Lost hikers rescuedWeather conditions hampered effort
Had it not been for the dramatic rescue of two lost hikers in the Shining Rock Wilderness area that sparked an intense, two-day search, the first snow of the year in Haywood County would have been relatively uneventful.
There were very few power outages, thanks to the fluffy snow and little wind. School was dismissed early Friday, and many public services closed due to the storm, so many were home safe by the time the storm hit with a vengeance Friday evening.
Accidents kept the N.C. Highway Patrol and other emergency workers busy, but there were no known injury reports. The roads were treacherous at times due to accumulating snow and ice, but well-prepared crews were able to clear the snow off in short order. Sun and well-brined roads melted much of the ice on the roadways by Saturday afternoon.
For the most part, the 3 to 7 inches of snow that blanketed Haywood County beginning Friday created a winter wonderland to be enjoyed by most.
The exception was in the Shining Rock Wilderness area where about 100 emergency responders and two dozen local, state, and federal agencies were frantically searching for two hikers who departed from the Big East Fork Trailhead in the Pisgah National Forest on Thursday for what they thought would be a winter day hike.
Little did the two know, they wouldn’t leave the mountain until days later after spending two nights in bone-chilling temperatures and snow waiting to be rescued.
David Crockett, 23, a student at UNC-Charlotte, and Sultan Alraddadi, 29, headed to Haywood County Thursday for a day hike. When family members didn’t hear from Crockett, they assumed they had decided to spend the night in Asheville. A Friday morning 911 call, however, alerted the Haywood County Sheriff’s office that the hikers were lost. Neither were injured, they reported.
Friday afternoon, Haywood County EMS Supervisor Ben Clausen said that because the cell phone the hikers used to call 911 has such a low battery, communication had been spotty and brief. Their location was unknown.
"They have no idea where they are," he said. "They have no compass, maps, GPS, nothing with them."
Clausen said that although neither of them men had any injuries, the cold weather was starting to get to them.
Rescuers were unable to gather coordinates based on the emergency call, said Haywood County Emergency Management Director Greg Shuping, because the call was placed from a disposable cell phone — a type of phone that’s untraceable.
The hikers were able to build a fire, however, which rescue workers were looking for throughout the search.
The hikers had said they were near the mountain top, so hikers began their search at the highest points on the ridge with high-powered binoculars capable of seeing even the faintest sign of smoke.
Search efforts were also hampered by the vast amount of territory to cover. Since the hikers did not know their last known location with any accuracy, searchers had to canvass several miles-long trails in the area, just in case. The location where they were eventually found was quite different from where they were initially expected to be.
A rescue effort mobilized at the site at about 10 a.m. Friday where the hikers’ vehicle was found. Three search crews worked throughout the day Friday,
and by evening, five specially trained and equipped N.C. Emergency Management-sponsored mountain rescue teams from across western North Carolina were called in to help due to the steep terrain, below freezing temperatures, snow and ice.
Several teams of between four and six members combed the mountainside for 30 hours or so searching for the hikers.
One of the searchers is Kyle James of Waynesville, who has worked with the Haywood County Rescue Squad for the past several years. While James was an avid hiker, the training he went through to to become certified for searches such as this was rigorous.
"The training is very involved," he said. "They want to make sure you will be safe, and that you will be able to keep the person rescued safe."
James was with a team of four that searched through the night Friday, and his team was one of three working Friday night during the low visibility conditions.Those searching at night have lamps and all the needed gear to safely navigate the snow and ice that is often encountered during winter searches.
At the base camp, two mobile units fully equipped with power to run the computer programs and communications equipment, were set up.The cramped quarters have space for maps to line the walls, a small table where coordinates are laid out and plans are made for the next steps.In a section separated by a small window, Virginia McGill, the planning section chief for Emergency Management ServiceHer planning computer plotted which areas had been covered and which areas could be targeted next."It's a classic mystery," she said. "It's like searching for a needle in a haystack."
Air search begins
Because of the weather conditions, including heavy snowfall beginning Friday afternoon and intensifying through the night, there was no possibility of calling in aircraft to aid in the operation.
The hikers again called 911 at sunup Saturday morning saying they were staying put, had a fire and shelter, but no food or water. Temperatures had dipped into the low teens and the weather service reported a 5 mile an hour wind — one that drove the cold deep into the bones of those in its path.
With clear skies Saturday, aircraft could be safely used in the search.
A news release sent out late Saturday from the N.C. Emergency Response Team, gave this account of how the hikers were found.
With sub-zero temperatures expected, and chances of surviving another night very low, air resources were requested to help locate the men as the severe weather cleared the area.
A State Highway Patrol helicopter crew using thermal imaging found the pair shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday and relayed their coordinates to a NC Emergency Management Helo Aquatic Rescue Team (NC HART) that was refueling in Asheville. The N.C. HART crew, consisting of a N.C. National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and rescue technicians from the Charlotte Fire Department, departed Asheville to pick up the hikers.
Low on fuel, the Highway Patrol helicopter had to leave the scene. Reaching the coordinates after nightfall, the N.C. HART crew was unable to visually relocate the hikers using night vision goggles and called in a third National Guard helicopter that was training in the area and was equipped with thermal imaging.
The hikers were relocated, picked up by the N.C. HART crew and flown to Asheville, where they were transferred to local EMS crews at about 7 p.m. for transport to the hospital.
“With below-zero temperatures expected tonight, time was running out,” said NC Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry. “We are fortunate that all these resources were trained and available, and worked together to execute this extremely complicated rescue. The key to the success of this response was teamwork from all the responders cooperating for the best possible outcome.’’
The condition of the two men is not immediately known.
The missing hikers were found in the Greasy Cove area, a rugged 4-mile hike in from the nearest access point. According to Mike Street, team leader for Haywood County Search and Rescue, the hikers parked their car at the Big East Fork Trailhead and were presumed to have hiked west along either the Shining Creek trail or the Old Butt Knob trial, both of which eventually meet at Shining Rock Gap.
The area where they eventually ended up was a good deal farther south than that though.
Street said that he and representatives of the sheriff’s office planned to interview the hikers on Sunday afternoon to try to determine what happened.
One possible scenario is that they instead hiked south on Big East Fork trail, then east into the Greasy Cove area where they were eventually found.
The men were hiking in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area, known for its rocky terrain and beautiful rivers. Trails there are unmarked and can meander at times through areas where it is difficult to determine where the trail goes.
Even experienced hikers can easily end up off trail in places where it becomes faint.
Shining Rock is the largest Wilderness Area in North Carolina and contains five peaks over 6,000 feet. To say the terrain is rugged, doesn’t really do it justice. Hiking these trails can at times shift from walking to bouldering as you climb over massive rocks in the trail and over and under downed trees and other obstacles.
All of the trails in Shining Rock are rated difficult and are challenging hikes in the best of conditions, for experienced hikers.