The Third Men


Up steep rock faces or under the intense flow of a waterfall you’ll find the unsung heroes of East Tennessee rescues

Charlie Avery has logged many hours parked along Newfound Gap Road. He has a real, old-fashioned park service radio that crackles occasionally and wakes him from catnaps. Sometimes he just walks along the path leading up to Alum Cave answering questions from hikers and tourists about what he does and when he does it. “I am not a park service employee,” he clarifies, as people ask about the usual nonsense, which always comes back to bears, it seems.

These out-of-staters don’t know about his single pitch climbing guide training or countless weekends forfeited at his own expense learning how to splint broken limbs. But, when he tells them about finding a dead body at Big Creek, their ears perk up. As a member of the Appalachian Mountain Rescue group, he donates untold hours as an on-call expert. I just know him as a good rock climber.

He and others are what I call “Third Men.” When critical agencies, like the National Park Service, need technical expertise, these high-angle guys are hard to beat. Appalachian Mountain Rescue is comprised of physicians and rescue experts and was born from an incident in 2014 at Looking Glass in North Carolina when the local agencies struggled to reach climbers high on the face of this infamous multi pitch climb. Based in Asheville, their sphere of assistance is a 150-mile radius and includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which consumes much of their resources.

Charlie and I met doing volunteer trail maintenance at the Obed in 2018. He was deep in undergraduate psychology studies which may explain his interest in the subject of rescue.

“Someone told me that climbing was a selfish pursuit and that bothered me,” he admits. He then started volunteering at the Obed in the “Climb with a Ranger” program. Folks like Charlie spend Saturdays teaching children and beginners the nuances of top rope climbing at the Lilly Bluff wall. It’s a noble and sore neck pursuit, holding people off the ground who have never left it. We talk about the psychology of getting lost in the woods and how humans tend to follow certain patterns.

Charlie has participated in more than one missing person search; but, along with his team they devise systems that leverage mechanical advantage on the fly when victims are salvageable. In September they did just that on Alum Cave trail through the notorious Arch rock. A young hiker had seriously injured her leg and Charlie and his crew helped save her life, lowering her through those precipitous steps through which we have to ordinarily hunch and grab safety cables.

Not all of their work occurs on public lands, though. Charlie tells the story of pulling a four-wheeler off of a victim in Cocke County who had been missing for several days. Their technical rope work allowed the local agency to gently extricate this victim. I couldn’t help but think about another good friend, Roger Murphy, who does this with swift water rescues.

When David Brill published his book, Into the Mist, about disappearances in the Smokies, I told Roger’s son, Wesley, to buy it for his dad for Christmas. Roger is the aquatic version of Charlie. “Murph” was busying himself circling the incidents in the appendix in which he had some involvement as team coordinator for Blount Special Operations Response Team. I believe he lost count around 34. I could always count on him to lend a hand when I took a group of troubled teens into the woods or needed a belayer on Maryville High School’s indoor climbing wall he helped build. Roger is another serial “do gooder”. Like Charlie, his interest in the mindset of missing persons stems from an honest desire to reunite them with their loved ones.

Too many hikers ignore the no swim warnings at Abrams Falls. Roger gets those late night and early morning phone calls. Then he gets to wake a lot of other people to organize the recovery operation. I usually text him when someone goes missing and he can tell me exactly where they will be found in that creek and what they will look like when his team extricates them from an underwater logjam. Same thing with missing persons. Roger usually hits the nail on the head. He has read every scholarly publication written about missing persons and can accurately divine which way they are going to meander, or, in some cases, whose basement they may pop out of.

I’m thankful to have people like Charlie and Roger on call for the national park. Fortunately, I have not had to personally employ their talents. However, there was a time when those on overseas expeditions with me have. But those are stories for another time. For now I just rest easier because of the knowledge and altruism these guys bring to bear for the benefit of all outdoor enthusiasts, and you should, too.

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