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Pole Creek hikers recount suddenly harrowing outing

By KTVZ.COM news sources
Published On: Sep 16 2012 07:09:26 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 17 2012 02:06:22 AM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Joe Burns talks with a group of backpackers who found themselves having to change plans due to the Pole Creek Fire -- which destroyed their cars.

SISTERS, Ore. -

It was supposed to be a pleasant overnight outing in the Central Oregon woods on a warm, late-summer weekend. But a week after being trapped by a fast-growing wildfire that torched their cars, a group of hikers in the Pole Creek area are counting their blessings, thankful for all the help they had on that harrowing Sunday journey.

Here, edited only for style and clarity, is the "Pole Creek hikers" story, as shared at NewsChannel 21's request, in their own words:

Our group of four + dog set out for an overnight backpacking trip to Camp Lake, which started at the Pole Creek Trailhead on Saturday, 9/8.

Skies were blue and temperature was a comfortable 70-something, however with nightfall, the wind to began to howl.

At sunrise, we had breakfast, one member of our party took a short hike up to the saddle of South Sister and Middle Sister to get a view of Chambers Lake.

With a full afternoon planned back at home, however, we packed up and hit the trail around 8:30 a.m..

At 10 a.m., a member of our hiking group spotted a very small puff of smoke in the distance and in the direction we were hiking. We all dismissed the sighting as possible dust from the gravel roads, as the sighting was tiny and seemed to vanish over the next mile or so of hiking.

Around four miles from the trailhead, we came around the corner and saw a large plume of smoke. We clearly had mistaken our previous sighting as trail dust and called 911, which confirmed the fire was indeed in our path.

They told us to evacuate, do not return to the Pole Creek Trailhead, where our cars were parked.

After being informed that the fire was currently south of the Pole Creek Trailhead and only five acres in size, and not having a good food supply, we felt our best option would be to bravely continue in the direction of the fire and take the Green Lakes trail cutoff, 1.4 miles from the Pole Creek Trailhead, and hike 5 miles to the Green Lakes Trailhead (on Cascade Lakes Highway), where we could get picked up by family/friends.

We made it as close as 1.5 miles from the Pole Creek Trailhead (.10 miles from the Green Lakes Trail) and determined we were uncomfortable continuing to hike the direction of the fire.

The plan was now to retreat back towards Camp Lake and head over the saddle pass between South Sister and Middle Sister, continue on to the Pacific Crest Trail, and hike northbound to the Obsidian Falls Trail, and hiking out to the Obsidian Falls Trailhead (on McKenzie Pass Hwy 242).

Soon after heading back towards Camp Lake, we met up with another group of four hikers + dog. We decided to hike up to a small ridge, about four miles from the trailhead, to gain a better perspective of the fire and make phone calls to family, 911, Ranger Stations, Deschutes Fire and Rescue, and the Deschutes County Sheriff's office, to evaluate our situation and confirm our exit plan.

The fire was enormous, and fire-fighting planes were aggressively trying fight the fire. We observed what we believe to have been our cars exploding, and in making light of our tense situation, joked about whose  car was going to be next.

All advice gained from phone calls confirmed that heading northbound on the PCT was our best option, so we continued on, now as a group of 8 + 2 dogs. We also decided to stay together and pool our resources, as we had cell phones, and the other group had food.

We made it back to Camp Lake at approximately 3 p.m., where we met Wilber, another camper who we shared knowledge about the fire with, and asked if he would want to join our group hike out.

He informed us that he was unprepared to hike out with us over the saddle at the time, however he said he would be taking the same route first thing Monday morning. We got his phone number and agreed to contact his loved one once we regained cell service.

With full packs, the eight of us + two dogs hiked up a very steep and very long snowfield to crest the South Sister and Middle Sister saddle. A misstep could have resulted in very serious fall, however everyone was extremely careful and all strong hikers.

The saddle hike held dramatic views of South Sister, lava rock and small lakes. Some of our route across the pass was unmarked and difficult to navigate, however we eventually caught the trail again on the Western slope of the saddle and dropped into a meadow, where we refreshed our water supply.

Once reaching the PCT, we turned back to view our progress to see the very large cloud of smoke had turned westward and was crossing over the pass, in which we just crossed. We felt that our decision to cross the pass that day, rather than wait, was out best bet and our concerns weighed on Wilber's situation.

