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Lost Hikers in Big South Fork Ignored Searcher Instructions, Hampered Search Efforts


This incident reported in today’s NPS Morning Report left us wondering what part of "stay put" is so difficult to understand. As reported by Frank Graham, Chief of Visitor Services at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Kentucky/Tennessee:

A Scott County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher received a cell phone call from a lost hiker on Friday, December 18th. The number was given to rangers and contact was made with [a lost hiker]. [The lost hiker] reported that he’d been hiking in the Twin Arches area with two other people late Thursday night when they decided to go off trail and camp. When they attempted to return to the trail, they became disoriented. A description of where they had gone off trail put them in the Charit Creek drainage. Rangers attempted to determine a more precise location, but could not due to [the lost hikers’] lack of knowledge of the area. A search was begun immediately, as it was raining and the forecast called for it to soon turn to snow. Personnel searched for approximately six hours without luck. The rain did not turn to snow, and plans were made to continue the search at first light the next day. Additional personnel were called in and the search resumed early on Saturday morning. Further phone contact helped them to finally locate the trio in mid-afternoon. Search efforts were hampered by the men continuing to move after being told to stay in one position so that searchers could find them. Tommy Barnes was IC. There were no injuries to either hikers or searchers.

The takeaway: When you realize you're deep in a hole, stop digging. It wouldn't hurt to pay attention too.


As someone who's spent quite a bit of time in the Big South Fork and especially near Twin Arches, I'm not sure how they could have gotten so lost.

Maybe alcohol or drug use contributed to their disorientation and lack of attention.

Or maybe it was the phase of the moon or the color of the leaves or bad breath on the Rangers ... it's rough enough on someone to have a national website commenting on their not following directions [I saw the same thing in the Morning Report] without us anonymous bystanders throwing out W.A.G.'s about other things.

the cell phone was a life saver, as a seasonal guide, I carry mine at all times. Knowing it works like a transponder and is constantly searching for a signal, it can be an aid to the search effort. Plus, if 1 takes photos as they go, backtracking your shots is also helpful. I'll take shots both up and down trail and when in doubt on an in out trail consult my photos to double check routes.

...what part of "stay put" is so difficult to understand...

The instruction is not difficult to understand, but it can sometimes be difficult to follow. If it's raining and you're cold and inexperienced and unhappy about being lost (and who knows what else), the hours pass very slowly and the temptation to do something is great. In this situation, moving is one of the few things you can do, and it can take a lot of willpower to resist that drive, especially if you don't realize just how much staying put can impact the odds of timely rescue.

One wonders how carefully this concept was conveyed to [the lost hiker]. Good communications skills are an important component of any rescue effort, and an area that a team can always evaluate for potential to improve. Blaming the victim may be justifiable, but it's rarely productive.

It would be interesting to know if there has been any study of the incidences of lost hikers prior to cell phone use and after. Where cell phone access is available has there been any measurable increase or decrease in the number of visitors reported as lost? Has cell phone use reduced the time required to rescue lost visitors or significantly contributed to the survival rate of those who are truly lost (not those who need help finding the campground or their vehicle)?

An old college buddy of mine from my days at the U of Texas at Austin, Steve Poizner, formed the company (Snap Trak) and assembled and led the team that developed the chip in your cell phone and 800 million others around the civilized world that lets the cell phone company find you.* I always like to forward these stories on to him. By the way, he currently is the California Insurance Commissioner and is running for the GOP nomination for Governor of California.

[ * The chip harnesses global positioning technology to enable emergency services to locate you when you dial 911. Ed.]

Your suggestion re. taking photos as you go is a good one. Much appreciated. As for the lost hikers, my guess is that they failed to carry a compass and a map.

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