IMPACT

Rescue Of Steven Ainsworth, Hiker Trapped On Appalachian Trail, Was Caught On Video

Dec 12, 2012 | Updated Dec 12, 2012

When Tennessee rescuers took off in a helicopter to find Steven Ainsworth, a stranded hiker on the Appalachian Trail, they faced harsh weather conditions and a footprint trail obscured by densely packed evergreen trees.

But they still found Ainsworth, 56, who had been trapped in the Great Smoky Mountains for three days by Superstorm Sandy, and the daring rescue was caught on a camera attached to the helicopter hoist.

Ainsworth was on the final part of his 2,000-mile journey along the Appalachian Trail when Sandy dumped record levels of snow on his path. Forecasters had predicted only five to six inches of snow. He faced about three feet.

Struggling to make his way through waist-deep snow on the trail, the experienced hiker from Washington, N.C., knew he was in trouble. Luckily on Thursday, Nov. 1, he was able to get just enough cell phone service to call 911.

"I told [the dispatcher] that I was confident that I would survive the night, I did not believe I would survive through Saturday night if I was not reached," Ainsworth told HuffPost in an email.

At 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Ainsworth spotted a helicopter.

"It may seem strange, but I didn't get excited at that point, because I couldn't imagine how they could get someone to me in the tight area that I was confined," he said.

Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Brad Lund and his crew of three had taken to the air after park rangers on foot failed to reach Ainsworth.

"We have had numerous rescues on the Appalachian Trail, but these weather conditions were the most extreme in my 13-year history," Lund told HuffPost.

Lund, formerly in the Navy, described how conditions worsened between their departure from the airport in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and arrival at the mountain. As their altitude rose about 4,500 feet, the temperature dropped from about 67 degrees to 28 degrees, and visibility was obscured by snow blowing off the mountain peaks, he said.

But the most challenging part of the rescue mission was the turbulence, which made it difficult to keep the helicopter stable by pointing the nose into the wind, Lund said. "We had to fly backwards and sideways, up and down."

Finally, the rescuers reached Ainsworth's tent. Trooper Jeff Buchanan was lowered down from the helicopter. Once on the ground, he had to grab hold of a tree and crawl on his stomach to make it to the stranded hiker.

"When I went off the aircraft, I fell into the drift myself, and I was fighting with everything to pull myself out," Buchanan said.

Eventually Ainsworth was attached to a harness and lifted to the helicopter above.

"I was in a slow spin on the way up and got a panoramic view of the snowy rugged mountains I had been in. That will be a lasting image for me," he said.

The hiker attributes his survival to his own physical, mental and spiritual stamina, along with the skills of his rescue team.

"This was a perfect storm scenario, as it turns out, but I had my own perfect survival opportunity with my own strengths and the experience and flawless execution of many," Ainsworth said.

Buchanan, a former Marine, said he doesn't consider himself a hero.

"It's just our job. It really is," he said. "I'm fortunate enough to do it every day and help people. It's humbling. We all have that call of duty, you could say."

With reporting by Zoe Mintz.

Watch the video of the rescue obtained by ABC.

This story is part of an ongoing series, "American Heroes," which recognizes extraordinary actions beyond the call of duty by our military members, police officers, firefighters and many others.

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