Hikers rescued after three days in the woods

A day hike in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area of the Pisgah National Forest turned into a days-long ordeal culminating with a massive rescue effort when two hikers got lost off-trail Thursday, Jan. 5.

The hikers, both males, first called for help Friday morning, when they contacted 911 by cell phone to say that they were lost but uninjured, remaining stationary while waiting for help. 

Haywood County first responders immediately shipped out to locate the hikers, but search efforts Friday proved unsuccessful, hampered by frigid temperatures and snowfall. The hikers called 911 again Saturday morning to report that they had been able to start a small fire and had found a makeshift shelter. However, they said, they were very cold and completely out of food and water. 

Help poured in as the weekend progressed, with helicopter crews and nearly 100 ground-based rescuers from more than two dozen local, state and federal agencies assisting. Five specially trained and equipped mountain rescue teams sponsored by N.C. Emergency Management were called in to help due to steep terrain, below-freezing temperatures, snow and ice. As the winter storm dissipated, air resources were requested to help find the men, whose chances of surviving another night were very low. The search was hindered by poor cell phone reception and the fact that the phone died before it could be triangulated.

Thermal imaging allowed a State Highway Patrol helicopter crew to find the hikers shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7. The crew then relayed the coordinates to the N.C. Emergency Management Helo Aquatic Rescue Team, which was located in Asheville, before leaving the scene to refuel. 

Night had fallen when the N.C. HART crew arrived, requiring night vision goggles and a third helicopter — a National Guard machine equipped with thermal imaging — to relocate and pick up the hikers.

The men were flown to Asheville, where local EMS crews picked them up around 7 p.m. for transport to the Mission Hospital. They were discharged on Jan. 8. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, State Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation assisted in the search as well.

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