A body was recovered, of an experienced hiker, after a week-long search in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Mitzie “Sue” Clements, 53, an accounting technician in Cincinnati, was hiking with her daughter on Sep 25 when the two were separated.
The two were hiking near Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies. Clements and her daughter were on their way back from Andrews Bald on Forney Ridge Trail, which is considered a moderately difficult hike.
The mother and daughter split up about a quarter-mile from the mountain, the daughter elected to climb the Clingmans Dome Tower, and Clements planned to meet her back at the parking lot. Clements never returned.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park posted a photo of Clements on its Twitter account with the caption stating “our hearts are with the family and friends of Ms. Clements.”
Search crews located the body of Susan Clements this afternoon, two miles west of the Clingmans Dome parking area and 3/4 miles south of the Appalachian Trail. Our hearts are with the family and friends of Ms. Clements. Thanks to everyone that participated in the search. pic.twitter.com/eOZR7APfcH
— GreatSmokyNPS (@GreatSmokyNPS) October 2, 2018
Julena Campbell, a park spokeswoman, said Clements was considered an experienced hiker and the mother and daughter were spending a couple of days hiking in the Smokies. Some of the trails they completed were longer and more rugged than Forney Ridge. The pair hiked Chimney Tops Trail, a few days before, which has an elevation change of roughly 1,300 over two miles.
“The way they hiked together, the daughter wanted to do a little more miles, so they would often hike together for part of the trip and meet back at the parking lot. That was fairly typical,” Campbell said.
The week-long search included 175 trained personnel from five states, drones, helicopters, and K-9 units. Search crews recovered Clements body in “incredibly thick” vegetation. She was found three-quarters of a mile south of the Appalachian Trail and two miles west of the Clingmans Dome trailhead.
“We are grieving with the family,” said park Superintendent Cassius Cash. He added that he “hopes the recovery helps provide some closure as they begin their own grieving process.”
Campbell has ruled out foul play but mentioned that other hikers are asking how it was possible for her to get lost in a highly trafficked trail. The Smokies welcomed 11.3 million visitors in 2017, making it the most visited National Park in the United States. The Clingmans Dome is famous for its tower, at 6,643 feet it is the highest point in the park. The tower is accessible on a paved path from the parking lot. It is the beginning of a lot of trails.
“Most of us picture the park via trail, but most of us do not get off-trail and realize what the landscape really is like,” Campbell said. “If you haven’t been off-trail, and disoriented and lost in that thick vegetation and steep, rocky hillside, it’s hard to imagine what that must be like.”
Campbell added that many trails intersect near the top of Clingmans Dome, and hikers get lost or turned around quite frequently. Forney Ridge Trail is only a tenth of a mile from the trailhead and it connects to the Clingmans Dome bypass, which then intersects with the Appalachian Trail.
“It would have been fairly easy, particularly given the conditions she was hiking in, it was very foggy, raining and probably dark or getting dark, that someone could miss an intersection of the parking lot and get off on the wrong trail,” said Campbell.
Three children survive Mitzie “Sue” Susan Clements. City of Cincinnati’s councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said Clements was a “beloved mother, friend and longtime employee of the city of Cincinnati.” Sittenfeld added “We will pull together to do everything we can to support her family, friends, and co-workers during this time of grieving. My colleagues and I, and the whole city workforce will also ensure we find a meaningful way to remember and honor her.”
Clements marks the 11th fatality in the Smokies this year. There were seven deaths in 2017.
Safety tips for hiking the Smoky Mountains
- Always hike in a group or duo. Stay on maintained trails and keep your group together. Try to stay within shouting distance.
- If you plan on a trip that will take a few days, bring external or portable batteries for your smartphone. You can download trail applications to guide you through your
- hike using GPS. However, do not rely on your phone, many parts of the trail do not provide cell service, and phones can easily be lost or broken during a section hike.
- Inform someone about your trip. Let the person know your planned route and estimated return time. Let them know to call the park at 865-436-1230 if you do not contact them within a reasonable time.
- Do not let children leave your sight. Never allow them to get ahead or behind you.
- Check weather forecasts and pack clothes for those conditions.
- Bring a trail map and a headlamp to guide you through your hike if you feel something is off. Even if you’re day hiking, you never know what variables can sidetrack you while taking in nature’s bliss.
- Always have a first aid kit (even if it is small), you want to treat infections and cuts immediately.
- Bring a water filter and a large enough container to keep at least a pint on your person at all times.