In all of Rick Morgan's life-travels, it may be hard for him to top the story about his winter at the top of Mount LeConte. His job as the winter caretaker at the LeConte Lodge coincided the "Blizzard of 1993" super-storm that walloped much of the nation. Nobody in the country saw more snowfall than Morgan.
"It snowed from the left, from the right, and from the ground. It was a whiteout. The most extreme storm, by far, I've ever experienced," said Morgan. "I think I measured 63 inches of snow in just a day and a half."
The 60+ inches of snow on Mount LeConte was the largest accumulation anywhere in the U.S. during the blizzard.
Morgan did not have a camera, so he's one of the only people to see what the super-storm was like at its peak. The other is a hiker named Boyd Rutherford, who was at the backcountry shelter on top of Mt. LeConte and joined Morgan at the lodge.
"The National Park Service wanted me to check at the shelter for any hikers with the storm moving in. I saw Boyd up there and he was prepared for a big snow. He had tarps to keep the snow out, all of his gear, and some gourmet food he had packed. I told him to come down to the lodge if he wanted to, but he was hesitant and decided to stick it out. Later that night, I could hear a faint voice outside. You open the door and you cannot even see five feet. It was Boyd and he decided to come down from the shelter when it started to get really bad," said Morgan.
More than five feet of snow piled up atop one of the highest summits in the Smokies. With winds gusting near hurricane-force, the drifts were tall enough to bury some of the buildings.
"The cabin I was staying in, I had to climb out the window. I had snowshoes with me and I remember walking across the tops of the buildings, the snow had drifted so high. Then I proceeded to shovel and make a path. I literally started up here (above my head) with the shovel," said Morgan.
Morgan had everything he needed to make it through the storm. The winter caretaker is already equipped to handle extreme conditions, has plenty of supplies, and operates without electricity.
"I really had it better than almost everyone else in the eastern part of the state. I did not even have to prepare for the blizzard. We already have propane stoves, kerosene heat, the park service radios to communicate, and a battery-operated television. I was happy. I was watching it all on television," said Morgan.
Along with the company from Rutherford, Morgan recalled his fleeting friendship with a raven.
"This will sound funny, but one of my favorite memories is of a bird. It was the only wildlife I really saw during the blizzard. I made some biscuits and it was pecking on the roof. I gave him one. The bird kept coming back every day and making noise on the roof for a biscuit. One day, I didn't hear it on the roof. I hear some clinking noise outside. It was that bird, looking at the door, picking up a piece of blue glass and dropping it on a rock to make noise until I came outside. I threw it my last biscuit, it grabbed it, and soared around the edge of the mountain. I'll never forget it. And I still have that piece of blue glass," said Morgan.
A few days after the snow stopped, Morgan and Rutherford were in good shape at the top of the mountain. But nobody with the National Park Service was able to make contact Rutherford's fiancee in Sevierville. That led to their decision to leave the lodge and make a cliffhanging journey through the snow.
"He was wanting to go down the mountain to check on her because we knew people down there did not have power," said Morgan. "The drifts completely covered Alum Cave Trail. The trail was just gone. There is a part of the trail where it is only a couple of feet wide and really steep. You have to use a hand cable on the side of the cliff. The snow was a few feet over the cable, so we would dig in to find the cable. I lost my footing and fell and slid down, grabbed a little tree, and Boyd grabbed me by my collar and pulled me back up. I don't know if I would have died, but I would have been hurt. So, it was quite an experience."
WBIR was at the Sugerlands Visitor Center covering the storm and interviewed Morgan on March 17, 1993, when he finally reached the bottom of the mountain.
"Even with snow shoes, it was hard. It was the hardest walk of my life going down through there," Morgan told WBIR in March 1993.
"You'd have to stop and rest every few feet. It was real rough," said Rutherford in 1993.
Despite the life-threatening experiences, Morgan's memories of the storm a quarter-century ago are mostly fond. He said nothing will top the beauty of Mother Nature's power.
"I've hiked every trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. I think of it [the blizzard and hiking on Alum Cave Trail] often. I will never forget it. Absolutely breathtaking and beautiful, like nothing I've ever seen. It was a once in a lifetime event. These mountains are truly a treasure," said Morgan.