A change of plans
A reader who was on a Mazamas climb to the summit of North Sister last weekend ended up walking into the Pole Creek fire on the way out. He sends along this account, written by another member of his group:
On September 9, 2012 a team of 7 climbers, under the lead of JG, summited the beautiful and most challenging of all the Three Sisters: North Sister, via South Ridge. The plan was to conquer the beast in two days and be back home safely on Sunday night. The beast had different plans for us, however.
JG, SS, KS and I met in Portland on Saturday morning and headed to Sisters, where we met the rest of our team: KG (who has climbed six of the seven tallest summits on each continent), JR (who was going for his 16th peak! Yay!) and AW. We joined the rest of the team and headed to the Pole Creek trailhead. At 11am, after a quick gear check, we started a short 5-mile hike up to our base camp below the Hayden Glacier, where we found a beautiful spot with a great water source and even better views of the Three Sisters.
Since we arrived at our base camp in the early afternoon, some of us decided to do a little navigation exercise. After looking at the map, playing a little with our compasses, and proving that triangulation indeed does not work, we headed out to Camp Lake, where we enjoyed a quick swim in the semi-warm water.
The next morning, at 5am sharp, seven sleepy climbers started a long walk up a valley between the Hayden Glacier and the south face of North Sister, to the saddle between North and Middle Sister. We mostly stayed to the right side of the melted glacier, where the rock was pretty solid. We arrived at the saddle at 7:40am and started a long climb up the Southwest ridge. This was our preview of how unstable the mountain is. Big, loose boulders did not cooperate with our hands and feet and from time-to-time someone would yell ”Roooock!” -- causing everyone to hug the mountain even closer. Once we got to the top of the ridge, we breezed through some traverses and 4th class rock to stand face-to-face with the famous Terrible Traverse.
JG decided to set a fixed line – for which I will be eternally thankful. The snow was entirely gone, except for a very small patch of ice. The rock was very loose and one had to fight the urge to use it as handholds. Going through the merely 20 feet of loose rock I had to remind myself multiple times to breathe. Just as S was getting to the anchor, where JG was already waiting, I saw two fist-sized rocks falling just above their heads. I screamed, "Rock! Rock!" and as they put their heads under some larger rocks, a substantial rock fall tumbled down right next to them. It looked as it would hit S and JG, but the rocks fell merely couple feet away from them, nipping our rope a little. Whew…
From there, we were just a couple minutes and short scramble away from the Bowling Alley. JG ran up this section in an impressive 1 minute and 45 seconds, setting up a fixed line, so we, the meager human beings, could slowly follow his lead. The team summited at 11:30am, with JR indeed claiming his 16th peak. We celebrated with an extraordinary proscuitto e melone summit treat that he brought to share with the team.
All the while, as we were approaching the summit, we had been noticing a wildfire in what appeared to be the Pole Creek area, but we weren’t sure how close it was to our cars. What looked so innocent from the summit turned into an adventure a couple hours later.
Except for some scree skiing down the south side and watching aircraft dropping pretty, orange fire retardant on the wildfire (and our cars, as we found out the next day), the descent was pretty uneventful. We arrived at our camp at 4:15pm, took 45 minutes to break the camp and headed back to our cars.
On our hike out, we observed with growing anxiety a huge mushroom cloud of smoke north of us, but we decided to try and get to our cars as quickly and cautiously as we could. Our leader JG was a former wildland firefighter, which gave our team increased confidence going into a potentially dangerous area. The temperatures were dropping as night approached, and winds were zero; both factors in our favor.
Just as we were 25 minutes away from the trailhead, about 100 meters from us a tree caught on fire. It was so sudden and violent that K turned back, looked at us and yelled "RUUUN!!!" And so we did… After several hundred feet we stopped and looked back. The fire was not following us with a high speed, but we needed to get out of the area and we had to do it FAST. We traced back our steps to the nearest water we had crossed, Soap Creek, and reassessed the situation. The winds were blowing north, and we knew that the fire was on the north side from us, so the team pulled it together and we were moving pretty soon towards the Green Lakes area, which was 9 miles away to the South. Our objective was Park Meadow, which we knew to be a flat grassy area with no deadwood nearby. The time was 7:20pm and we had one heck of a summit day behind us, but we had no choice and so we pushed on.
With two not-very-useful Three Sisters Area maps by Geo-Graphics (they neglected to print the UTM grid and perhaps a couple of creeks here and there), we tried to navigate through the dark forest, nervously looking back from time to time to occasionally see an orange glow in the sky, with the fire apparently following our footsteps.
At one creek crossing, we came across some spread-out gear which belonged to hikers who had fled the scene in chaos. After going through their backpacks trying to find some identification, we decided to leave the things as they were and continued on.
