Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rescue of a Lost and Stranded Hiker in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Concludes

Lost and then stranded experienced 70 year old hiker Albert Morgan Briggs who was stuck atop Porters Mountain for almost a week deep in the Great Smoky Mountains national park was rescued early this morning by a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter and taken to the Little River Ranger station where he was debriefed by park rangers about his ordeal and later picked up by his family and taken home.

What happened the past week to Albert Morgan Briggs who is a park volunteer and presently works in the parks backcountry permit office and prior to this was a ridge runner on the Appalachian Trail helping maintain the trails and guiding hikers, is both a tale of what hikers should and should not do.

Fortunately even though Morgan had what was a physically trying and well as emotionally draining week, other than a light sunburn and filthy clothes he was wearing from bushwhacking in the deep rhododendron thickets and climbing his way up about 1,200 feet to ridgeline below the Peak of Porters Mountain which is barely a few feet wide, he was in great shape and spirits.

When I was interviewing the crew of the helicopter that rescued Mr. Morgan, they all expressed concern about the conditions and the ruggedness of the backcountry he was stranded in. The crew also described that they could not believe how narrow the ridge was where Moran Briggs tent was precariously perched and how exposed he was.

If the helicopter could not have hoisted off the ridge on Porters Mountains, there would have been no room to put the bird down and the only way they would have had left to rescue him would have been for the ground crew to climb 1,200 feet practically straight up to retrieve him. The park service suggested that chainsaws would have probably been needed than in order to cut through the thickets.

Amazingly one of the teams of rangers on the search and rescue mission this week was less than 50 yards from Morgan Briggs and they did not realize the missing hiker was so close to them.

This distance was confirmed by checking the data of the ground crews GPS unit and according to North District Head Ranger Steven Kloster, the Porter Mountain ridgeline was already in today's search plan even if Morgan had not been spotted by observers on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and their sighting confirmed by a helicopter yesterday.

While I was able to gather information for this story from many firsthand sources, Morgan would not speak to any of us at the press conference but he did promise to give us the chance to interview him at a future date so at least we will have a more detailed picture of what initially happened and well as his state of mind during the week long ordeal.

I was in a rush to report all details of this story upon his rescue, but I held off as more and more questions and thoughts came to mind and more details have come to light about his ordeal. Many sources I have seen reporting this story had wrong information such as elevation gains and distances, made wrong conclusions and left out important facts.

Morgan's Planed 4 Day Hike in the GSMNP

Day 1: Hike from the Trailhead in Greenbrier where he was dropped off just 3.5 miles on the Porters Creek maintained hiking trail to backcountry campsite #31 where he would spend the night.

Day 2: Hike his way through brush on an unmaintained unofficial trail referred to as a "manway" where he would have to work his way through drainages making crossings in rain swollen creeks and streams, around fallen trees and through tough brush including rhododendron thickets and thorny briers that you would not normally encounter on a maintained official park trail.

Morgan would work his way up a gain of 2,000 feet and eventually end up along the Appalachian Trail which runs across most of the Great Smoky Mountains national parks highest points along the Tennessee North Carolina border for about a mile to a lean to along the AT named the Icewater Springs Shelter.

Day 3: Hike the 6 miles from the Icewater Springs Shelter along the AT and the Boulevard Hiking Trail to Mount LeConte where he would spend the night at the Mount LeConte Shelter.

Day 4: Hike down Mt LeConte to hitch a ride to Gatlinburg and take the trolley home to Pigeon Forge. No one other than Morgan is sure which trail he wished to take back but it is believed his choices were Alum Cave Trail (about 5 miles), Rainbow Falls (about 6.5 miles) or the Bull Head (about 6.5 miles) hiking trails.

Morgan's Planed Hike in the Great Smoky Mountains national park

What happened on the hike:

Day 1: Morgan hiked in and spent the first night as planned in campsite 31.

Day 2: He was last seen by other hikers this day at the campsite where after waking and packing his gear, he started the off trail portion of his hike he made a wrong turn and got disorientated and lost.

Rather than following the stream out to the road about 3 miles to the north he decided to climb up a little over 1,000 feet to the top of Porters Mountain where he pitched his tent and remained the next 6 days until he was rescued by helicopter.

So what went wrong and what went right in Morgan Briggs preparation, hike and subsequent rescue in the GSMNP?

What went right:

1) Though this story concluded with the safe return of a hiker who was lost and then stranded for a week with limited food and water and no way to communicate with the outside world, the timing of this hike more than likely made the difference between life and death.

