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Backpacker Magazine – January 2014

Readers' Choice 2014: Dream Trips: Family Drama

Two brothers return to the spot where one almost died.

by: Peter Rives

Randy (left) & Bill McDaniel (by Peter Rives)
Randy (left) & Bill McDaniel (by Peter Rives)

“Unfinished Business”

Winner Randy McDaniel, 56,
of Florissant, MO

Guest His brother Bill, 58

Where to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC/TN, August 17 to 23, 2013

Winning pitch A heart attack cut the pair’s 2010 Smokies trip short; we took them back to complete their dream.

The Backstory: July 19, 2010 

5:30 p.m.
After a long drive from Missouri, the brothers depart on a seven-day, 48-mile loop. Bill is unusually slow up the steep trail. 

7:45 p.m.
Daylight is fading after just 2 miles of hiking. Bill sends Randy ahead .3-mile to drop his pack at the top of the hill. Bill passes out. Ten minutes later, he regains consciousness. Feeling stronger, he resumes his ascent. He suspects heat exhaustion. 

8:10 p.m. Randy returns to find Bill’s face bloodied and breathing labored; Bill soon has a seizure, then starts to notice pain in his chest. Randy rigs a tarp and gets Bill comfortable.

8:30 p.m. Randy hurries to retrieve his pack. He follows a trail of chocolate mints into the brush where he locates it—bear-ravaged. He takes advantage of brief blips of cell service to leave messages with family about the emergency.

9:30 p.m. The brothers set up a bivy on the trail. Meanwhile, Bill’s wife calls the park, which dispatches rangers.

1:27 a.m.
Two rangers arrive and provide first aid. A threatening storm prevents evacuation. 

7:19 a.m.
A 10-person litter team begins evacuating Bill. His massive heart attack requires several surgeries, including a heart transplant seven months later. “The doctor said it’s a miracle I survived the night,” Bill says. 

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