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Rescue crews on the scene at Signal Point where the body of a 20-year-old hiker was found early this morning.
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Dalton Downing, a 20-year-old Memphis man, apparently fell at least 80 feet from a bluff on Signal Mountain. The body of Downing, an avid skateboarder, was recovered after firefighters rappelled down the cliff.

Scenic photos of Dalton Downing's outdoor adventures fill his Instagram page.

Swimming with friends in Suck Creek. Happening upon a possum after dark on the Cumberland Trail. Standing at Signal Mountain's overlook of the Tennessee River, under a label on the page that reads "back at my second home."

The 20-year-old UTC student from Memphis was out in his element again this week, hiking alone on the trails in the mountainous terrain below Signal Point.

But the trails were wet and treacherous, and this time something went wrong.

About 5 a.m. Tuesday, after hours of searching, rescuers found Downing's body at the bottom of a bluff in Signal Mountain's Signal Point national park.

Signal Mountain Fire Department Chief Eric Mitchell said Downing had gone off the main trail onto a ledge and had fallen about 80 feet from there to another ledge. His body was found about 200 feet from the top of the mountain where the parking lot for the park is located.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Downing was a 2013 graduate of Houston High School in Germantown, Tenn. Former students, teammates and friends posted comments online after word of Downing's death got out in the Memphis area.

"Dalton was one of the sweetest boys I had ever met," Ashton Rodriguez said on Instagram. "Dalton loved the outdoors and passed away doing what he loved most."

Downing, a health and human performance major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was reported missing about 1:45 a.m. Tuesday after family and friends couldn't contact him on Monday, according to Signal Mountain Fire Chief Eric Mitchell.

Downing's father and local friends became concerned when Downing didn't show up for work Monday with a company that provides barricades for road construction projects around Chattanooga, Mitchell said.

Downing's father and friends told authorities they believed he was lost, and they joined in the search. Overnight, searchers found some clothing belonging to Downing and a cell phone.

Officials said they don't know how long Downing had been on the trail or whether he fell during the day or after dark.

After crews spotted Downing, firefighters rappelled down the mountain, where they confirmed that he was dead. No cause of death has been determined.

At that point the operation changed from rescue to recovery, Mitchell said. Search and rescue crews had been on the scene about 10 hours when Downing's body was brought back to the top of the mountain around noon Tuesday.

Walter Smith, a member of the emergency response contingent from Walden's Ridge, said the trail was treacherous for emergency crews and any hikers who were on the leaf-strewn, rocky trails Monday and Tuesday.

"It was wet, slick, steep and foggy," Smith said as he loaded his gear into his vehicle. Smith and others from nearby Waldens Ridge Emergency Service were on site most of the morning, he said. More than 40 people were on hand Tuesday morning, from agencies that also included Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Hamilton County, Dallas Bay, Red Bank and Lone Oak, according to officials.

Downing's father, who traveled to Chattanooga from Memphis when he learned his son was missing, was on the scene during most or all of the search and recovery operation, Mitchell said.

As the day wore on, Memphis-area friends continued to post their thoughts about Downing on social media.

"Can't believe I was just with him this weekend and now all that's left is memories," Sina Setayeshpour said on Twitter.

Both she and Rodriguez posted pictures of themselves with Downing, smiles stretched across their faces.

Meanwhile, back at Signal Point, hope had given way to sadness.

One young man walked solemnly down to the trail head with a bouquet of flowers.

Staff writer Maura Friedman contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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