Five wet and cold female hikers were rescued off the Appalachian Trail on Wednesday morning after calling 911 for help.
"They were stranded, exhausted, wet and frozen and needed help," said Jeff Willis, emergency management director for Madison County, which assisted in the search and rescue.
Dispatchers took the call between 7:30-8 p.m., Willis said. The hikers said they were on Bluff Mountain, about 1.5 miles north of the Lemon Gap trailhead, right on the North Carolina-Tennessee state line.
Spring Creek Fire Department took the lead on the rescue. In addition to Madison, several other departments assisted, including Parkway Fire and Rescue out of Spruce Pine, Buncombe County, Haywood County and the city of Asheville.
At the time of the call, it was snowing heavily and was windy, with gusts of up to 50 mph, Willis said.
"It was just a miserable night," he said.
The women, ages 19-23, attend college in Illinois and were on spring break. They were hiking for three days and were not prepared for the weather to change as it did Tuesday night, Willis said.
They were trying to make it back to their vehicle in Harmon's Den in Haywood County when they called for help.
The hikers had a sleeping bag and a two-person tent with them. When they called for help, Willis said the sleeping bag was the only item they had that was dry.
They said they were unable to get a fire started and couldn't find any water, said Willis, who described them as novice hikers.
The women managed to make their way to the Walnut Gap shelter on the trail. All five squeezed into the tent after shedding their wet clothes, and they sheltered in place until rescuers reached them around 3 a.m.
Willis said the hikers were able to walk out with rescuers, who had provided them with dry clothes and food. The rescue mission ended around 6 a.m.
Willis urged hikers to check the local forecast before heading out and even consult with local residents, especially because the weather is so unpredictable this time of year. He said the women were smart to save battery power on a cell phone in case of emergency and stay in one place for rescuers to find them.
"That was one thing that made this rescue more effective," he said.