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Search and rescue stories from Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park
Ranger Megan Hoyt (forefront), assisted by Rangers Lili Flowers, Janelleen Holloway, Kevin Godfrey, and volunteers, prepares to hoist an injured hiker up a 170-foot cliff on Old Rag.

When someone gets lost or has an accident in Shenandoah National Park, the rangers are the ones coordinating their rescue. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi has the story – and listeners should be advised that it does include discussions of injury and death.

A cold, dense fog smothered Skyline Drive one day in late January, as I drove up to Big Meadows in the Shenandoah National Park to interview Chief Ranger Cynthia Sirk-Fear and Supervisory Ranger Kevin Moses.

[ambulance beeping]

We met in the ambulance bay, where Moses let the dispatchers know the vehicle had returned to the ranger station.

MOSES: Rescue Two is back in quarters.

DISPATCHER [over walkie-talkie]: 14:35.

He's the park's SAR coordinator. SAR stands for "search and rescue."

[fabric rustling]

MOSES: This is a good example of one of our technical rescue packs, and we carry a harness – a sit harness and a chest harness – and on those harnesses are all kinds of gadgets. [carabiners clinking] … The two big things we do are, we move up a rope and down a rope.

He said the main types of emergencies they respond to are people who are injured, ill, lost, or stranded. And many of those calls are preventable, to some degree.

Randi B. Hagi
Moses holds a harness and helmet from his technical rescue pack.

MOSES: Part of the preventable nature of some of these rescues is decision-making, and what we love to see our visitors do is some research.

That includes both researching the trail you plan to hike and knowing what equipment to take. The National Park Service has a list of "Ten Essentials," which includes things such as first aid supplies, food, water, a physical map, and multiple light sources. Moses said he regularly runs into hikers with little more than their cell phones in the way of gear.

MOSES: They're fun! But they're pretty hard hikes. There's a lot of elevation change, creek crossings, that kind of stuff. … What if I trip? What if I become injured? What if I become a little bit disoriented, a little bit lost, and I am now hiking at nighttime?

Sirk-Fear said that rescues can be initiated in a couple different ways – sometimes the person in need calls 911 or flags someone down on the trail. Other times, a loved one who knows their itinerary will call to say they haven't made it home.

Once the rangers have an idea of where a patient is –

SIRK-FEAR: The typical response then is to get that initial person as quickly as possible to the individual, so that we can confirm location, confirm the injury, just gather all of that data that we're going to need to develop the plan.

One of their recent rescues took place on December 7th.

JARED GOODSON: I go hiking a lot, and I take videos on the edge of the cliffs for my girlfriend, just to get her heart racing and stuff.

Jared Goodson is a 21-year-old college student from Manassas, who came to hike Old Rag by himself that day.

GOODSON: And so I was taking a video, and my hat fell off onto a tree branch on the edge of the cliff, and … I lower myself down onto the tree branch … but once I got my hat, I turned around to the cliff edge, but I couldn't reach the top anymore. … But then when I lowered myself to jump, the tree branch broke.

MOSES: … and he fell 170 feet! Which is kind of amazing, in the state of Virginia. … Well, there's some doozies on Old Rag.

Goodson fell for a while, hit a rock ledge, rolled, kept falling, hit a number of small branches, and finally landed on the ground – miraculously, alive. He started conducting a full body check. His neck seemed okay. Then, he got to his left leg.

GOODSON: When you see a dislocated ankle, it's really, really ugly, it's really, really painful, so that kind of sent me into a panic. So then I started screaming for help for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, with no response.

He was able to drag himself until he got service on his Apple watch, and called 911. It still took about three hours before the first responders and other hikers were able to find him. Secured in a litter with some painkillers and sedatives working their magic, Goodson was hoisted back up the cliff with ropes, then carried down Old Rag by a team of about 20 rangers and volunteers.

An ambulance took him to the University of Virginia hospital, where he underwent surgery to put his ankle back in place.

GOODSON: A hundred-foot fall is supposed to be a non-survivable action, and I didn't break a bone. I only dislocated my ankle. So, God was really with me that day.

The rangers explained that not everyone is so lucky. A few years ago, four friends were out hiking, and left the trail to explore the top of a waterfall. One of them stepped on a wet patch of rock.

MOSES: He fell 82 feet … hitting ledges, and he landed face down in a three-foot pool of water. … One of his super-dedicated buddies, he saw it; he was horrified; he ran to the edge of the waterfall thinking he was going to help him, and he fell, too. The exact same path.

The other two ran to the base of the waterfall and pulled their friends out of the water, but it was too late for one of them.

Falls are a relatively common accident in the park. In another incident, two young women were taking selfies from the top of a waterfall when they fell.

Randi B. Hagi
Chief Ranger Cynthia Sirk-Fear (left) has been with the National Park Service for 24 years. Supervisory Ranger Kevin Moses marks 30 years in 2023.

SIRK-FEAR: They were both very severely injured. They ended up being hoisted out and they were both flown to the hospital, and if I recall, spent about 30 days in the hospital due to the severity of their injuries.

Thankfully, both survived.

As he recounted these stories, Moses heaped praise upon both their dispatchers …

MOSES: Those are the heroes on the other side of the microphone.

… and volunteers.

MOSES: That others may live, these guys will answer a call at 2 a.m.

As for Goodson, he's on the road to recovery, albeit on crutches. But he says the experience changed him.

GOODSON: I'm more appreciative of every moment I'm in. Like, the bed feels softer at night, and my girlfriend's hair smells better in the morning. … If you see a first responder, just say "thank you," or maybe do something nice for them. … They're heroes.

And please take care the next time you set out to enjoy this beautiful part of the world we live in.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.