COSBY, Tenn. - Rangers carrying an injured hiker trapped on the Appalachian Trail for four days descended out of the mountains in darkness with him Wednesday night.
David Dinwiddie was bundled into an ambulance around 9 p.m. and taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.It was anticipated that it would take hours for more than 20 rescuers - staged in groups at different points along Snake Den Ridge Trail - to get Dinwiddie down to the Cosby Creek Campground, but they made it in a little more than three hours.
"He's doing pretty well," park spokeswoman Nancy Gray said of Dinwiddie, who was suffering from mild hypothermia and frostbite.
Dinwiddie, 62, of Knoxville, apparently left his van in the Cosby Creek Campground parking lot Saturday to begin his ill-fated hike into the rugged northeastern section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
He suffered some type of incapacitating difficulty Sunday, and was found in his sleeping bag in the middle of the Appalachian Trail just west of Inadu Knob, according to Chief Ranger Jim Northup.
"Even though it's pretty warm and sunny down here, it's full-blown winter up on the Appalachian Trail," Northup said Wednesday afternoon as teams of rescuers prepared their gear at Cosby Ranger Station. "The snow is about 18 inches deep."
The first group of four rangers left Cosby Ranger Station bound for the Snake Den Ridge trailhead and ultimately for Dinwiddie's location high above them just before 1 p.m.
At the time, gray clouds were curling over the mountains above the ranger station, but the bad weather held off.
Three rangers, who left the station in the predawn darkness Wednesday, were already at the scene caring for the injured Dinwiddie.
"He is alert and oriented, in relatively good shape but suffering from mild hypothermia and severe frostbite on both hands and, as I understand it, on both his big toes," Northup said of Dinwiddie's condition Wednesday afternoon.
"So we are in the process of trying to re-warm him and stabilize him."
Dinwiddie, an experienced winter hiker who typically spends his New Year's eves in the mountains, apparently ran into trouble on the trail Sunday.
But no one knew about it until Tuesday when the Sevier County 911 system got a garbled cell phone call from someone in the mountains and relayed the call to the national park.
Northup said the phone call "was so broken" rangers couldn't tell where he was.
"(We) thought maybe we heard the word, 'fall,' thought maybe we heard the word, 'frostbite,' " Northup said.
With the help of the 911 system and the phone company, they were able to triangulate the call to an area somewhere in the northeast section of the park.
Gray said rangers began searching unsuccessfully Tuesday afternoon along the Old Settlers Trail near Maddron Bald, where they believed the call originated.
They caught a break about 7 p.m. Tuesday when a man hiking with his two sons came across Dinwiddie and came down and told rangers where he was.
"They had run across Mr. Dinwiddie in the trail, actually stumbled across him right in the middle of the trail after dark," Northup said.
Northup said Dinwiddie, a former soldier, was coherent but obviously in trouble.
Three rangers left about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and reached Dinwiddie, who was in a wet sleeping bag, at 9:30 a.m.
Temperatures on Mount LeConte, which is only a few hundred feet higher than where Dinwiddie was, plummeted to minus-11 degrees Monday night.
Dinwiddie's body temperature was about 94 degrees Wednesday afternoon and he was resting in a tent, Gray said.
A Tennessee Army National Guard helicopter tried to reach the site Wednesday morning but that effort was called off when they ran into turbulent winds.
"Which brings us back to the old way of doing business, which is send in a whole bunch of people with a litter to carry him out," Northup said.
According to Gray, the first group of four rescuers reached Dinwiddie and the other rangers at 4:30 p.m. They started down about 5:20 p.m.
At least two other groups were staged at other locations along Snake Den Ridge Trail, which is one of the steepest trails in the park.
Much of it is also covered in snow and ice.
"In this particular situation we'll probably only have two people on the litter because there's going to be this narrow little path in deep snow up there," Northup said. "So you'll probably have one person on the head and one at the foot and they'll just take turns."
Later rangers anticipated transferring Dinwiddie to a larger litter that has a wheel attached.
They also anticipated possibly having to spend the night in the mountains depending on the conditions - the forecast called for rain and high winds - but made it down much sooner than expected.
An ambulance from the Allied EMS Service in Cocke County was waiting when the group came off the trail.
The rescuers included rangers and other employees from the National Park Service and rangers from the Tennessee state parks.
This isn't the first time the Gulf War veteran has been in trouble in the mountains. Previously, during one of his New Year's Eve trips, a tree fell on him.
Family members said an injured Dinwiddie was able to walk out of the park that time.
Randy Kenner may be reached at 865-342-6305. Staff writer Morgan Simmons contributed to this report.