So close but yet so far....................
Mt Craig is the 2nd tallest mountains on the east coast. Because of its proximity to Mt Mitchell, many think of it as just part of the ridge when hiking to Deep Gap. Even though this peak is only a mile from the Mt Mitchell parking lot, I've had some interesting experiences on its summit.
The most memorable of my many summits was a December 2003 hike. A friend and I were going to hike from the summit parking lot to Celo Knob and back. The weather was unseasonably warm, maybe low sixties. Joey lagged and just didn't have the energy. We took more breaks than usual, really slow. At the top of Winter Star I found a a black polypro cap (the one I still use today) and we took another break. Just past Winter Star I decided we should turn back so we wouldn't be caught by darkness,plus it was my turn around time. He continued to weaken and walked even slower on the return hike. I spent about 15 extra minutes at Deep Gap doing some exploring to see how far ahead he would get to judge our speed. When I caught him on Cattail Peak I knew I was going to have to really push him to get back to the car.
Our forward progress was so slow I was really worried about making the car before dark. I considered leaving him and going to get help but I thought it would be safer not to split up. As darkness closed I was really prodding him forward. We were caught by dark at summit of Mt Craig. I had no light as I left my 10 assentials bag at home and my Petzl in car. The moon was clouded out; it was dark as any cave I've been in, so we had no choice but to bivouac. I told Joey to sit down and put every piece of clothing he had on. I always carry some extra clothes. On this trip, my extras were expedition weight pile pants, a pile pull over, cap, gloves and rain jacket. I didn't realize how hard it would be to get situated. I remember playing exercises as a child to simiulate blindness but this was the real deal; it was very difficult. I broke off spruce limbs by feel to help provide some insulation. (I did the typical reach forward and wave with my arms like a blind man until I hit one.) We laid down next to each other and dozed. He was already dehydrated and hypothermic, I was getting very concerned about our predicament.
At 9 pm I awoke to rain, which sucked. I reached up and pulled my hood further over my face and went back to sleep. At about 11 pm I woke again to flitting moonlight as the clouds raced by, signaling the approach of a cold front. I thought this was the time to go get help. I spoke with Joey and told him I was going to get help. I asked his weight, medical history, medicines, allergies, as this was information I think the rescuers would need to know. I slowly walked, knowing when the ground got soft that I was off trail. I managed to walk the last mile, under intermitant moonlight, in 1 hour. My cell phone signal was weak so I drove down to the dorms. I wandered through the dorm looking for a phone. Finding none I looked for the rangers house but I couldn't find it in the fog of clouds. I drove back to the summit and walked around until I got a good cell phone signal. I called 911, initially speaking with Madison county and explaining my difficulty. The operator transfered me to Mitchell, then to Yancey 911. I told the operator I needed help getting somebody off the mountain and to send the ranger to meet me at the summit parking lot. I sat in my car reading Outside using my Petzl until he arrived. He drove up and inquired as to why I didn't walk out with my lamp; I told him I left it in the car. The Asst ranger and 2 South Toe volunteer firemen soon arrived and we started walking down trail at about 1 am. We found Joey, buried under limbs. His hypothermia had him mumbling, we checked his vital signs and the asst ranger asked him if he thought he could walk. More rescue personel arrived as Joey gingerly walked to the gap between Craig and the Mitchell but could go no further. The fireman, paramedics and I then littered him 1/2 mile the parking lot. Its a steep trail, especially when hauling a 220 lb litter. An ambulance had been called and was at the parking lot. Joey was placed inside, we got his wet clothes off, and then he vomited.
I followed the ambulance to Spruce Pine, the parkway was littered with small blown down limbs. I called his wife in South Carolina at 4:30. The converstion started like this; "Hey Trent, this is Patrick. Now Joey's ok, he's fine but......."
I slept on the ER waiting room floor. It was a damn long night. After a few hours Joey was discharged and we drove around looking for a hotel. I was whipped and had to drive to Atlanta that day, I needed some sleep. I initially drove out to Little Switzerland but everything was closed so I drove back to Spruce Pine and the first one I found was the Lemon Tree Inn.
It was about 6:30, the owner asked what kind of room we wanted. I told I didn't care, I needed to sleep. We slept a few hours, showered, then we drove back to the summit; arriving about 11 am. Earlier that morning the office had temps in the 20's with hurricane force winds. (Bivouacking in that would have really been miserable.) It was a REALLY long night. (And I thought I had long nights in residency.)
Some learning points I failed to add to this report. I should have been more intuned with my friends condition. I should have taken my 10 essentials bag. I never forget to take it after this trip. I wish I had taken my headlamp. I'm glad I stuck to my turnaround time. This incident shows how important that is, maybe even earlier. Always keep a clear head. A quote that always echos in my brain in situations like this. It is from Apollo 13 and spoken by Gene Kranz; "Lets work the problem."
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