Julie Ball, Asheville Citizen-Times
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Hikers say they burned clothing, coats and other items to try to stay warm as they huddled along a section of the Appalachian Trail on Thursday night.
"We were burning pants, socks, underwear, coats, shirts ... any and everything that would burn," said Jonathan Dobbins, 21.
Dobbins, Steven White, 28, and Shawn Hood, 32, were rescued Friday after they spent a night in bitter cold temperatures in a section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The North Carolina Helicopter and Aquatic Rescue Team airlifted the men out of the park Friday. The three were taken to Mission Hospital, where two of them were treated and released. The third did not require treatment.
Rangers who had walked in reached the hikers around 8 a.m. Friday, bringing them warm clothing and tents. They were weak and could not walk, according to Kent Cave, supervisory park ranger for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The South Carolina men started out Thursday morning from Fontana Dam. They were headed for a shelter about 10 miles down the trail.
"Their objective was Mollies Ridge. They were a good three to four miles away from that point when they stopped," Cave said.
The men planned to stay in shelters during their trip and did not bring a tent.
"They were just not very well prepared for what they were going to do," Cave said.
The park got 4-5 inches of snow in that area and wind chills dropped to 20 below zero. "It would have been difficult even with proper clothing," Cave said.
The trip was supposed to be 10 days of backpacking.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Dobbins and White said they had planned the trip for months and they had been checking the weather forecast in the days leading up to the trip.
"We checked it right before we walked out the door to come up here," Dobbins said.
The forecast they saw predicted rain Thursday with high temperatures in the mid-40s, Dobbins said.
Dobbins and White say they were prepared for rain, but they were not expecting the snow.
This was their first mountain hiking trip together. "I just started Googling different trails and popular trails. We decided to take this one," Dobbins said.
They got a map from the Park Service, but it was not detailed. During their hike, they believed they were closer to the shelter than they actually were.
"The map shows a trail going (with) very few bends, a relatively straight trail," Dobbins said. "We were on a trail going sideways, up, down, left, right. We're thinking we're on the wrong trail."
They finally ran into a group of hikers who told them they were still on the Appalachian Trail but were a long way from the shelter.
As they continued to hike, the snow got heavier.
"We started hiking up the hill, and it got to a point, we couldn't take 10 to 15 steps without resting 20 to 30 seconds just to catch our breath because we were exhausted," Dobbins said.
The men finally decided to call for help.
"I think it was about 6 p.m. (Thursday) when we sat down and we were like, we're not gonna make it to the shelter. We need to probably call somebody and get some help," White said.
White said the bottom part of his legs had become numb.
The hikers made a shelter using their sleeping bags. They used a propane torch to heat the inside of the shelter. They say they made multiple calls to park rangers and then called 911.
The rangers headed out during the night, but snow made it difficult to reach the hikers, according to Cave.
"This was a dire situation, and getting to the trailhead was a challenge for our people," he said.
The winds created snowdrifts up to 2 feet.
Harry Gerapetritis, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the overnight temperatures were the coldest so far this winter in WNC, dropping into single digits in some high-elevation areas.
Getting wet from rain or snow and then being exposed to wind, "it's a double whammy in terms of getting hypothermia," said Dr. Scott Ramming, assistant medical director of Mission Hospital's Emergency Department.
"The wind chill really affects people who are not properly insulated," he said
White said his temperature was just above 93 degrees when he got to the hospital, where he was treated for hypothermia.
But White and Dobbins say they won't let this trip keep them from hiking the Smokies in the future.
"Next time, we'll be prepared for anything," White said.