LOUISVILLE, Ky. - More than three dozen Pennsylvania college students visiting Kentucky for a mission trip got lost after their hike unexpectedly stretched into the night, prompting an hours-long effort to rescue them from rough terrain and freezing temperatures, officials said Friday.
The group got disoriented when it got dark while they were hiking near Bad Branch Falls, a state nature preserve near Whitesburg, officials said.
A search began about 7 p.m. EST Thursday, and it took until 3:30 a.m. Friday to get the entire group off the mountain, said Mayking Volunteer Fire Chief Tony Fugate, who helped.
"It's pretty rough country back in there," Fugate told The Associated Press.
Most of the students were just tired and cold, but one had a hurt knee and a couple showed symptoms of mild hypothermia, Fugate said.
The group of 37 students and three staff members from La Salle University in Philadelphia were on spring break building houses for Habitat for Humanity, said John Caroulis, spokesman for the school.
Caroulis said at least four of them had hiked in the area on past trips.
He said one student remained in the hospital Friday as a precaution due to a pre-existing condition, but the rest were released. All are expected to return as scheduled Saturday.
Fugate said the group apparently hiked to a popular spot above the Bad Branch Falls waterfall, but it got dark and they couldn't find the trail back. When they got disoriented, they called 911 from their cellphones and were able to talk rescuers toward them.
They were on a trail shaped like a lollipop headed to an area called High Rock, which is known for its breathtaking views, according to Shad Baker, a local resident who created many of the public trails used in the area and helped guide rescuers via cell phone.
"Rescuing 37 people is a monumental undertaking," Baker said. "So the fact that they got them out is really good."
Baker said the hikers didn't arrive at High Rock until 5 p.m., it began to get dark, and much of the trail was covered by trees, branches and snow. He said the group would have had to cross three streams to reach the destination, and rescuers said by the time they arrived, many of the hikers said their feet were numb.
"I think once they got up there, there's 37 footprints going every which direction. ... I think they couldn't figure out which way they came from," Baker said.
Baker said to make things more confusing, the trail that would have taken them down the mountain actually goes uphill before it goes downhill.
"It's counterintuitive," he said.
He said the group was not dressed for the weather, with most of them wearing just sneakers, jeans and light jackets as temperatures began dropping into the 20s.
Fugate said only a few of the students had flashlights.
"We knew they were on the loop, but not where on the loop," Fugate said. "We tracked them down."
The group had to be walked down the mountain using an alternate route that had fewer obstacles but took more time, Baker said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Ray said temperatures in the Pine Mountain area dipped into the low 20s overnight. He said the high Thursday reached only into the mid-20s.
He said some areas received a trace of drizzle and snow overnight. There's still about 2 inches of snow on the ground from winter weather that moved through the area earlier in the week.
Associated Press writer Janet Cappiello contributed to this report.
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