Randy Johnson Books


Mountain Rescue: At Home in Western North Carolina

WNC Magazine, July/August 2007
By Randy Johnson

Somewhere off in the woods, in the dense evergreens at the quiet empty crest of Grandfather Mountain, I heard soft sobbing. I stepped into the fringe of spruces to the hidden remains of a private airplane. A young woman sat crying beside her backpack. The wreck was obviously not new—no smell of fuel or mossy growth yet growing on the wet aluminum surfaces. A piece of wing stuck in a broken tree creaked as a gust blew through a hole in the forest.

A twig snapped under my foot and she looked up startled. “I’m sorry,” I said and started back to the trail. “That’s OK,” she replied. “I didn’t expect to see anyone.”

After a brief talk, I hiked away from the sad site full of sympathy for the woman whose pilot dad had died on that lonely mountaintop. Having just met a member of the pilot’s family, I couldn’t help but think about the people who’d made it their mission to find the isolated crash and carry the man off the mountain.

There are many more wonderful memories made in the mountains than miserable ones, but the fact remains: People get lost, hurt, and die in the North Carolina mountains on hikes, during rock climbs—even in plane crashes. And for each of these incidents—for the lost Boy Scout near Doughton Park last spring, and many others—someone has to search for the lost and carry out the injured… and the deceased.

Volunteers Are the Core

Scores of park rangers, many of them experts in search and rescue, work in North Carolina’s national parks (Great Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway), national forests (Pisgah and Nantahala, in the western part of the state), and mountain state parks, (among them, Mount Mitchell and Stone Mountain).

Nevertheless, when planes go down or hikers and climbers get lost or hurt, as on Mount Hood last winter in Oregon, most responders are local volunteers. One of the places these public-spirited people congregate in North Carolina is the Linville Central Rescue Squad, between Linville and Pineola in Avery County, about 16 miles south of Boone.

It’s a pretty typical rural rescue squad in some ways. Founded in 1988, it has a few ambulances and a crash truck that respond to auto accidents and medical emergencies in a growing resort/retirement region near Grandfather Mountain. But of 20 active members on a roster of 30, eight embrace the squad’s sub-specialty—mountain rescue.

This squad’s building has a rappelling wall inside and a ceiling rigged with rope anchor points for practicing with jumars—hand-operated devices that permit a climber to ascend a single strand of rope. It’s also why the big, boxy crash truck is stuffed with ropes, and racks of rock climbing gear, and not just with the heavy hydraulic equipment for cutting into car crashes. Bags of climbing harnesses hanging in the truck, all with the “Misty Mountain Threadworks” logo of the nationally known Boone-area maker of climbing gear.

But oddly enough, despite the proximity of the Appalachian Trail, Linville Gorge wilderness, the craggy Grandfather Mountain, and the waterfalls of Wilson Creek, “mountain rescue” means more, and less, to these first responders than rescuing injured rock climbers or lost hikers.

“Much of what we do doesn’t involve people lost on trails,” says Robert “Robby” Calloway, squad member and statewide trainer of “high angle” rescue techniques—situations that require ropes and suspended litters to remove victims. “We may be looking for an Alzheimer’s patient who wanders away from their home, or a child who was playing in a rural yard—until they’re suddenly gone,” he says. “All parts of area counties have seen searches.”

That said, even the most standard auto accident, can have decidedly “mountain” elements for the Linville Central crew. Recently, the squad went out to rescue a motorist whose Jeep had plummeted off one of dozens of meandering dirt roads below the Blue Ridge Parkway near Grandfather Mountain.

The lucky driver (squad policy prohibits detailed descriptions of actual incidents) had careened down a drop-off so steep that only a massive, clinging rhododendron thicket had interrupted the vehicle’s plunge. Steve Miller, a member of the mountain rescue unit and the trail manager for Grandfather Mountain, says, “Of course, it was the middle of the night and the Jeep was upside down.” Imagine the maelstrom of headlamp beams, bobbing every which way, as rescuers descend through the vertical, cliffside world of what early mountaineers called a rhodendron “hell.” The victim was lifted out using a compound pulley system.

That technique can be needed in the Linville Gorge where climbers occasionally fall, or become stranded on the South’s toughest rock climbs. Injured, or worse, lowered down or hoisted up, rescue on rock is tricky. Burke County has its own mountain rescue unit that focuses on the Gorge and cooperates with the Linville group. “As a general rule,” Calloway says, “climbers take care of themselves. At least the experienced climbers—or they don’t become experienced.”

Big incidents like plane crashes—four occurred on Grandfather Mountain during the 1980s—pose major search and recovery problems. But even modest hiker injuries prompt arduous efforts. When a hiker twists an ankle (much less breaks a leg) and sends a friend for help, it may seem straightforward, but miles of litter carrying over rough terrain is the most difficult “hike” you’ll ever take. Especially if it lasts all night.

