• The local snowmobilers, from left, Nick Crawford, Jeremiah Nicholson and Tommy Smathers, rode the trail with rescue squad crewmembers on board.
    The local snowmobilers, from left, Nick Crawford, Jeremiah Nicholson and Tommy Smathers, rode the trail with rescue squad crewmembers on board.

Panthertown pair rescued during storm

No serious injuries, but getting 'winter adventurers' out costly

By Dan Brown / Staff

PANTHERTOWN -- A pair of hikers who camped out on Panthertown Valley’s Mac’s Gap Trail Dec. 8 to wake up snowbound, owe their lives to the dozen search and rescue workers with Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad. The rescuers battled miles of massive snowdrifts to trek down the trail and haul them out.

The pair, two Alabama men, reportedly in their early 30s, thought it would be a fun adventure to enjoy the mountain snowstorm on the hiking trail with their dog.

“Not the wisest decision these guys ever made,” Jeff Stewart, captain of the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad, said in a Chronicle interview last week. The chief of the squad was part of the team that went in and rescued the wayward hikers. The cost of the effort reportedly totaled thousands of dollars. “They thought it would be cool to be in Panthertown on the trail, hiking as it snowed.”

The hikers pitched a tent and spent the night on the trail, expecting a light dusting, Stewart said, no more than four inches.

“Funny how things turn out,” he said.

 

Snowblind

The hikers, whom officials declined to identify, awoke the morning of Sunday, Dec. 9 to nearly 20 inches of snow and dropped in the middle of their own private Winter Wonderland nightmare.

“They woke up, packed their gear, and found out they didn’t know where they were going. The snow had obliterated the trail and was heavy and wet, probably the worst snow we’ve had here since the blizzard of 1993,” Stewart said.

Stewart said there have been times since 1993 when the area had received more snowfall than this storm, but never this heavy and never this wet.

“They couldn’t see. Everything was white and the limbs were weighted down with so much snow.”

Stewart said they tried hiking out Sunday morning but couldn’t find their way.

“They got turned around … disoriented. They got tired – they were exhausted – and they got scared too.”

The hikers started in on the trail on the Transylvania County side at the Cold Mountain access area.

“They put in up near Toxaway,” Stewart said. “They went in Saturday afternoon from there and then they hiked three miles in (towards the Cashiers side), and camped for the night in the snow. Come Sunday morning, the heavy snow had pulled all the laurels down. They were disoriented and couldn’t figure out how to get out. They were headed in the right direction, but got tired.”

Stewart said when rescue teams found them, the pair were two miles in on Max Gap Trail, about two miles from the Salt Rock entrance. It is off U.S. Highway 64 East near Cashiers -- up Cedar Creek Road to Breedlove Road to the trail head.

 

911 call made at 3 p.m.

“Around 3 p.m. they made the 911 call,” he said. “They were fortunate they had cell phone service. They were lucky. People assume they will have cell phone service when cell phone service isn’t that good, and up here, it’s not that great, especially out on the trail like that,” Stewart said.

He said the 911 call put a lot of different pieces to the puzzle that resulted in a successful rescue.

“Many things had to happen, and happen quickly, and it is constantly amazing how people pull together in situations like these,” Stewart said.

He has seen this happen before in harrowing rescue situations where rescue workers are battling time and the elements. Many of the rescue squad workers were also in on the rescue of hiker Scott Vuncannon, who had suffered a rattlesnake bite while hiking a Cashiers-Highlands plateau trail that would have taken him to Ellicott Rock.

“Everyone who was on this call, worked the snakebite call,” Stewart said, who was one of the rescue personnel who went down the trail to pull the snakebite victim out. “We have a mutual aid agreement with other municipalities and when something like this happens, everybody comes together.”

 

Training the key

Stewart said what makes these rescue efforts successful is the training. Hours upon hours of it.

“It was a phenomenal piece of coordination to get in and get those guys out,” he said. “The roads from U.S. 64 up to Cedar Creek to Breedlove were covered in snow. Plow trucks had to come in and scrape it out so we could even get in there.”

Rescue Squad Volunteer Nat Turner, who was also a part of this rescue effort, and the snakebite rescue back in August, said these successes are not by accident.

“First thing to happen, 911 Dispatch gave us the GPS coordinates and we told the hikers secure shelter and stay put. They had indicated upon rescue, they would need a ride out. They were exhausted. Tired and cold. Hypothermia was starting to set in.”

