How one NC man survived a rattlesnake bite after hiking alone in Blue Ridge Mountains

HIGHLANDS, NC (CNN) — Talk about a heavenly day: The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, temperatures in the low 70s and low humidity.

Scott Vuncannon, a 58-year-old real estate developer and farmer, called his wife and said he was going hiking and would be back around 4 p.m.

He packed his safety gear, including a pistol, bear spay and enough food and water to last a couple of days, just in case.

He grew up traversing the Uwharrie Mountains in central North Carolina. Now he was taking on more formidable wilderness from his summer home in Highlands, a popular resort town. Still, he had decades of hiking experience.

With a 2-year-old Australian shepherd-blue heeler mix named Boone at his side, he headed to the Ellicott Rock Trail around 11 a.m. Wednesday in late August 2018.

Two hours later, he was five miles in.

“My dog took off chasing a squirrel, and I stopped and took a sip of water,” Vuncannon recalled to CNN Travel. “I called my dog … and he came headed back over. And as soon as I took a step, I saw movement.”

With no warning, “I saw a snake head come up and strike me in my left calf. … My natural reaction was to jump back, and I bent over and pulled up my pant leg to see if he actually penetrated my long pants.”

Vuncannon saw two bite marks about 2 inches apart. Boone went after the snake, and only then did Vuncannon hear rattling.

He tied on a tourniquet below the knee and above the bite. “As soon as I stood up, I could actually taste the poison in the back of my throat.”

Vuncannon knew he had to get out. “I slowly, methodically started walking up the mountain, a pretty steep climb.”

He had only gone about a quarter of a mile when he lost his balance. He started crawling.

Vuncannon was throwing up about every 15 minutes. Then he started to go in and out of consciousness.

“My dog stayed with me the whole time. He never left my side. He would paw at me and lick me in the face to keep me awake.”

About two hours after being bit, he fired a shot from his pistol into the air to get attention. Nothing.

Back in Highlands, his wife had a gnawing feeling something was amiss. She found his truck at the trailhead around 4:30, and returned to town for help. Around 5:30, a rescue attempt was finally underway.

A helicopter couldn’t be used because of the thick canopy. Vuncannon was too far gone to be slowly carried out. So he was moved by motorcycle, strapped to a driver and held up by paramedics walking on either side. That took three hours.

More than 11 hours after he first got bit, he made it to Mission Hospital in Asheville, but he had already gone into cardiac arrest.

Doctors had bad news for his family. Vuncannon had less than a 5% chance to survive.

His rescue was one miracle, and he needed a second one. He got around a dozen antivenom treatments and other medical interventions.

Vuncannon was in a coma for three days but pulled through. “It took me a total of about three months to fully recover enough to where I could actually walk and have the energy to get around.”

To read more on this story and on snake bite safety, click here.

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