Under mundane—or simply terrifying—circumstances, it takes a rare person willing to put their safety, even their life, on the line for others. We’d be in sad shape without professional and volunteer first responders of all kinds, but the mountain rescue subset of that group, Steve Miller says, “takes a person who doesn’t seek the limelight.” The mantra of these folks is this—it takes a team to litter a victim to safety or find a child in thousands of square acres of animal-path criss-crossed forest.

What kind of person gravitates to mountain rescue, beyond the strong and physically fit?

“As for many outdoors people,” Miller says, “there’s an element of fascination and satisfaction working with the gear side of things, the ropes and equipment. The adrenaline and excitement gets some people involved. But you have to blend that with the ability to stay focused and in control in a crisis. We try to make what we do as safe as possible, but working on cliffs, doing what we do, can be dangerous.”

Miller and the others realize that “we’re working in a rough outdoor situation where the rescuer can get hurt. So if we can’t do something safely, we don’t do it. No one needs another victim that has to be rescued.”

A “Usual” Search

A common trailhead quandary is the most prevalent way that a “lost” hiker sparks a “search.” It’s late in the day and an “abandoned” vehicle is parked for what appears to be an overnighter in defiance of no camping policies. This happens occasionally near the Mile-High Swinging Bridge parking areas at Grandfather Mountain where the Grandfather Trail heads up the mountain’s highest peaks into a multi-thousand acre, cliff-capped backcountry. The area is well signed that no camping is allowed from that point (the gate below is locked at night—so trails from nearby pubic roads are preferable). Occasionally, “people ‘didn’t see’ or just ignore the sign,” Miller says.

A similar situation occurs in the national forest when a car has been unattended for days at a trailhead—or on a roadside. The vehicle may just raise a red flag for rangers—or a family member may have called to report a missing person who said something about taking a hike or maybe going hunting.

In all these situations, rescue crews never just race into the woods. Such incidents could actually involve foul play—“be an active crime scene,” Miller says. Law enforcement is often on hand when a search starts.

Often too, dog search teams are requested early on from the local chapter of the North Carolina Search and Rescue Dog Association, Inc. (NCSARDA), the country’s oldest statewide search dog organization in continuous existence. That group is not a rescue squad or part of the Linville Central squad. Its Western North Carolina headquarters is in Asheville at the Enka-Candler Fire Department. Director Denver Holder is a nationally prominent dog search instructor who was brought in to search for the remains of Space Shuttle Columbia in Texas.

As an independent “rescue resource provider, NCSARDA and its members in the High Country work with the squad on up to 80 calls a year,” says Richard Schaeffer, an NCSARDA “team leader” in the Boone area who lives in Linville Falls and owns the DeWoolfson Down bedding stores. Schaeffer and his RN wife Avery often work their own dog team with the Linville Central Squad.

If the dogs appear to be needed, “then they’re on the scene early,” says Steve Miller, “before the search area becomes so populated with new smells that ‘smell overload’ becomes a factor.” Even emergency vehicle engines are turned off so diesel fumes don’t mask scents.

One such trailhead dilemma involved the dogs near the Swinging Bridge on Grandfather. The missing hikers’ vehicle contained some children’s clothing, so when no other information was available, law enforcement officers opened the car to find “scent articles. One item was cut into pieces and saved in separate Ziplock bags,” Schaeffer says. “That way, when the other teams of backup dogs arrive—and we work with 5 to 7 teams—fresh scent would still be available.”

In this case, a few dogs, handlers, and squad members didn’t take long to find the family snuggled safely in a tent atop Attic Window Peak (5,949 feet, Grandfather’s second-highest).

“All’s well that ends well,” but rescuers realize that any of the dogs or searchers who climbed rocks and cliff-face ladders to find the couple could have gotten hurt. The trail is a real challenge during the day—much less in the dark of night.

Solved by Cell Phone

The irony of wilderness search and rescue is that it often ends before it starts. Modern technology can eliminate the danger and even the effort.

The best-case scenario for law enforcement officials or rangers—say, on Mount Mitchell, where you can backpack camp if you register first—is to hit the information jackpot. It can be as easy as “running” the license plate of the car, looking up the owner’s phone number, and calling home. A friend, parent, or spouse can have all the answers. As in—“Oh yeah, he’ll be backpacking there all week.” Or—“they’re hunting down in Harper’s Creek until Saturday.” Or even—“They just called me! They got so tired they hiked down, left the car, and hitched a ride back to the condo.”

