn't be burdened to take care of those that aren't willing to take care of themselves - in or out of the woods.

are NPS maps really that bad

NPS, as far as I know, doesn't produce maps, apart from those on the website and in the flyers. But I think NPS is pretty explicit that these shouldn't be used for backpacking/navigating. NatGeo/EarthWalk maps seem to be available at all the Visitor Centers.

For what it's worth, it's hard to pinpoint backcountry interest/use in the Smokies this past year.

For starters, there was the 16-day shutdown in October. That cut visitation by more than half for the month, from 1.1 million in October 2012 to 533,350 this past October and led to a 61 percent decline (down almost 6,000 from the previous October) in backcountry use, so that no doubt heavily impacted the year-to-date numbers.

As for the rest of the year:

In September 2013, backcountry use was down 21 percent

In August 2013, backcountry use was up 1.6 percent over 2012

In July 2013 backcountry use was down 17 percent. This drop possibly was due to a tornado that raked the park in June and downed trees across many backcountry trails.

In June 2013, backcountry use was level with the year before

In May 2013 backcountry use was down 4 percent from 2012

In April 2013 backcountry use was even with the year before

In March 2013, the NPS stats say no one was in the backcountry, vs 9,857 for the same month in 2012. That's a pretty good indicator that numbers were lost or not kept.

February 2013 backcountry numbers also were identical to February 2012, another indicator of poor records.

January 2013 backcountry use was reported to be down 17.5 percent from 2012. Could weather have been a factor? Heavy rains in late January and into February greatly impacted the park, washing out some roads, trails, and foot bridges.

Possibly hampering backcountry access/use was the fact that landslides in January and March shut down cross-park travel on the Newfound Gap Road.

So, was backcountry use down in 2013? Most definitely. How much, compared to 2012 levels? Somewhat harder to say, and definitely hard to say how much impact the backcountry fees had to do with it.

Good breakdown, Kurt. And legitimate question. I believe the answer lies in how this compares to other years of backcountry use in the Smokies. Every year sees some type of closure that is weather related here in the Smokies. Right now, Newfound gap road is closed again and has been off and on for weeks due to snow and ice. That didn't stop us from going into the backcountry but we know how to get around the roads. The tornado damage on Cane Creek, and Beard Cane trails only impacts two backcountry sites out of over 110. Why there is not data for the months in question is, well, to be expected. But I don't think you can argue that backcountry usage is down appreciably and it happens to coincide with the fee imposition. I know folks who are abandoning the Smokies entirely because of the fee. AT hikers are going around the Smokies and the neighboring wilderness areas are booming such as Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests where there are no such restrictions. I'll bet a good story can be found in their numbers.

There are cases where the victim was concerned about the cost and walked or crawled out, sometimes aggravating the injury with lifetime consequences. In many parks, the agency does exactly what EC states in the sentence following "idiocy". Having been associated with rescue and fire now for over 50 years (Yellowstone and Yosemite), it is my own experience that the vast majority of visitors we assisted/rescued deserved said and were extremely grateful. In most cases it was inexperience, but in those cases were reckless disregard was shown, we often cited them into court. Many generously donate to the SAR fund for the park if they have money to do so. It was a very rewarding job to be involved in these efforts. I could go on and on about this, but do not want to burden the website. EC, your point is true in some cases, as it is true in almost any public sector program, but it is a small minority, at least that is what I have seen. I still support the effort of these hikers, ill advised as it was, again we must all remember those times we needed assistance, especially the first time we tried something, myself included.

About "NPS Maps." I never cease to be amazed at how many people I meet who are hiking backcountry trails and trying to use the maps found in the NPS mini-folders they were handed at the gate. Those maps are not intended for any purpose other than general orientation for visitors.

I don't think it's my imagination at work when I think there are more and more rescues caused by a growing disconnect between Americans and the Great Outdoors. How many of these situations result from people whose previous outdoor experiences have come from watching a few TV shows?

I'm afraid the times when youngsters learned how to get along outside by being outside are disappearing.

There are cases where the victim was concerned about the cost and walked or crawled out, sometimes aggravating the injury with lifetime consequences.

And who's fault is that? Mine? Yours? Oh, maybe the guy that made the bad decision. Life has consequences. Bad decisions lead to bad consequences. Eliminate the bad consequences and there is no penalty for bad decisions which only means more people will make bad decisions. Is that what you want to encourage?

but it is a small minority,

Minority or majority - they need to pay.

Well, with such an absolute absence of compassion, please do us all a favor and NEVER volunteer to help with a rescue, even if you are on the scene. Your judgement of the victim would emanate from you and help them to feel worse. Just go ahead and hike on out ahead of the rescue crew and bring your calculator & invoice forms to the trailhead for rapid and timely billing.

And be certain you NEVER have an accident. Although I do have to agree that there may be times when the "victim" may really need to be billed.

There does seem to be a certain inconsistency when an ambulance company -- including those run by our tax-supported city or county fire departments -- may bill for ambulance services while SAR organizations may not. Not long ago one of my neighbors had a heart attack. Ambulance bill from the city fire department was over $600. When a family member needed ambulance services a couple of years ago in a city served by a volunteer fire and ambulance service it was over $1400. Happily, health insurance kicked in for both.

There are many places in the midwest where fire departments are actually fire companies in every sense of the word. Homeowners must subscribe for fire service every year. It's not terribly expensive, but because the fire service is not tax supported in those rural areas it's the only way the departments may support themselves. As you drive along roads there, you'll see what look like license plates attached to gate posts and mailbox posts. Those are the home's fire subscription identifier. If a fire department rolls up and there is no identifier on display, no hose hits the ground. But can you imagine the anguish of the officer in command who has to stand back and watch someone's home or barn burn?

I don't think I agree with that approach, but given the laws of the land there, what other options exist for the fire departments? Some folks in the fire service have taken to calling this the Tea Party Fire Brigade. Others claim it's simply wise use of taxpayer dollars to allow homeowners the freedom to choose.

Could or should we have Tea Party SAR teams?

Gee Rick, why am Im I not surprised that you confuse the expectation of personal responsiblity with a "total lack of compassion". Have you ever taken responsibility or have you always had someone pick up after you?