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Man rescued from trail fall in White County
Emergency responders work to stabilize hiker Scott Holmes Sunday after rescuing him from a fall off Raven Cliffs Trail. - photo by For The Times

Northeast Georgia’s most popular trail is also the scene of far too many wilderness rescues.

The latest accident on the Raven Cliffs Trail, located in the Chattahoochee National Forest northwest of Helen, occurred Sunday afternoon.

Ana Newberry, spokeswoman for the White County Fire Department, said volunteers were called in at about 1:30 p.m. to rescue a 29-year-old man who had slipped and fallen about 50 feet.

"It occurs more often than we would like," Newberry said. "I’m told that the rocks there (at the top of the falls) have an almost invisible film of moss. People try to get as close to the edge as possible."

They really aren’t supposed to be up there in the first place. The Raven Cliffs trail begins from the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway and dead-ends 2.5 miles later at the base of the falls. There is no trail that goes to the top of the falls. The U.S. Forest Service banned rock climbing at the site years ago because of the potential for accidents.

But Newberry said many people seem unable to resist the challenge of scrambling up to the top. Because of the trail’s proximity to Helen, it often draws tourists who are not experienced hikers and may not understand the dangers.

The man who fell Sunday, Scott Holmes of Marietta, became wedged in the narrow space between two cliffs where the main waterfall plunges. He was trapped on the rocks, unable to move.

"The water was constantly hitting him in the back," Newberry said. "We were concerned about hypothermia because he was in that position for about four hours."

Though Holmes’ injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, rescuers were worried that he may have suffered a back injury, so a helicopter was called to airlift him to Gwinnett Medical Center.

But getting him to the chopper was a chore that took 28 people. Nearly all were firefighters, mostly from White County’s volunteer department, but also some inmate firefighters from Lee Arrendale State Prison.

Newberry said all the people who were called in have been specially trained in wilderness rescue. And they’ve had plenty of chances to use their skills at Raven Cliffs.

"The last incident was only a few months ago, when a young man who was with a church group slipped and fell (from the falls)," Newberry said.

She said it takes the rescue team about two hours just to get to the falls, carrying stretchers, ropes, and medical equipment. Then they have to carefully transport the injured patient back along the trail, which follows along the edge of a rocky stream.

Newberry said Holmes wasn’t loaded onto the helicopter until 9 p.m. Sunday. He has since been discharged from the hospital.

Newberry said if hikers would be more careful, it would spare local fire departments the expense and effort of having to conduct so many wilderness rescues.

"One of our firefighters had to hang from a rope to reach the victim," she said. "He said afterward, ‘We’re going to have to get some younger folks. I’m getting too old for this.’"

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