Cindy McJunkin, a veteran hike leader with Carolina Mountain Club and Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, said being unprepared, for mountain weather and terrain, is what she sees as the biggest source of getting into trouble on the trail.
“It’s really difficult when you’re at your home at 2,200 feet (in elevation) and it’s sunny, to visual how much cooler and windier it is in the mountains,” said McJunkin, 58, a nurse from Candler.
With about 100 search and rescue operations a year, the Smokies, a half-million acres of dense, forested mountains spreading across Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, has the most of all national parks in the Southeast, and is in the top 10 for lost and injured hikers in the country.
McJunkin is intimately familiar with the dips, valleys, summits and drainages in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, having hiked all 900 miles of trails in the park.
“I’ve learned to always think about cooler temperatures at higher elevations. You have to think about gloves and a hat. I think that’s the thing people often forget. And the right footwear. You can’t wear Tevas or Chacos. I see people with messed up feet, with no maps. People are nonchalant and think nothing will happen.”
Cries for help on the AT
Last spring, she and a group of hiking buddies were off trail in the Charlies Bunion area along the Appalachian Trail, which straddles the state line, when they heard cries for help.
Hiking off trail, while not illegal, is strongly discouraged by the park officials.
“Off-trail hiking can be challenging and requires much pre-planning. We recommend hikers stay to the trail,” said spokeswoman and former law enforcement ranger Jamie Sanders. “There are ample opportunities, with over 800 miles of trails, to safely explore the national park.”
McJunkin and friends had studied maps and had a plan. But along the way, she said two young men had been climbing the craggy face of the rock and one fell 30 feet, shattering his pelvis. The hiking group was able to stabilize the victim and call the park, which sent a helicopter to extract him.
As a medical professional, McJunkin said she would wait with the victim and his friend for the helicopter. The rest of her group, needing to catch a shuttle bus to take them back to their cars, left her there, thinking the National Park Service would help them out.
“The helicopter came at about 9:30 p.m. They said the would send a big ground team to walk us out,” McJunkin said. No one came.
She luckily had a flashlight, and she and the victim’s friend walked out in the dark, getting lost several times, finally arriving at the trailhead at 1:45 a.m.
“Those guys had hiked in 4 miles to a backcountry site, and then went off trail a mile or so above that, below Charlies Bunion. It’s a pretty extreme hike,” she said.
“They were cocky young guys who thought nothing bad was going to happen. If I hadn’t had a flashlight that night we would have been in deep doggie doo.”
Smokies spokeswoman Dana Soehn said the patient was estimated to be 2-3 miles off trail along the Lester Prong manway area, and while a ground team had started in for him at 6 p.m. but due to the time of day and difficulty of extracting him with a wheeled litter, they opted for the air rescue.
Going back for McJunkin and the victim’s friend seems to have been lack of communication.
“From the report, I don’t see any indication of a request relayed to the field staff to send emergency responders to the site following the rescue of the injured party,” Soehn said.
But McJunkin said she learned another lesson herself — to never let your hiking group become separated.
“You just never know what’s going to happen. I always have my ‘possibles bag,’ for anything possible that might happen,” she said.
It includes a flashlight and extra batteries for the flashlight — the dense woods of the Smokies get darker much earlier than the outside world — first aid kit, a fire starter, instant coffee, a spoon, rain jacket, at least one extra layer of clothing, a foil emergency blanket, water and a water filtration device, as well as extra food.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be hiring its first emergency manager by spring. This person will be able to coordinate more effectively the park’s search and rescue and EMS programs, update protocols and also work on a preventative SAR program, Smokies Chief Ranger Lisa Hendy said.
In the meantime, Hendy has this advice: “Stay on the trail and stay together.”
“Wear proper footwear and bring a headlamp, even if you don’t plan to be out after dark. Once you twist an ankle, then you’re moving slower, and you’re out after dark. You should be more concerned about wearing proper footwear — it’s No. 1 cause of injuries — than bears.”
Hiking safety tips
- Don’t hike alone. You are safest with a group.
- Leave your hiking plans with someone at home and check in frequently. Establish a time you will check in upon completion of your trip, as well as a procedure to follow if you fail to check in.
- Be wary of strangers. Be friendly, but cautious. Don’t tell strangers about your plans. Avoid people who act suspiciously, seem hostile, or are intoxicated.
- Bring a map and compass and know how to use them.
- Carry a cellphone.
- Bring extra food and water.
- Bring extra layers of synthetic clothing. Avoid cotton, which doesn’t dry quickly and can lead to hypothermia when it’s wet.