HF&R saves man bitten by rattler

When a man didn’t return from a day-hike on the Ellicott Rock Trail by early evening Aug 22, his wife’s alarm set in motion a rescue mission that likely saved his life.

Highlands Fire & Rescue Chief Ryan Gearhart got a call from an employee at the Highland Hiker at 4:45 p.m., asking how long it would take to hike to Ellicott Rock and back.

A woman was concerned that her husband may be overdue.

Gearhart called HF&R Rescue Captain Eric Pierson to find out; he said the time to hike the eight-mile long trail would vary.

Pierson said if the wife had not made contact by 6:30 p.m., he would hike in and look for him.

At 6:45 p.m., there was still no word, so Pierson went down to the trail that is accessed off Bull Pen Road in Horse Cove.

“I didn’t want to waste any more daylight,” he said.

At 7:45 p.m., Gearhart said he got word from Pierson. He had found the man on the trail but he had been bitten on the leg by a rattlesnake and would need to be carried out.

“I started hiking in about 6:45 p.m. and found him about four miles in. He was off on the side of the trail lying on his back struggling. He was suffering from hypothermia, dehydration and was likely reacting to the venom in his body,” said Pierson. “People don’t realize hypothermia can set in quickly here once the temperatures drop to low 70s and high 60s.”

Based on the size of the bite on the back of his lower calf, Pierson said it appeared he was bitten by a rattlesnake.

He built a fire and gave him water.

Once he got him stable and as comfortable as possible, Pierson had to hike back out aways to get a radio signal to call for reinforcements. He connected with Gearhart around 7:45 p.m.

When he returned to the man, he kept him stable and conscious until reinforcements could get there about two hours later.

Gearhart requested mutual aid from the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue team and together the two agencies set off to retrieve the man.

“We met at the Ellicott Rock Trail head on Bull Pen Road and EMS and fire units started walking in; other rescue personnel with equipment followed,” he said.

Crews got the man loaded on the litter and started back out with him at about 10 p.m.

By midnight crews had gotten him to a field in Horse Cove where the MAMA helicopter was waiting. He was flown to Memorial Mission in Asheville where he spent six days in ICU where he was administered anti-venom. Tuesday morning he was moved to a regular room.

The Cashiers-Glenville Fire Dept. stood by at the HF&R station to field any other calls that came in that night and helped set up the landing spot for MAMA. All units were cleared and back in service in the respective areas around 1 a.m. Thursday, said Gearhart.

Timber Rattlesnakes are the rattlers that call Highlands and the surrounding area home.

According to the Orianne Society, whose representatives spoke at the Highlands Nature Center recently and who through the Appalachian Highlands initiative is researching Hellbender Salamanders and Timber Rattlesnakes, the safest thing to do if a rattler is encountered is to leave it alone and walk around it.

The snake will not defend itself unless provoked, they said. In the event of a bite, one should remain calm and seek emergency help. Deaths from Timber Rattlesnake bites are almost unheard of, and if medical help is sought out quickly, it is possible to avoid permanent tissue damage.

In addition, experts say it’s best to never hike alone.

Macon County Director of Emergency Services Warren Cabe said in Macon County there was only one snake bite call in 2017 and now this one in 2018.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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