If this fateful hike in the Great Smoky Mountains national park was a few weeks from now when the cold weather sets in, the risk of exposure would have been enormously increased - or if it was a few weeks earlier when it was very hot, humid and there was no rainfall Morgan could have suffered from severe dehydration or could have had a heat stroke and died.

The fact that he was so exposed on a high ridgeline, during any thunderstorm a bolt of lightning could have dealt him a lethal blow.

The weather also cooperated on the day of his rescue as the fog just lifted and visibility and wind speed just turned conducive for an extraction by chopper rather than a more prolonged and dangerous extraction by climbers.

2) Morgan Briggs told people where he was going and when he was due back. He filled out the necessary permits so he could be tracked.

Once he was overdue on Tuesday his family was concerned and eventually contacted the park service and the search for Albert Morgan Briggs began on Wednesday (Day 5).

3) When Morgan was lost on day 2 of the hike, he had worked his way to higher ground where he stayed put.

His highly visible yellow tent/tarp was seen by searches on the ground about a mile away on the AT because he was so visible and out of the cover of the forest canopy.

Had his tent/tarp been a color such as green or with camouflage pattern such as I often use, he may never have been spotted by the ground crew or the helicopter that eventually dropped him supplies.

4) When Morgan knew he was lost he started to ration his food which consisted of Spam and canned peaches.

Unfortunately both foods would increase his dehydration and subsequent thirst since the Spam is loaded with sodium and the peaches are in sugary syrup.

5) Though Morgan was working his way through mud and streams, where he ultimately ended up stranded there was no source of water so he ran dry.

Using tent flaps and a tarp he collected rain water from the daily rain we had last week in the Smokies.

While he was lost and stranded in the Great Smoky Mountains national park, dehydration was the largest danger he faced that could have proved fatal.

What went wrong:

1) Hiking on manways is not prohibited but is strongly advised against by GSM park officials.

Some manways such Pinnacles Manway in Greenbrier is in a similar condition to many maintained trails other than a few blow downs and is very clearly defined.

The manways that Morgan was hiking on are not clearly defined, in poor condition and have elevation gains that are unsafe given the condition of the trail.

This is not a manway that should ever be hiked solo and if you would do so, it is better to do it in the winter when the lack of most of the forest canopy makes following the trail and navigation with a GPS much easier.

This particular manway I have described numerous times as the only major manway in the Great Smoky Mountains national parks I have never hiked on because of the inherent dangers.

Hiking manways or off trail requiring bushwhacking does significant ecological damage to potentially endangered or rare plants, fragile habitats and their inhabitants.

Responsible off trail hiking should be done in the late fall, winter and early spring when the ground-cover and the understory is dormant so you are reducing your environment impact and it's also easier to read the terrain.

2) Morgan did not bring along any communications and navigation electronics.

A cell phone with Verizon service may have actually worked in his location, a GPS may have worked well enough to keep him from getting lost, a walkie talkie may have allowed him to communicate with another hiker in range on the AT and if all else fails he could have used a personal safety beacon as soon as he was stranded and he would have been rescued in hours rather than on day 8.

I tell everyone to never count on electronics for your survival when hiking and honesty hiking on marked and maintained trails you should not even need them, however when you hike solo on a dangerous unmarked trail it is ill advised to not have what is basic electronic safety equipment.

Any serious hiker going solo into a situation like this should never go hiking without a personal locator beacon.

ACR ResQLink 406 MHz Buoyant Personal Locator Beacon

ACR ResQLink 406 MHz Buoyant Personal Locator Beacon

Rigorously tested in Alaska, the ACR ResQLink+ 406 MHz Buoyant Personal Locator Beacon provides a safety net in case things take a turn for the worse at sea. Three levels of integrated signal technology-GPS positioning, a powerful 406 MHz signal, and 121.5 MHz homing capability-combine to relay your position to a worldwide network of search and rescue satellites. Small enough to carry in a pocket, clip to a backpack, or store inside an inflatable life jacket.Features include waterproof construction and a built-in strobe light that provides visibility during night rescues. Runs up to 30 hours. Even in extreme conditions, the ResQLink+ activates easily. Just deploy the antenna and press the ON button.

3) A low tech visual signal method could have been used to call attention to him and his location: Fire and its subsequent smoke.

