By Jesse Wood
Jan. 3, 2014. This morning’s rescue of three distressed Appalachian Trail hikers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park highlights the caution and preparation needed when exploring the outdoors in twinter.
The three male hikers, who used a cell phone to call for help on Thursday night, were cold, wet, unable to walk and were without shelter, according to a release from Supervisory Park Ranger Kent Cave, when the wind chill factor was nearly 20 degrees below zero and the blowing snow created drifts up to two feet high.
Located five miles off the trailhead, emergency responders brought warm clothes and tents to the hikers on Friday morning and were evaluating the weather forecasts and physical conditions of the hikers before proceeding from the woods as of press time.
Currently, local state park officials are advising caution in light of the extreme winter weather.
Grandfather Mountain State Park Supt. Sue McBean noted that on Dec. 30 a fit man in his 30s, who had all the proper equipment for a winter excursion except for footwear with ice traction, slipped on some ice. With a severe leg injury in a remote location, it took hours for him to be assisted out of the park by emergency personnel. The man was hiking with two others.
“They were fit and prepared. Great winter jackets. They had what they needed, but they didn’t have ice traction and that was why he slipped,” McBean said.
Chanda Siler of Grandfather State Park said Friday morning that it’s not recommended that inexperienced winter hikers “get out on the trail and head up to the ridge line” partly because of the ice beneath the fresh snow. And those that do decide to hike should be prepared and supplied with winter equipment such as ice traction for footwear, warm clothing, water and food.
For those with moderate skills that do want to brave the elements, Siler recommends the Nuwati Trail, labeled an easy 1.2-mile hike on the park legend. The trail features natural obstacles such as roots and rocks and a small stream to navigate.
“It’s a really nice trail,” Siler said. “If you go out right now, just watch your footing.”
Since the Nuwati Trail is typically accessed from the Boone Fork Trail and that section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is currently closed, a parking area off of U.S. 221 that accesses state park trails can be found using these GPS coordinates: 36.116347, -81.777314.
As for Elk Knob State Park, officials note that three inches of snow accumulated on the mountain by morning.
“The wind is also causing dangerously low wind chills so if visiting the park, please wear lots of layers. Secondary roads have been plowed but are snow and ice-covered as are the roads in the park. Please use caution when driving to and within the park or when hiking trails in the park,” an alert from Elk Knob State Park’s website reads.
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area is closed due to icy road conditions.
A large swath of the Blue Ridge Parkway road is closed. Check out the interactive map noting the road closures here.
While the winter weather conditions seemed brutal Thursday night and into Friday, the temperature is expected be the coldest it has been in nearly 20 years come Monday through early Wednesday.
With advice suited towards motorists that is just as helpful for hikers, Watauga County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve Sudderth advised residents before the winter storm warning on Thursday to keep extra warm clothes, snack bars, water, flashlights, blankets, sleeping bags and the like on hand in case of an unforeseen incident.
In addition, Sudderth advised folks to observe the weather forecasts and prepare accordingly.
Nordic Ski Report
For hikers and cross country skiers interested in the High Country’s natural snow conditions at places like Elk Knob, Roan Mountain, Grandfather Mountain and elsewhere, the ExploreBooneArea.com Website offers a snow report page. Click the main menu at “Places to Play,” scroll to “Cross Country Skiing,” and mouse right to “Nordic Ski Report.”