Monday, June 22, 2009

Gregory Bald Azaleas in Peak Bloom Right Now – So I Am Told. When Good Hikes Go Bad.

Friday was just one of those days in the Great Smoky Mountains national park that you just not be sure how the day was going to turn out for hiking. The weather man said a high chance of rain and the haze and 90 degree weather in the valley made me rethink my plans 3 times throughout the day to hike up to Gregory Bald where the azaleas would be in peak bloom and I could look down on Cades Cove and Lake Fontana.

Gregory Bald Azaleas in Peak Bloom Right Now

Though Mount Le Conte was obscured from view by the haziness in Sevierville, as long as the air quality was good I was willing to take a shot and hope for as good view from Gregory Bald by hiking up to the mountain late in the day as it got cooler and returning down the mountain in the dark. The ozone level was at 38 so I felt as though the air quality was good enough to take this moderately strenuous 11 mile hike.

Driving through Cades Cove with the windows down it was still warm but comfortable as I was moving and few deer were out of the cover of the woods in the cove in the late afternoon sun. I decided as I was driving that since I was hiking back in the dark, to take the trail off Forge Creek Road rather than the one off Parsons Branch and upon arrival I could see the parking area was filled with other hikers looking to enjoy peak season on Gregory Bald.

Since it was so warm at the trailhead I threw 2 more water bottles in my backpack and I checked my water filter system in a dry bag even though I just consumed 2 bottles of water since I entered the Cades Cove. An extra flashlight got tossed into the pack along with some camera gear and I was off.

Within 5 minutes on the trail I ran into to 2 National Park employees I ironically was going to contact this week chatted for a few minutes and they confirmed it was spectacular up top and I was back on my way up the mountain to the parks pretties bald that I was sure was in peak bloom.

About another 5 minutes in and older couple was hiking down the trail. Seeing me geared up so heavily they asked me if I was a ranger and told me that and older couple was in distress up by the bald and that the man was very sick and suffering from the heat, when I asked as to the man's condition the response was "bad". He was very hot, very sick, had bad color and was unable to stand.

I told the couple to continue back down the trail carefully and to go to the Cades Cove visitor center so they could radio for help and to not rush down the trail so they don't fall and get hurt as well and I would go up and assist the couple in trouble.

I decided to run up the trail as quickly as possible as I would be the first responder at least an hour ahead of the parks EMS crew and that's if they were in Cades Cove which was doubtful. As I was working my way uphill I decided to hang some of the gear in my pack on the bear lines once I could reach campsite 12.

I passed a hiker leisurely coming down the mountain who I had seen a few months before on the same trail. I asked him the condition of the couple as well as their present location and he casually respond they were just above the campsite and the man was sick.

Still rushing up the trail I eventually ran into the couple slowly descending the trial. He was a tall fit gentleman who recognized me from the Porters Creek Trail. He was standing in the trail with a wet cloth on his head and swaying.

Apparently he and his wife went up the mountain with small packs, heavy camera equipment and about 2 liters of water. They were given more water when he wasn't feeling well and worked their way down to a stream where he rested and they refilled at least one container of water from the stream and wet the cloth on his head.

As he and his wife were telling me the story I observed his respiration, skin color and demeanor. When I asked him about nausea, dizziness, headache and other symptoms he didn't have kept saying he felt "real bad" and didn't feel that good on the way up either.

I told him help was on the way but we could see that he was feeling way better now that he started hydrating. He decided he was well enough to work his way down the trail and didn't want the park to execute a full blown rescue. As he was talking I was finishing off my last bottle of water and I set my stopwatch.

Since the trailhead was full and people would be working their way down I told him I was going to update the park as to his condition and to keep one of the people coming back down the trail close by him and his wife.

I worked my way down the trail quickly making note of the time at the trailhead and drove to the Cades Cove Visitors Center and advised them of his condition and returned to the trailhead to hike back up to the couple with more water I had in the car as well as Gatorade powder.

I dumped some gear back into the car to lighten my back for the trip uphill and just at the time and Park Ranger with EMS training arrived. I updated on the gentleman's improved condition and last know location and he notified dispatch and stared packing out his emergency pack as I rushed back up the trail.

When I caught up with the couple they were far further down and were accompanied by a kind middle aged couple watching out for him. We all stopped by a stream to cool off and wait for the ranger who arrived about 5 minutes later.

The ranger conducted a quick field exam checking for signs of dehydration, heat cramps and heat exhaustion. The ranger was thorough and had a fantastic bedside - make that streamside manor.

At this point the gentleman was drinking a light Gatorade mixture I had made for him and when asked how he was feeling responding clearly and emphatically "lousy". Since his balance was still in question we all accompanied him back down to his car carrying his pack for him with his precious camera gear.

Back at the car I unloaded my soaking wet backpack and finished off my 5th bottle of water in under 2-1/2 hours. Since it was too late to get good lighting I knew the day was over for me.

I have since heard from the gentleman who was very thankful and in great spirits.

Proper hydration and moderation in strenuous activities are especially crucial when hiking for an extended time in high temperatures. What appeared to be a mild case of dehydration and heat exhaustion could easily become deadly heat stroke if left untreated.

The couple left with far too little water and no way to safely treat more water if they needed it. When first not feeling well they should have stopped and cooled off - even going as far as soaking clothes with water or just sitting in a stream. Hydration and moderation are keys to comfortable safe hiking.

If this gentleman was not in such good general health, this story would had have a far more tragic ending rather than me not being able to see the peak in the azaleas on Gregory Bald.

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smoky scout said...

I'm glad you were able to supply Gatorade to this man in addition to plain water. Many people are not aware of hyponatremia and mistakenly treat dehydration with lots of water and no electrolytes or other nutrients. Eating and drinking are both very important when hiking in hot weather. I recently talked with a friend (very experienced hiker) who got into some trouble in the Grand Canyon. She became dehydrated and did not feel like eating, but continued to drink water, and she ended up very sick.

Holly Burcham said...

You are an asset to this area in so many ways. Thank you for all that you do!

Anonymous said...

Are you still blogging? I have missed any new entries. I hope everything is okay.

A loyal fan,


Coral Gables, Florida

Smokies Hiker said...


Thanks so much!

Between traveling out of the state for a few weeks in July and doing a lot of camping in deep backcountry with no cell service, classes, doing research and working in the park - I have so much more information and just not enough time to dispense it!

I expect it to build up and get even harder during elk rut season and there are tons of programs and activities for the next few months – I have no idea how to get it all done!