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Wednesday, 02 September 2009 14:25

Hiker airlifted from remote region of Smokies

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A five-day search for a lost hiker in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had a happy ending last week.

What began as a three-night backpacking trip for Morgan Briggs, 70, of Pigeon Forge, turned into an eight-day ordeal.

Briggs became lost his second day on the trail while bushwhacking through rugged and remote terrain on the north face of the Appalachian Trail ridgeline below Charlie’s Bunion, an area characterized by sheer rock cliffs and dense rhododendron. He pitched his tent on a rock outcrop and waited, holding out hope that rescuers would find him. Six days ultimately passed until ground crews spotted what looked like a tent on an outcrop. It was too difficult to reach by foot, but they directed a helicopter to fly over the area. Pilots spotted the tent and Briggs waving his arms, but it was too late in the day to orchestrate a rescue.

They dropped him a park radio to communicate along with provisions to get him through what by then was his seventh night in the woods. Briggs had apparently rationed his food and was able to capture rain water to help sustain him over the course of the week.

While Briggs had shared his hiking itinerary with his family and park rangers when securing his backcountry camping permits, his trip covered considerable distance. When he did not turn up back home on time, there was initially no telling where in his journey he had taken a wrong turn, and therefore where rescuers should start looking. Briggs began his hike in the Greenbrier area and planned to pass over Mt. LeConte before hiking out of the park along Alum Cave trail.

Rangers sought out other hikers who may have encountered Briggs and confirmed that he made it to his campsite the first night but was not seen after that.

Rangers hiked to the trail shelters where Briggs intended to stay his second and third nights — Icewater Springs and Mt. LeConte — and checked the log book to see if he signed it, but he hadn’t.

Briggs had planned to do about two-miles of bushwhacking between his first and second nights on the trail. His campsite the first night and the second night were separated by a whopping 16 miles of trail, but as the crow flies, were only two miles apart. Those two miles called for scaling the north face below Charlie’s Bunion along the Appalachian Trail ridge line. The bushwhacking would have been quite challenging due to very steep terrain and made more so with a loaded pack.

Rangers quickly deduced that they should focus their efforts in the area that Briggs would have departed from the trail. Several search-and-rescue teams set out on possible bushwhacking routes that Briggs may have taken, but off-trail searching proved difficult and time consuming.

On day four of the search, rangers spotted Briggs’ tent, but it was a mile away and couldn’t be reached easily by foot due to rocky cliffs and dense vegetation.

A helicopter, which was already involved in the search, was radioed to the area for a closer look and indeed found Brigg’s perched on a rock outcrop on Porter’s Mountain, a narrow ridge at approximately 5,000 feet in elevation and one mile north of the AT and one mile east of the Icewater Springs shelter.

The next morning, the Tennessee Highway Patrol Special Operations team, flying a Huey helicopter, lifted Briggs in a hoisting seat 250 feet into the hovering helicopter.

Briggs did not need any medical attention and after a debriefing with park rangers, he left with family members.

Briggs is a very familiar with the park’s backcountry and was one of the park’s first Appalachian Trail Ridge Runners, spending months at a time on the 71-mile portion of the AT that traverses the park doing trail maintenance and helping other hikers.

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