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Death in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

leah kirk

Death in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.jpg

A hiker found dead this week is the 11th death in the park this year. Missing hiker Mitzie Sue “Susan” Clements was found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park after a week of massive searching in terrain so rugged and thick with vegetation a helicopter was needed to extract her.

While the official cause of death is still under investigation, foul play is not suspected. This highlights the many natural hazards that exist in the sprawling, half-million-acre park in the North Carolina-Tennessee mountains, for experienced as well as inexperienced hikers.

Clements, 53, had been hiking with her 20-year-old daughter near Clingmans Dome. They were returning from Andrews Bald on the 1.8-mile Forney Ridge Trail, considered moderate, with an elevation change of about 400 feet from the parking lot to where it descends to the bald at 5,860 feet elevation.

When they were about a quarter-mile from the bald, the daughter went on ahead to climb the Clingmans Dome Tower, with plans to meet her mother back at the parking lot, Campbell said, but Clements never appeared. She was last seen at about 5 p.m. Sept. 25.

Clements was considered an experienced “on trail” hiker.  The mother and daughter had spent a couple of days hiking in the Smokies, including on trails longer and more strenuous than Forney Ridge, including the Chimney Tops Trail, which has an elevation change of 1,300 feet over 2 miles.

The search for Clements lasted a week and involved 175 trained personnel from five states and some 50 organizations, helicopters, drones and K-9 units. It ended when her body was found the night of Oct. 2 in “incredibly thick” vegetation, down the steep Huggins Creek Drainage in Swain County, 2 miles west of the Clingmans Dome parking lot, and three-quarters of a mile south of the Appalachian Trail.

A Tennessee National Guard Blackhawk and Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopters were used in the week-long search for missing hiker Susan Clements. It is actually common for people to get lost or turned around on top of Clingmans Dome, where there are many trail intersections.

Clements’ is the 11th fatality so far this year in the Smokies, up from the seven deaths in 2017, but not as many as the 16 deaths tallied in 2016. The most common cause of death in the Smokies tends to be from motor vehicle accidents, the most popular activity in the park.