Thursday, Sep 15, 2011
Last week, a DC area hiking club contacted the park and reported that a member of their group had become separated from the party on the Lower Hawksbill Trail. The missing 53-year-old man had just joined the hiking club for the first time that morning, so the person who called had limited helpful information. Moreover, no one actually saw him with the group once they started on the trail. The parking area they started from serves numerous trails that go off in virtually every direction. With no information to work with, only hasty searches of the extensive trail system could be conducted on the following day. Those hasty searches did provide one lead, a possible witness who reported seeing someone along the Appalachian Trail above Timber Hollow with the one identifying feature of the missing hiker – he hiked with an ice axe, something not normally seen in Shenandoah in August. But the man was described as very disoriented and frustrated. This piece of information led to a more focused search of the area around the possible point last seen, although no clues were discovered during the second full day of searching. The investigation however, led to a better understanding of potential problems this hiker may have been experiencing. He was described as an alcohol user who had a history of seizures that would leave him mobile but disoriented for hours at a time. On the third day of search, teams were sent down into Timber Hollow below the AT, where it seemed likely he may have stumbled or otherwise entered – terrain described as some of the worst in Shenandoah. Almost immediately one team found clues believed to be associated with the missing person, including an empty bottle of vodka. Shortly before noon on the third day, another team found the missing man at the bottom of Timber Hollow, lying in Hawksbill Creek. He was suffering from hypothermia with a body temp of 94 degrees and had a significantly altered mental state. He was littered to the boundary, where he was picked up by an ambulance that took him to a hospital. The man ultimately spent four days in the hospital, being treated for significant chemical imbalances among other things. Once he regained his mental alertness, he was able to provide some details of his experience. He had started with the group on the trail but was the last in line. He then experienced a seizure shortly into the hike. When he came to, he began to search for his party, but was still somewhat disoriented. The weather had deteriorated, with thick fog and heavy rains. He remembered meeting the man who had provided searchers with information on the point where he was last seen. After talking with him, he was hiking the AT when he stumbled off the trail and tumbled down the steep slopes, ending up well below the trail. He was injured from the fall but otherwise still able to move. He did not want to climb back up to the trail, so he walked across the slope, hoping the trail came down to him. He ultimately found the drainage and decided to follow it down. He then spent the first night near the bottom of the hollow, and on the following morning continued to look for a way out but started having difficulty with his legs going out. He ultimately just stopped and sat down. He had no memory of what happened on much of the second day. He spent about another 48 hours in stormy weather until the search team found him.