What began as a quiet vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains for Robert Lyons and his wife Judith Lyons of Louisville, Kentucky ended tragically after Robert fell approximately 20 feet off of the Chestnut Top Hiking Trail. Robert eventually died hours later as a result of blunt trauma he received during the fall.
According to the national park service Robert and his wife Judith were planning to hike the Chestnut Top Trail to Schoolhouse House Gap where they would then hike out via the School house Gap Trail.
The hiking trail was wet from melting snow and heavy rains and though they had only hiked in a few hundred yards, when the thunderstorm rolled in they decided to turn back and return to the safety of their car.
If you are hiking on the Chestnut Top Trail when you get about a hundred yards in from the trailhead, the trail is narrow with a sheer drop and a very steep 250 foot gain in about only 700 feet of hiking. Apparently Robert Lyons fell in the vicinity of this area and tumbled about 20 feet.
Though he had suffered what he believed was just back injuries he made it back down to the side of the heavily traveled Great Smoky Mountains national parks Townsend Entrance Road.
Tragically when the accident was called in at around 5:30 pm, the dispatcher was told that the injured 73 year old hiker was at the Schoolhouse Gap Trail which was miles away. Park rangers who responded to the call were unable to find Mr. Lyons and Mrs. Lyons called park dispatch again at 6:10 pm this time with the correct location of her injured husband.
Mr Lyons was conscious when rangers arrived at the scene and was suffering from back pain and wanted to be transported by ambulance to a hospital.
The Rural Metro ambulance finally arrived at 6:40 pm and took Robert Lyons to Townsend where he was transferred to a LIFESTAR helicopter and taken by air to the University of Tennessee Hospital in Knoxville where he was pronounced dead at 10:20 pm.
This story of a hiker falling and ultimately dying as a result of his injuries is even more tragic since both he and his wife acted responsibly in turning around when a thunderstorm came in so that they would not be hiking along a ridgeline. If they put themselves in danger of being struck by lightning would Mr. Lyons have fallen?
This story may have had a different far happier ending if the original call made was to 911 and an ambulance was sent to the correct location as at least 40 minutes was lost sending the first responding ranger to the wrong location to begin with.
Could the extra time lost in this rescue have cost this hiker his life? Maybe not in this particular case, but this long a delay can surely mean the difference of life and death in another accident.
A park ranger if not an entire Search and Rescue (S&R) team may be needed to extract an injured hiker from deep backcountry, but not in this case when an injured hiker is on the side of one of the most traveled roads in the park.
How maddening it must have been for the Lyons to have Mr Lyons injured on the side of the road and having cars keep passing by them. A witness stated Mr. Lyons had a red handkerchief tied to stick trying to flag down traffic.
This trail such as many other hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains national park can be very slick when wet and saturated ground along the side of a trail may give under your weight without warning. This trail is also particularly steep as well as fairly narrow at this point making it even more of a hazard in wet or icy conditions.
My father once fell off the side of a mountain trail in a remote area in Italy because the edge of the trail we were hiking on just gave way and without a noise he fell and was gone. Luckily he got caught in some brush instead of falling the whole way down the cliff which saved his life. We were able to pull him back up onto the trail with the help of my jacket which we used as a lifeline.
Going down a decline or embankment, especially one that is steep, hikers need to control the speed and direction of their decent. This is a great time to be using 2 hiking poles that you are sure will not give way underneath you.
Of course accidents can just happen while hiking. Countless times I have stumbled and tripped while hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains national park. The more aware, careful and well equipped one is, the less of a chance of a serious hiking accident.
When in an emergency, the Great Smoky Mountains national park suggests that you call 911 - not the park.
It is also a good idea to have a map or the name of the trail(s) written down and as accurate a location as possible where the injured party is.
Another good idea is to make note of how long it took you to go from where the injured party is (use your stopwatch if you have one) as time can be a better gauge of distance than by guessing mileage while you are in a panic.
My condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Lyons.