If you’ve ever come face-to-face with a group of your heroes, then you understand one of the many emotions author David Brill experienced while hiking recently in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As the author of Into the Mist: Tales of Death and Disaster, Mishaps and Misdeeds, Misfortune and Mayhem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Brill spent months researching how the national park’s search and rescue personnel respond to emergencies. Published by Great Smoky Mountains Association, Into the Mist has become one of the nonprofit’s most popular books of all time. What Brill himself experienced late last month could be told in Volume 2 of the Into the Mist series.
While researching an upcoming article on the park’s Old Settlers Trail for GSMA’s Smokies Life magazine, Brill and national park archivist Michael Aday found themselves hiking in light rain when the unthinkable happened. With just over a mile to go before reaching their campsite for the night, Aday slipped on a slick rock and suffered a compound fracture of his tibia at the last stream crossing of the day.
According to Brill, who immediately transitioned from researcher to first responder, Aday managed to pull himself out of the cold water and onto a large rock. He used his cell phone to reach park dispatch to request help.
“Fortunately, we were about a mile or so from the road, as the crow flies, but most of that distance was off-trail and difficult to navigate, particularly when carrying a litter with bicycle wheel and backboard,” Brill said. “On the way out, we lifted the litter over many thigh-high logs and waded through fast-running creeks.”
For Brill, being able to participate in the rescue, even in a very small way, brought up emotions of being a six-year-old kid and getting to ride in a fire engine with his heroes. In this case, however, he was helping to respond to an actual emergency.
“The (Great Smoky Mountains National Park) search and rescue team were, in all ways, exceptional,” Brill said. “They were fully prepared and equipped, calm and competent, and in top physical condition.”
According to Great Smoky Mountains National Park Chief Ranger Steve Kloster, many of the responders assigned to this rescue had been called earlier in the day to the scene of a fatal car accident near Clingmans Dome.
“It was a gruelling day for them, but one would never have known, based on their comportment and attention to Mike’s needs,” Brill said. “I’ve always admired the park’s crew members, and my admiration for them has only increased, having seen them in action.”
For the book, Brill spent months researching and writing about crises in the park, and he and Aday were forced to rely on preparation and backcountry skills in responding to their own emergency situation.
“It was the first time in all my decades in the mountains I've been a participant in or witness to a rescue,” he said. “Neither Mike nor I panicked, and I immediately wrapped him in sleeping bags and kept handing him cups of hot herbal tea. He totally kept his head, and so did I.”
“Our park’s backcountry has its share of risks, but with proper planning, many of those risks can be mitigated,” said Kloster. “And making sure you’re communicating with backcountry rangers before you set out can be the most important step.”
According to Kloster, the list of pre-backpack safety consideration employed by Brill and Aday included:
They carried a charged cell phone that allowed them to communicate with park dispatch, though it should be noted that most of the park is without cell service and counting on a phone alone in the backcountry is not a good idea, said Kloster.
“There’s no doubt that this experience ties directly into the overarching themes of Into the Mist,” said Brill, who had attempted the same trail with Aday just days before. “On our initial outing, a planned 17-mile day hike, we encountered six inches of snow and temperatures that started out in the high 20s. As we pushed through rhododendrons heavily laden with snow, we became soaked. I had lost my rain jacket somewhere en route, and after about four miles, we decided to turn around and try again later. I’m quite certain that failure to turn around has killed more mountaineers than any other cause – an important lesson, I think.”
Brill dedicated Into the Mist “to the rangers and staff of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, who tirelessly devote their time, skills and energy to preserving America’s best-loved park and protecting the millions of people who visit it each year.” Observing his heroes at work, Brill said only cemented his “respect for their talents, calm professionalism and extreme abilities.”
“Mike now ranks among the toughest individuals I’ve ever hiked with,” said Brill. Following surgery to set his broken leg, Aday was released from the hospital with a cast he’ll wear for several weeks. He hopes to return to work at the National Park Collections Preservation Center in Townsend, Tenn., soon.
Great Smoky Mountains Association’s publications are designed to enhance greater public understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the national park. A national park partner, GSMA has provided nearly $40 million to support the park’s educational, scientific and historical programs since its inception 65 years ago.