Amateur radio credited with hiker rescue in Tennessee backcountry

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04/28/2021

A backcountry hiker was rescued from Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the help of an ham radio after exhausting on the trail and possibly dehydrating. A member of the park’s Little River Trail hiking group, Tim Luttrell, KA9EBJ, made a call on the evening of April 11 via the linked W4KEV VHF repeater in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, asking for help extracting the injured limb . No cell phone service was available on site and Luttrell’s signal was sometimes spotty, due to the mountainous terrain.

David Manuel, W5DJR, responded, who got more information and called 911, which routed the call to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Emergency Medical Service (GSMNP EMS). The EMS of the national park relayed through Manuel a request to the group to continue as far as possible on the trail in order to shorten the rescue time. The parties have been urged to stand ready.

A doctor from the Park Service search and rescue team then contacted Manuel by phone, which was used to relay questions to Luttrell. Manuel contacted family members of the hiker after Luttrell provided the contact numbers. Manuel has been asked to pass on information for the family to arrange a meeting in Cherokee, North Carolina, and be ready to transport the stranded hiker’s vehicle to his home. By then, a few hours had passed. Manuel maintained occasional contact with Luttrell, who said everything was fine but his battery was low and that he would turn off the radio between contact attempts to save power.

Manuel continued to monitor the repeater system and received a call from Luttrell saying “everything is clear” shortly after 2 a.m. Manuel later received a text saying family members had connected with the distressed hiker and thanked everyone who helped him.

Luttrell later said that Manuel “was calm, professional and persistent, but patient in getting the information he needed in the face of the challenges I encountered with my radio.” He admitted that without his spare battery and high gain antenna, the incident might not have gone so well. A newer radio had been damaged in an earlier rescue effort, he told ARRL Tennessee section manager Dave Thomas, KM4NYI.

The injured hiker was hospitalized and required surgery and rehabilitation. Thomas told ARRL he learned that another hiker in the same group was close to hypothermia by the time they were rescued.

Thomas will recognize each of the radio amateurs involved in the rescue with a certificate of merit at the ARRL Tennessee State Convention in Knoxville on June 19.

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