Updated Saturday, November 3, 2012 at 12:28 PM
A man trying to hike the entire 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail was rescued Friday after calling 911 to say he didn't think he'd be able to make it out of a section in Tennessee because he was blocked by snowdrifts up to 5 feet high.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokeswoman Molly Schroer said rescuers used two helicopters to lift out 56-year-old Steven Ainsworth, of Washington, N.C. Schroer says Ainsworth was airlifted to a Gatlinburg airport and then transferred to a medical center in Sevierville for evaluation. LeConte Medical Center spokeswoman Amanda Palletz said he was in stable condition.
Schroer said Ainsworth started his trip in June, heading south from Maine, determined to hike the trail end-to-end in a single season. The trek is known as a thru-hike. The trail ends in north Georgia, so Ainsworth was nearing the finish.
Ainsworth had started this section of the trail at Davenport Gap on Monday, Schroer said.
Some higher elevations of East Tennessee started getting snow from Superstorm Sandy on Monday, and by Thursday, the 6,600-foot Mount LeConte on the Tennessee side of the mountain range had received 32 inches of snow.
She says Ainsworth was somewhere on the trail between Pecks Corner and Tricorner Knob shelters when he used his cellphone to call 911 on Thursday afternoon.
The park sent two rangers on foot to try to reach him Thursday. But after a nine-hour hike in steep terrain, high winds and 4- to 5-foot drifts, they had to temporarily take shelter in a cabin to rest.
On Friday morning, Ainsworth again called authorities to say he made it through the night by hunkering down, but park officials did not know if he had any kind of shelter. He told park authorities that he may not be able to walk out.
Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers in a helicopter found him by tracing his footprints in the snow from a shelter he had stayed in overnight and used a hoist to lower a trooper down to recover the hiker in chest-high snow.