Turner said GPS can put his team within 50 feet of the victims.

 

Total team effort

“It was a total team effort,” he said. “Second thing to happen, (Cashiers-Glenville Volunteer Fire Department) Chief Randy Dillard and (Jackson County) Sheriff Chip Hall coordinated getting the scrapers out to Cedar Creek and Breedlove Roads so we could get up from U.S. 64 to the trail head.”

Turner said Jackson County road workers and North Carolina Department of Transportation plow trucks had cleared the roads just as his team arrived onsite.

The rescue squad’s problems were not over. At nearly two feet in depth in some drifts, the snow was too deep for the rescue squad’s six-wheelers to traverse the snow.

“We had snow shoes and equipment ready to use,” he said. “We had our fastest five or six guys hiking in wearing snowshoes to get the guys. They reported they needed a carryout as they had no strength to walk out.”

Turner said they sent the fastest guys in first and then the next wave followed wielding chainsaws to clear the trail.

 

A 30-year first

Stewart said what happened next, he’d never seen before in more than 30 years of rescue squad work.

“We’ve got three local guys who had snowmobiles, and we used those guys to take their snowmobiles down the trail where our six-wheelers couldn’t go,” he said. “Never had I seen something like this where everything we’d need seem to happen and happen quickly.

The local snowmobilers – Jeremiah Nicholson, Nick Crawford and Tommy Smathers – rode the trail with rescue squad crewmembers on board.

“We rode in with them,” Stewart said. “We already had our people in there and they had secured the victims and had their belongings packed. They hauled the victims out first, and then they came back and helped haul our rescuers.”

Stewart said by 5:30 p.m. right before darkness fell, his crew had everybody safely off the trail – the dog included – and aside from being wet, cold and hungry, the two hikers were okay.

“The dog lost one of his boots, and that’s the first time I’d ever seen a dog wearing boots, but beyond that they were all okay,” he said.  “We brought them out, and the deputy sheriff gave the pair a lift to the state line where they had friends pick them up.”

The hikers’ car remained parked up at the Cold Mountain trail head, Stewart said, buried to the rims in snow.

“I don’t see how they’re going to get that car out,” Stewart said late last week before melting occurred. “Not with all this snow.”

Stewart said about 12 people helped out with the search and rescue, not including 911 Dispatch, Glenville Fire Department, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, the NCDOT and Jackson County work crews.

“Given the conditions we had great help,” he said. “It was one of those situations where nobody needed to be out. They were cold, wet and tired, but they were appreciative and promised to make a donation.”

“We’ll see,” Stewart added with a shrug.

 

The Right Stuff

Between the August snakebite rescue and the Dec. 9 Panthertown rescue, the GCRS had answered several hiking rescue calls.

“People get out there and they’re not prepared. They aren’t wearing the proper clothing, they have no flashlights, no map, no compass, no hike plan. They have no business being out on the trail.”

Stewart mentioned two women his squad had rescued who went out on the trail with no flashlights, no map no compass, and it got dark on them and they got stuck.

“We went in and got them. Hiking the trails in Panthertown is no walk in the park either,” Stewart said.

“Two ladies, separate hiking incident, were out on the Panthertown trails at almost the exact same spot, tripped over rocks and broke their legs. They fell and broke their legs.”

 

Rescue cost thousands

How much did the rescue cost? When asked that question, the following is what the squad’s Nat Turner said. “The rescue squad is a volunteer organization. But if you factor in a per squad member cost of $25 per hour, with up to 20 members on a call that’s $500 per hour per call in manpower hours."
To factor in the equipment and other services cost of a rescue call, Turner said it would take the total budget of the rescue squad divided by the number of calls handled annually. 
“This is straight search and rescue,” Turner said. “That comes to about $7,500 per call. Add the $2,500 of an average five-hour search and rescue, and you easily come to $10,000 per call … at least. Maybe more."

 

Always be prepared

Stewart advised before leaving on a hike to have a flashlight, a compass, a map of the area you’re hiking, and provisions in case you get stuck.

You have to be prepared to spend the night out there, Stewart said about trekking through a wild, backcountry area like Panthertown.

“Think about it,” Stewart said. “Scott Vuncannon is as experienced a hiker as anyone on this rescue squad and he almost died on the trail due to a poisonous snakebite. He did everything he was supposed to do and still nearly died. Mother Nature is unforgiving, and has an attitude. You have to be prepared for everything.”

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