As smoke was continuing to flow heavily over the pass, we contacted the sheriff's office to confirm that the PCT Northbound was indeed still a good route. We received an "all clear" and pressed forward into the night.

With headlamps to light our way through the last 8 miles, we hiked through obsidian, lava flow, and the forest.

At 1.5 miles from the Obsidian Trailhead, we contacted the Sheriff's office one last time to inform them of our estimated time of arrival at the trailhead, as the highway had been closed and we were in need of a pick-up.

During this call, we were informed of the fate of the three of our cars that belonged to our party. All were destroyed (along with another person's car).

We felt fortunate to have only lost cars, however we were still weary and wanted to press on to the end of the trail.

We were met by Scott and James, Fire and Rescue Volunteers, at the Obsidian Falls Trailhead at around 11:30 p.m. What a relief it was to see help waiting with food, water, and trucks to take us all back to Sisters.

We have experienced a day we will never forget.

The Pole Creek hikers:
Rich & Renee Bumblis + Crash (the dog)
Glen Grochowski & Cynthia Brown-Grochowski
Kip & Sally Keller
Zeph Halsey & Kinsey Keller + Tux (the dog)

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Bumblis tells us they "were the most scared ... when we saw what was a puff become a big plume of smoke rising from the direction of our parking lot."

"Getting a hold of the 911 and other calls to have accurate info on what was happening was a big plus," he said, adding that "Verizon (service) worked a lot and often."

Asked if she was ever scared -- and what point -- Brown-Grochowski said, "There were a few very specific moments when my fear was peaked, each of which will never leave my memory."

"I was frightened when we came within a mile and a half from the fire. As you know, trails are not cut in a straight line, so 1.5 trail miles is not exactly 1.5 miles, as a crow would fly. To be as close to the fire as we were was terrifying and thoughts of my daughters were very present in my mind. My instincts told me to retreat to safer ground and pick up the pace, which is exactly what we did as a group.

"The next time my concerns peaked was when we were faced with approaching the saddle crest between South Sister and Middle Sister. There was a 50 yard or so steep snowfield that we had to cross. A missed step would result in not a 50 yard fall, but at least twice this distance, as the snowfield was hourglass shaped and we were crossing at an angle along the waist. With full packs on our backs, filing in a line, tracing steps of the hiker in front of each of us, this part of the hike was taxing on my adrenaline.

"To add to my concerns, I have a healthy fear of heights. I peeked behind me twice while on the snowfield to check on my husband, who was bringing up the rear of our group. I knew that the view down could have resulted in a full on anxiety attack, which would have caused my knees to shake and lose stability.

"In order to try and calm my nerves and keep my knees from shaking, after what seemed like a long jaunt into the snowfield, I looked up to gauge how much of the snowfield was remaining. I had assumed I was nearing the end and I would see the lava edge, which would calm me down. To my disappointment, as far as I could see, was more snowfield. It crested like the horizon in my view and I still had a LONG way to go.

"I quickly drew my sights back to the area just in front of my feet, sticking each pole as hard as I could and kicking my toes in each step, leaning as far forward as possible. I kept repeating to myself, this is our hike home, this is our hike home. Arg.. this was tough part of our hike.

"Finally, the next time I would have nerves racing was after dark. My headlamp was not very bright and with dust from the trail flying from the hikers in front of me, the dust illuminated more than the trail and the terrain appeared completly flat. All depth perception left once the sun had set.

"We hiked through some tricky areas, obsidian, lava flow, and dense forest. It was important to keep in mind that, although we could not see the area around us, there were dangerous drops and obstacles we had to maneuver around. I found that my best approach was to focus on the feet of the hiker in front of me and trace their steps. If I fell behind, ever, my heart would race, as I felt that I was hiking nearly blind. I owe a lot to Sally, as she was the one I followed out, step by step, throughout our 8 miles of night hiking.

"We were so fortunate in so many ways. We would have had serious concerns with food, had it not been for the other group of four who we partnered up with. Had it not been for Rich and Renee, we would not have had cell service, which allowed us to navigate out as safely as possible.

"What an unexpected and unforgettable adventure. There are so many brave people fighting this fire, while we are able sit back and think about how thankful we are to be home. The experience has been very humbling."

And what about Wilber?

"His group made it out Monday morning," Bumblis said. "There, the story is pretty crazy, too. He bought a used Ranger yesterday (Saturday) at the same place and same salesman we bought our new used car at today. Funny stuff. We are all going to try and hook up this week."

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