Though it is illegal to make a fire when in the national park outside of a fire ring or BBQ in a picnic area or campgrounds, in an emergency, fresh leaves burning would have brought attention to his position much faster.

Since he was camping and planning to be in shelters for days one would assume here would have brought along what it took to make a fire each night such as a lighter, matches or flint.

A camp fire with damp leaves would have made a smell and visual indicators of light and smoke which could have easily been seen or smelled by his rescuers.

Another low tech signaling device would be a mirror or anything reflective could have also been used to gain attention such as a used Spam can and lid or the can from his peaches.

4) Morgan did not have or use a signal whistle or air horn.

I swear by my trusty Storm Safety Whistle which can be heard for a half a mile or more in the conditions Morgan was in. It's a cheap low tech gadget that any hiker should have at all times - short hike or overnight trip.

A Storm Safety Whistle is louder than any other whistle and it even works underwater. Best investment under $10 you can make in saving your life and maybe even chasing an aggressive bear away.

Spend less than $12 and get a decent whistle, a signal mirror and a float, all of which take up almost no room in your pack (or pocket).

ACR Hot Shot Signal Mirror

ACR Hot Shot Signal Mirror

The ACR Hot Shot Signal Mirror is designed to provide optimum sighting spot and comes with a float and whistle. The second surface mirror is telescope quality for a bright, focused image. The buoyant float is bright yellow for easy location and the whistle meets USCG standards for audible alerting in low visibility conditions.

Air horns that use compressed gas come in small canister and are cheap and can also be heard for great distances. When the canister runs out of compressed gas you can put the horn in your mouth and blow.

Using a whistle or horn takes no energy as yelling does. Blowing a horn, whistle or shining a light in a "Short-Short-Short Long-Long-Long Short-Short-Short" SOS pattern is a universal cry for help in Morse Code.

Remember - searchers were as close as 50 yards away from him and he did not know they were there and they did not know he was there! Even a cheap whistle from Wal-Mart could have been heard at that distance.

Fortunately one of the search and rescue teams along the AT saw Morgan's yellow tent and were able to guide a helicopter to his location.

The helicopter returned with an extra sleeping bag, Gatorade, food and a park service radio so they were able to finally communicate with Mr. Briggs and prepare him for the rescue planed for the next day.

I would love to know that last night what Morgan was thinking that last night in his tent and when he finally woke up the next morning. We do know that pork chops were on his mind at some point because after leaving the national park with his brother along with his son and his family he wanted to stop by the supermarket for some to make for his first meal safe and sound back home.

Missing hiker Albert Morgan Briggs leaves the Little River ranger Station in the Great Smoky Mountains national park

This picture shows Morgan with his younger brother leaving the Little River ranger station along with all his hiking and camping gear which was also extracted from the top of Porter Mountain. Morgan looked well as he spoke quickly to park officials on the way to car.

His years of service were brought up by park officials including Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson and how important the 2,000 plus park volunteers are to the Great Smoky Mountains national park. Morgan Briggs has helped countless other visitors to the park over the many years he has served the park and it was his turn to be helped.

Besides volunteers, there were 40 people who worked from the Great Smoky Mountains national park in the search and rescue teams. This did not include the 2 helicopter crews in 3 flights that were used to first find, then supply and finally to rescue Albert Morgan Briggs.

This was a well coordinated and expensive undertaking on the part of the national park service. Fortunately for the NPS and not the Tennessee tax payers, the cost of the helicopter retrieval off the mountain by a helicopter owned and flown by the Tennessee Highway Department, was paid for by the State of Tennessee.

As with any incident - especially one of this magnitude, there are lessons to be earned. While I travel with high visibility orange covers for my backpacks and 3 foil thermal blankets which would make a great signaling device, I am replacing my tent to one with a much higher visibility color based upon this incident.

While you need to careful anytime you hike in the wilderness, regardless of your hiking experience, my hope is that some of you will learn as I have and minimize the chance you can get lost and stranded in the Great Smoky Mountains and if you do survive until your swift rescue.

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Anonymous said...

A woman from Ohio was briefly lost in this same area about 32 years ago. She had similar plans about reaching the AT from the lower campground. I wonder if this man was involved in the search for her or if he remembers the incident?

Smokies Hiker said...

He has only worked in the park for about 10 years.

This is a very dangerous and non scenic way to get to the AT.

Linda said...

It's not nice to 'borrow' content from someone's Twitter page without properly sourcing their information. No need to publish this comment just read it. We wouldn't want the world to know that your copying other people, do we.