After some 4 hours of night hiking, cracking jokes, singing, sleep walking and sugar loading, we came across a stream which we could not locate on the map. We assessed the fire situation again and decided to camp on the trail. After a 3.5-hour beauty sleep we got awoken by A's yell of: "J! It’s red! The sky is red!" We got up to see a reddish glow to the north. We packed our camp in merely 10 minutes and again hit the trail. (We learned a day or two later from infrared maps of the fire that it had barely reached Soap Creek, still miles away to our north, but it sure looked closer at the time.)
We arrived at our destination, Park Meadows, 30 minutes later. Here we stumbled upon some shovels and helmets on the trail. They were left there on purpose by US Forest Service rangers, who were camping nearby, to let the stranded hikers know that they had arrived to help. JG awoke the lead wilderness ranger C, who somewhat sleepily went into rescue mode. He pulled out his radio and (the very same, generally useless) map and for the next 45 minutes worked with JG on the plan how to get us out of this jumble. We received an update on the car situation: There were 4 cars completely destroyed, 2 severely damaged, but the rest of the cars were okay. The ranger did not have any details on which cars were untouched. We were hoping we were the lucky ones.
We tried to stay quiet, but with all the thrill and excitement of the last 24 hours, we failed miserably and woke another ranger up. We apologized and the response we got was, "It’s totally fine, that’s what we’re here for." We were all amazed by their professionalism, kindness, and willingness to help us. Our transportation out to Sisters was arranged for 9:30am from the Park Meadows trailhead, which was only 5 miles away, so we decided to steal one more hour of sleep before heading out. Before leaving, we had time to make coffee and tea for two very appreciative wilderness rangers.
Sure enough, just as we got to the trailhead, the Deschutes County Search and Rescue (SAR) truck arrived and gave us an update on the fire situation. The fire was spreading fast, and it was possible our current location might even be engulfed in flames by the evening. Since SAR could take only four people at a time, we split the group in two, so S, JR, A and I got to go first. Park rangers made one of their spare trucks available to the rest of the group in case the fire decided to show up earlier than anticipated and told them where to look for a safe area. Again, amazing.
When we arrived in Sisters, there was already a SAR incident command established at the ranger station parking lot. We were immediately approached by the sheriff and asked for all and any information we could give about our cars and fire situation. Within an hour we knew that our cars were not among the 4 that were destroyed. One hour later, we were rejoined with the rest of our team, and three hours later the sheriff department delivered our cars dirty, covered with fire retardant and a smoky odor, but otherwise unharmed, right to the parking lot.
All this time our friends and loved ones were in touch with LD and JG’s wife, who were calling the sheriff department and Deschutes National Forest ranger station trying to find any information about our situation. Some of the team members received several voice messages and text messages from the sheriff department and ranger station advising us where to go to escape the fire. Sure enough, we got to check these messages once we were safe in town with excellent cell phone reception.
Thanks to JG for his outstanding leadership and excellent expertise in wildfires and stream crossing. We wouldn’t have been able to make it without you. As for the term "epic climb"... yeah, we raised the bar.
Lessons Learned (by JG)
1) Take your GPS and small-scale map (showing a large area) on every hike or climb you go on, even in areas you're very familiar with.
2) If you have a lame map that does not have a good UTM grid on it, draw a grid yourself with sharpie pen before your trip.
3) If you see a fire, report it to 911. A compass bearing to the fire and your current location, either a precise map location or preferably a pinpoint location found via GPS, will be very helpful to 911.
4) A functioning cell phone can be your most critical tool in an emergency. Turn your cell phone off or put it in airplane mode (not stand by) at the trailhead, and have everyone else on the team do the same. If you do not get phone reception in one spot, you may get it close by – don’t give up trying.
5) Climbers have an ethic of not calling for rescue unless you really need one. This is generally a good idea. However, in this situation, calling 911 and telling them we were safe, our current location, and intended course of action would have saved our friends and family at home and the local authorities some time and concern. By reading the wilderness permits in the registration box (and on that note, always fill out this permit information completely) and running the license plates of our cars through DMV, SAR knows exactly who is out there (or least, the owner of the car) and they want to help you any way they can. SAR was actively trying to phone and text us and give instructions on where to go (which turned out to be Park Meadow, precisely the destination we picked on our own). So, in summary, if you have the slightest idea that someone at home is concerned about you, always call out if possible and tell authorities your condition, even if it is 100% happy.
6) Given sufficient motivation, it is possible for an entire climb team to get up from a sound sleep, pack and start hiking in under 10 minutes.
7) Take the 10 essentials on every hike or climb you go on. Our team was exceptionally well prepared with food, water, shelter, clothing, stoves, navigational tools and the skills to use them, fitness, and great morale. If any one or more of these things were absent, what was a pretty pleasant night hike and a happy ending could easily have turned into something else. Although we were well prepared, we could've easily run into a day hiker in shorts and a T-shirt, unable to reach their car and looking at a very uncomfortable night out. The extra gear that we might have shared with them could literally have saved their life.