A Worst Case Search Scenario

The increasing number of cell phones, many with GPS capability, are making it easier to call, and be located by, rescuers. In the Himalayas, one mountaineer called his family to say good-bye via satellite phone.

Searches are challenging, with or without technology. At the start, a trail to target makes a search easier. You have a likely route to examine for signs of passage. But what happens when a child was last seen at a campsite in the middle of the backcountry? Or when there’s a car on a roadside and no obvious direction of travel.

“Think about it this way,” says Richard Schaeffer. “If a frightened, lost person can walk 2 miles in an hour, in 10 hours, that could be 20 mile—in any of 360 directions.”

Odds like that—and the fact that lost people often meander and circle—are why multiple dog teams and backup crews are always called in from nearby (often Watauga County and Blowing Rock). “This isn’t the movies, where one dog finds the lost child,” says Schaeffer. “A successful search is to everyone’s credit.”

Nosing Around for Direction

“In the truly worst case, when you don’t know which way someone has gone, the grid search of a large area is the last resort,” says Grandfather trail manager Miller. “It’s a nightmare in the mountains. Takes a lot of people, especially if you’re looking for a child.”

After phone calls and interviews, the “incident commander” needs to forge an action plan. Local insight is critical. The searchers need to be intimately acquainted with the area. Lacking concrete information, “At best, we’re making educated guesses,” says Robert Calloway. “We’re just trying to narrow the search down with any information we can get.”

For that, dogs are critical, and “each is different, has different strengths, between herders and retrievers,” Schaeffer says. “All dogs can track, but ‘air scent’ dogs can often establish the direction of a search, and then take off, to lead the slower tracking dogs, such as bloodhounds, that follow on leash.”

“You smell beef stew in your grandmother’s house,” Shaeffer says. “A dog smells carrots, potatoes, meat—the herbs! They’re 80% olfactory.”

“The handler needs to be able to read their dogs, to say to a guy like Robby Calloway, ‘Robby, my dog has no interest in the trail. He’s heading back out the parking lot,’ or whatever. Then the incident commander puts all the search clues together in the search management pot to cook up theories on how to proceed. It isn’t easy.”

“How to proceed?” That’s a question that also affects another search—Linville Central Rescue Squad’s quest for funds and new manpower.

“Doing what we do is a young person’s work,” says Calloway. “We need a new generation of outdoor people to help with this.”

Steve Miller agrees. “Our ambulances need to be replaced,” he says, nodding at an older model. “This equipment costs, and we need new, dependable gear that other squads don’t have to buy. It takes hours and hours of training, and younger people don’t seem to be joining as others age out.”

That predicament animates the squad’s main annual fund-raising effort in mid-July during the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans. As paid responders are few in rural areas, times are tough.

The best that can be said is that a dedicated and broad-based, albeit small, contingent of motivated mountain residents continues to tackle the challenge of finding and rescuing a growing number of mountain visitors and part-time residents on the East’s highest mountains.

Their plight reflects the appeal of the great experiences to be had in the mountains, and the fact that there are accidents and tragedies too. Even for the most experienced outdoorsperson, the mountains are the wild card. In Western North Carolina, the mountain rescue units know just how wild that card can get.


Randy Johnson, author of Hiking North Carolina, Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and other books, has participated in his share of backcountry rescues. Check out randyjohnsonbooks.com


Emergency Fact: Response time is critical because every search is an emergency situation. Most cases of hypothermia happen in the 50 to 60 degree temperature range, especially in the rain, so multiple nights in the open can kill, especially if there’s an injury.


Don’t Get Lost in the Woods

Inform a responsible individual about your plans. E-mail a few friends and family and put it in writing.

Get the required wilderness, trail, or camping permit. Interface with rangers for the latest regulations, weather, or other warnings.

Always have a map and know your route in advance.

Stay on trails, unless you are expert with GPS, map and compass (the latter do not need batteries!).

Never hike alone.

Carry a first aid kit (with a whistle), rain-resistant clothing, and food to last to the next day. One big, plastic trash bags make a great shelter.

If you find yourself off trail, stop immediately and retrace your steps to the trail.

If you are lost, find a shelter—a rock ledge, perhaps—and wait. You will be more easily found if you’re not wandering around.

Remember, going downhill along a stream or ridge (the easiest route) often reaches a road.


Training isn’t the same everywhere. Shaeffer says that in North Carolina, search dogs are trained from 8 weeks old to be “scent discriminating”—to follow one scent. In training sessions, Schaeffer’s dogs have followed individual students from the Valle Crucis Elementary School, to Valle Crucis Community Park, and into a strange vehicle where they were waiting with their moms.

All photography copyrighted by Randy Johnson. Permission and credit required for reproduction or other use.
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