Great Smoky Mountains National Park hikers share stranded stories

12:50 PM, Dec 23, 2009   |    comments
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Several roads in the Great Smoky Mountains remain closed several days after a massive storm dumped more than two feet of snow on the national park.

The Newfound Gap Road (US 441) reopened shortly after 9:00 Wednesday morning.  However, park officials discourage bus traffic on the road, which takes travelers from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina.

Roads that remain closed are Foothills Parkway East, Greenbrier Road past the ranger station, Cosby entrance road, Cataloochee Road, Old NC-284 between Big Creek and Cataloochee, and Lakeview Drive.

The road closures left two hikers from Illinois unable to retrieve their vehicle for days.

"I had never been backpacking before and was invited by my good friend Frank. He is an experienced hiker and we both go to the University of Illinois at Chicago," said Curtis Pyle.

Pyle made the trip from his home in Saint Charles, Illinois, with Frank last week for a planned trip of six nights and five days in the mountains. The trip took a turn as sharp as the curvy mountain roads when last week's storm system moved in Friday morning.

"When it started to snow it was kind of a rush that made it a little more fun. When it started to get a foot and a half deep, it was taking us a lot longer to get from one shelter to another along our planned route. Then we had even more snow on Saturday and that fun element sort of turned into something serious," said Pyle.

The duo decided to cut their planned trip short and hike back to the main ranger stations.

"My knee was hurting and you start to get a little worried, but we made it out late Saturday. Then we found out we were still stranded because there was no way to get to our car," said Pyle.

The duo had parked their vehicle at a trail head along U.S. Route 441, known as Newfound Gap Road in the park. More than 20 inches of snow shut down the road and made it impossible for them to retrieve their vehicle.

"We found out we were going to be here a couple of more days because there were so many trees down and all of the snow in the roads. It was our little survival story, I guess," laughed Pyle.

"The weight of the snow brought a lot of trees down," said Mark Schotters, Roads Supervisor for the north district of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "The guys that really earned their pay throughout this last week is the guys with the saws out in the cold cutting this stuff so it can be handled by the loaders and pushed out of the way."

Schotters said a larger grater and front-end loaders did much of the initial heavy lifting for snow removal.

"It's so deep that the snow plows just can't push it out of the way. It just takes us a while and we go one place at a time. We also do not salt the roads to protect the environment," said Schotters.

Highway 441 was cleared enough that a park ranger was able to take the two stranded hikers to their vehicle late Monday afternoon. Pyle said he left the Great Smoky Mountains with some good stories to share over the holidays.

"I'm looking forward to getting home and spending Christmas with my kids," said Pyle. "It was a lot of fun. I had a blast. The main thing is that no matter what the forecast says, if you are hiking in the mountains in December, be sure to bring snow shoes."

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