Hiker succumbs to hypothermia in the Smokies

Park rangers at the Great Smoky National Park searching for an overdue hiker made a gruesome discovery on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 at a shelter along the Appalachian Trail, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

Hikers meet at the Tricorner Knob Shelter in this 2007 photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons.

Hikers meet at the Tricorner Knob Shelter in this 2007 photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons.

Two days later the News Sentinel identified the dead hiker as Richard Lemarr, 50, of Knoxville.

Lemarr was reported missing and overdue on Monday, Jan. 14, when he failed to rendezvous with friends some 15 miles to the northeast at the Davenport Gap. Rangers at the park began a search immediately for Lemarr.

He had left the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap in Bryson City, North Carolina, bound for a 30-mile journey to the Davenport Gap on Saturday, Jan. 12. The area of the trail where Lemarr was hiking snaked northwards back and forth across the Tennessee-North Carolina border through the Great Smoky Mountains north of Clingman’s Dome.

Rangers indicated it was unlikely Lemarr had been victim of foul play.

The area of the Smokies where Lemarr was found is one of the more remote regions within the national park, officials told local media. Due to the remote location where he died, rangers were unable to evacuate his body and required an airlift. But poor weather prevented helicopters from reaching the site.

Once the weather improved the Tennessee Highway Patrol was able to evacuate Lemarr by helicopter, WVLT of Knoxville reported.

A subsequent autopsy conducted by the Swain County, North Carolina, Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Lemarr had died as a result of hypothermia at some point over that fateful weekend, the News Sentinel reported.

Environmental hazards are plenty along the Appalachian Trail. One of those is hypothermia, which can strike anywhere at any time of the year on the trail. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees and the heat loss outpaces the rate at which the body can bring its temperature up. According to WebMD, the average body temperature is about 98 degrees, although it may fall anywhere between 97 and 99 degrees. So it only takes a 2 to 3 degree drop of a hiker’s internal temperature to put them on a collision course with hypothermia.

Even in January, the temperature in northwest North Carolina can fall as low as 27 degrees. It is likely that Lemarr had not adequately prepared for the weekend trek and was caught unaware in the middle of night while resting at the Tricorner Knob Shelter. A simple fire would have gotten him through the night, but had hypothermia set in after a sudden loss of body heat while sleeping, he would have been defenseless to the elements.

A tragic affair.

Still, hypothermia is able to set in even in the summertime. A sudden chilly wind striking a sweating hiker can bring about that drop in temperature that causes a lethal hypothermia to set in. Hikers, whether thru-hiking or weekend-hiking, must remember to prepare for unexpected weather conditions by packing warm base layers, extra clothes to replace wet ones, rain gear and a sleeping bag good for the lowest temperature possible for the time of year.

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