NC's Linville Gorge Is Breathtaking - And Dangerous

Jun 25, 2019

The Linville Gorge is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Charlotte, and it’s one of North Carolina’s most breathtaking places. It’s also extremely unforgiving, even for experienced hikers, climbers, and adventurers. As part of our partnership with Our State magazine, Jeremy Markovich brings us the story of one man’s 7-hour rescue — one that shows just how intense it can get when something goes wrong.

Linville Gorge is a protected wilderness area in Western North Carolina.
Credit Jeremy Markovich / Our State Magazine/File

On May 7, 2016, Jeremy McWatty and a group of friends are in the Linville Gorge, a rocky, steep canyon about 45 miles east of Asheville. It’s a beautiful day. Clear. Sunny. Windy. And at a certain point, they leave the trail to go to a place that most of us cannot — and maybe should not — go.

"We’re on our way out to the chimneys, and to the Sphinx," Jeremy says.

But before he can get to an outrcropping known as the Sphinx, he’s climbing up a small, 6-foot-tall rock formation.

"What I didn't take into account was it was really windy that day," Jeremy says. "We had this big 800-foot wall called North Carolina Wall sitting beside us to the left. Well, at some point, as I was working my way back to the spot where I should have been climbing, a gust of wind hit that wall and ricocheted back and blew me off."

Jeremy tumbles down a steep slope, for more than 45 seconds, unable to stop.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, that's it,'" Jeremy says. "So I reached out and grabbed this little pine tree, and the thing uprooted with me, and I remember like in mid-air looking at this pine tree and going, 'Oh well,' and just kind of tossed it."

When he finally comes to a rest, he’s some 200 feet in elevation below where his friends were. Kenny Fleming of Morganton was there that day.

Kenny Fleming hikes in the Linville Gorge Wilderness in Western North Carolina.
Credit Jeremy Markovich / Our State Magazine

"Somebody said, 'Jeremy's gone,'" Fleming says. "I said, 'What do you mean Jeremy's gone, where the hell did he go?' They pointed down the mountain and my immediate thought was, 'He's dead. He's dead.' Nobody that falls right here is going to survive that. Then I saw him move his arm. So I said, 'OK, well, he's alive.'"

One of the people who saw Jeremy fall called 911. Believe it or not, there are lot of places in the gorge where you actually have cellphone service. Burke County Emergency Services director Michael Willis says his department gets, on average, about 70 calls for service every year just from the Linville Gorge.

"The vast majority of our of our calls are just people that's not real sure where they are," Willis says. "They ... get off trail. It is a wilderness area, so it's not very well marked by design."

In fact, that’s what I found when I went on a hike in the gorge. There’s very little flat ground. The footpaths are rocky, and there are a lot of little side trails. And, you always feel like you’re close to a very steep slope. The gorge is supposed to be a wilderness, which means when somebody has a serious injury, it can be really hard to get them out.

"Come to find out, that dislocated my tibia at the knee and shattered my tibial plateau and come to find out it was also pinching off the femoral artery, so I was losing circulation down on my foot," Jeremy says. "And the doctor actually told me that if I had been out there much longer I probably would have lost the lower part of my leg."

Jeremy couldn’t walk, and he was in such a rugged place that it took first responders almost four and a half hours to hike to him. A friend of Jeremy’s got video of their arrival.

And at this point, everybody knows there’s really only one option to get Jeremy out of the gorge: A rescue chopper.

When Jeremy finally gets hoisted up, his friends feel a huge sigh of relief.

In all, almost seven hours went by before Jeremy made it to the hospital, where he’s stable, but in a lot of pain.

"They ain’t made enough dope to make that thing not hurt," Jeremy says.

Over the next two years, Jeremy has a bunch of surgeries and a lot of physical therapy. And on May 7, 2018, he’s still not back to 100 percent. But he decides to go back to the gorge and finish that hike.

"While they were up there rigging the safety rope and all that, I was just kind of sitting there like, 'Oh my God, dude,'" Jeremy says. "... I feel I'm starting to sweat a little more, my aspirations, and kind of you know breathing a little heavier and starting to shake a little, and I'm like, 'Oh no.' And then, you know, you just kind of say, 'OK, let's do it.' You know I've got to do this for me. I had to do it. You know it was just something I had to do. I was obsessed with it.

"... Once I got out there, I kind of burst into tears, gave some hugs, and then I was fine rest of the day."

And on that day, Jeremy discovered something — that the Linville Gorge had been the source of a lot of fear. But it also turned out to be the antidote.

This story was adapted from an episode of "Away Message," a podcast about North Carolina from Our State magazine. You can listen to more than 20 episodes from all over the state right now. Just search for “Away Message” wherever you get your podcasts.