First waterfall death of the year in Western North Carolina

OLD FORT – The first waterfall death of the year in Western North Carolina is also the second one in less than a year at Catawba Falls. At 11:45 a.m. Saturday, 37-year-old Jimmy Paul Schmidt Jr., a visitor from Georgia, fell to his death from Upper Catawba Falls, said Richelle Bailey, spokeswoman for the McDowell County Sheriff’s Department. The Upper Falls are 50 feet high.

“Schmidt was staying in Asheville while attending a bachelor party,” Bailey said. “The group decided to take a hike Saturday morning at the popular Catawba Falls  in the McDowell County area of the Pisgah National Forest.”

“He had gotten ahead of the group. The rest stopped to take pictures, and he went ahead. When he got to the upper part of the falls he leaned over to get a better view of the scenery, lost his footing and fell. He was pronounced dead at the scene,” Bailey said.

Rescues are not uncommon at Catawba Falls, said Cathy Dowd, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman. She said there is about one rescue a month for serious injury at the waterfall. The land was acquired by the Forest Service in 2005 and a hiking trail to the lower falls was constructed in 2010. This is the only legal hiking trail.

There is no Forest Service trail to the upper falls, Dowd said. People who find their way to the upper falls must scramble over extremely steep terrain on a “social trail,” or “user-created” trail.

“We have signs that tell people the trails to Upper Falls remain dangerous and should not be attempted,” Dowd said.