Smokies Hiker said...

Linda. There is no twitter page I borrowed anything from. I do not copy content - EVER.

I have been in the field daily covering this story, interviewing people in person, going through my archives, hiking the trails mentioned, and checking my maps for accuracy.

I have attended every press conference on the event in person and received all my facts without culling any tidbit of information online or from any source other than eyewitnesses.

No one from any new agency has covered what I have. Most web sites, newspapers and TV shows reporting this news are just regurgitating press releases from the park service.

Those new services that were here that were here were here for a short time and I was present for every question they asked and the answer.

I actually allowed 2 news channels to photograph my Topo maps for their story.

I did not take the helicopter picture personally which was supplied to me by the park service as I was on a mountain trying to photograph the rescue but got socked in with fog.

The video was supplied to me personally by one of the flight crew from the helicopter. Other than that every single word or piece of artwork is mine.

Many people “retweet” what I write - some without giving me credit and I would be intrigued to see whose tweets you think I copied from.

I take the theft of my content very seriously and if any twitter page other than my “SmokiesHiker” account has such information, please let me know so I may take appropriate steps to protect my intellectual property.

Thank you for bringing this to my attentions.

Chris Hibbard -

Terri C said...

I have hiked the dry sluice manway 5 times, the last one this spring as a hike leader. It is not one I would consider hiking alone, or without speaking with someone who had hiked it. Morgan should have known that he needed to follow the stream, which he apparently left early in his travels. There is a tempting manway out of campsite 31 which is well traveled at least for a while. He also should have had an altimeter, maps, compass, and hopefully a GPS with extra batteries. I guess what I wonder is why he did not simply retrace his route back down the mountain.

Smokies Hiker said...

Terri C

Excellent statements.

The more time that is passing, the more I don't understand how someone with his experience helping others and being in backcountry so long did not get this right.

I can't wait to interview him and I will be sure to ask him any reasonable questions posted as a comment to this story.

At the press conference at Little River we were told he did not want to be interviewed and wanted to just go home. But he told us as he walked past we would get his story.

Only 4 of us from the media were there and everyone gave him the space he wanted - no one shouted any questions at him and though we all photographed him, it was done in a very non invasive manor.

I am proud that he was not being ambushed and respected by everyone covering the story.

Hopefully will remember this and he will grant us in the local media a chance to get his story rather than save it for Oprah or a book deal.

Anonymous said...

Another great story. I cannot tell you how much I relish reading this blog.

I consider myself a pretty seasoned hiker, but I have less experience than this fellow Morgan, and it is amazing to hear what happened. However, it seems to have handled it well in terms of not panicing.

Very much appreciate your evaluation.


Tom Logue, Coral Gables, Florida

Smokies Hiker said...

Thank you so much Tom.

My 3 week project here in the Smokies has turned into a 4 year project with no end in sight now.

I live here full time now and have amassed over 100,000 photographs in the park in the past few years and keep building my library. And hundreds of interviews.

Problem is I don't have the time time to share my work given the work I do in the park, running my business and volunteer work for local environmental and scientific reseach groups.

Everything I do here is a labor of love and every day I am more amazed by the beauty of this place and the unbeleivale people I have been in contact with.

There are other sides which I have yet to write about that as an outsider one would never see or know about and some of them are not all peaches and cream.

Sadly some of the most exciting or interesting things I have been unable to share due to promises I have made to keep things confidential, the risk to public safety or for the protection of valuable resources.

Nothing bothers me more lately than new breed of "news aggregators" who read or see a news story or press releases, remashup the words and present it as "information" in order to sell products or drive traffic to a site.

Sadly some of these sites steal my content and present it as their own and amazingly, this week I was accused of stealing my own work (see comments above)!

Don't worry, if I went permanently back to my house in Boca and never came came back to the Smokies, I still would have decades of material I can present for my readers.

Chris Hibbard

Al said...

I walked the Dry Sluice (Porter's Creek) manway in the 1980s. It was well marked with rock cairns and the creek was mostly dry. Per the map of the news reporter Morgan walked almost due east instead of south. It will be interesting to learn why. I do commend him for his perserverance up on the narrow crest of Porter's Mountain for 6 days.

Hiker8063 said...

On the Mount Le Conte Quadrangle map at 284850E 3947980W there is a branch off of Porters Creek that runs East and up Porters Mountain. He may have made a wrong turn and followed this branch up the mountain.