ERWIN — A hiker stranded overnight along a Unicoi County portion of the Appalachian Trail in freezing conditions was rescued Wednesday by county officials.
Lt. Jimmy Erwin with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department said J. Ardenia Gaines, 59, of Virginia Beach, Va., a trail through-hiker, was rescued after being located by officials Wednesday. Erwin said Gaines was hiking north in Unaka Mountain on Tuesday evening and was attempting to make it to the Cherry Gap shelter for hikers. As rain picked up and temperatures dropped Tuesday evening, Erwin said Gaines, who was hiking alone, decided to stop along the trail.
“It just got dark on her and she couldn’t make it,” Erwin said.
Erwin said Gaines covered up with a sleeping bag for the evening. He said Gaines told officials that when she got up around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, the time of day she typically gets up and gets prepared to continue her hike, she was unable to move.
“When she started to get her stuff, she was unable to move,” Erwin said. “She was froze stiff, numb from the weather, the cold and the drop in the temperature, and where some of her clothing got wet yesterday.”
Erwin said Gaines contacted her mother-in-law to let her family know that she was “in a bad way.” Gaines’ mother-in-law, in turn, contacted the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department to advise authorities of the situation.
A rescue team was assembled, and the team went up the mountain on ATVs in an effort to locate Gaines, Erwin said. Once the team got into the mountains where cellular phone service was available, they were in constant contact with Gaines, Erwin said.
“She was able to give them things she had last seen and direct them right into her,” Erwin said. “They got there and got some dry clothes on her, got her heated up, and got her energy up to where she could walk and had feeling in her legs.”
Erwin said Gaines was located by rescue team members Bart Ray and Jerry Byrd, adding that it took crews around 3˝ hours to locate Gaines. Erwin said the rescue team also encountered difficulty getting Gaines back down the trail due to Wednesday’s wintry weather. He said it took more than five hours for the team to get Gaines off the mountain and into a vehicle waiting along Unaka Mountain Road.
By Wednesday afternoon, Gaines was transported to the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department, where she was provided with warm clothing and food, Erwin said. Erwin said the sheriff’s department provided Gaines with a local motel room for Wednesday evening until her family could arrive in Unicoi County to pick her up.
And, despite her harrowing ordeal, Erwin said Gaines is in good health and good spirits.
“She’s full of energy, and she’s stronger than half the guys I know,” he said. “She’s a very strong person.”