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Missing Backpacker Rescued from Great Smoky Mountains National Park's Backcountry

GATLINBURG-- A missing backpacker has been rescued from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Over the weekend, relatives of Chad Hunter notified park authorities that he had not returned from a hiking trip on schedule.

Hunter began a three-night solo trip into the park's backcountry on Monday, March 14. When he had not returned by Friday, his parents contacted the park service to report him overdue.

Around 8 p.m., Sunday, March 20, Park dispatch received a broken cell call from hikers at the Tricorner Knob Shelter on the Appalachian Trail (AT) that the missing backpacker, Chad Hunter, had arrived at the shelter on his own. Park Rangers were dispatched immediately to hike from the Snake Den Ridge Trail in Cosby to the shelter. The three-person team, including two medics, arrived around 2:30 a.m. They treated the subject for minor injuries, dehydration and provided clothing and equipment to warm him. Because of the remote location, a decision was made to evacuate Hunter on Monday by helicopter in lieu of a large ground carryout operation.

On Monday morning, in preparation for an air rescue, rangers hiked the subject a distance of about 2.5 miles to a clearing at Deer Creek Gap along the AT. A National Park Service helicopter flew from the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport, in Sevierville, Tenn., to the proposed landing zone this morning, but was unable to land because of high winds and limited size of the landing zone.

The Park had contacted the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Sunday and found that they had available a Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) helicopter with hoisting capabilities in case it was needed. The THP helicopter was dispatched from Nashville this morning. After receiving a briefing by Park Rangers at the airport, the THP pilots, along with a THP medic, flew to the landing zone. After confirming that they could not land, the medic was lowered to the ground to prepare the subject for air lift into the hovering aircraft. The THP ship returned to the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport at 12:30 p.m. where Hunter was reunited with his family. He was then was transported by Sevier County ambulance to LeConte Medical Center in Sevierville for evaluation and treatment.

Park Rangers accompanied Hunter to the hospital to debrief him on his ordeal in the Smokies.

Hunter relayed to Rangers that he had spent Monday night, March 14 at Campsite 32 as scheduled and set out on Tuesday when he hiked into Greenbrier up the Ramsey Cascades Road to the Ramsay Cascades Trail on all the way to its end at the falls. He climbed past the falls and hiked cross-country along Ramsay Prong for about half a mile but found the going very steep, rocky, and blocked by obstructions, so he decided to make his way up towards the ridgeline instead. By Tuesday night he realized that he was off course and he camped that night with his sleeping bag and other gear.

Wednesday he made extremely slow progress due to dense rhododendron and estimated that it had taken him 6-7 hours to cover just over ½ mile. At that point he decided to abandon his pack because it was continually snagging on the heavy brush, slowing his progress. He hoped that without his pack he could make faster time and reach his goal of Tricorner Shelter more easily. Wednesday evening he reached a relatively flat and somewhat open area where he stayed from Wednesday night, March 16 until Sunday morning, March 20. During this time he had only the clothes he was wearing plus a fanny pack with a little food, and a headlamp but had no sleeping bag or other overnight gear. He said that he melted snow for water until Sunday when it had melted, but had no other food after his small supply ran out.

Sunday morning he set out first light and, considered going back down, but chose to continue up to the AT. He apparently did end up on Mt. Guyot Spur and followed it to where it crosses the AT which he followed south to the Shelter.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Chief Ranger Clayton Jordan said, "We are extremely pleased with the outcome of this search in that the subject was found and suffered only minor injuries, and that no searchers were injured in the effort. At the same time we always advise hikers to stay on our established trails, file a backcountry permit with the Park and to provide their itinerary with a responsible friend or family member who can contact the Park in the event that they do not come out as planned."

Published March 21, 2011

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