As many of you know Gus and I had quite an interesting weekend. A weekend that included sun, snow, ice, wind, fire, rain, and over 30 backcountry miles logged on myself, and my dog’s legs. A true reminder that when one ventures into remote and wild places, sometimes mother nature has other plans and natural course, takes natural course.
With Jeneé taking a long weekend back to Michigan to visit her family, Gus and I decided to spend a quick one night out-n-back backpack trip deep into Three Sisters Wilderness west of Bend. I chose Camp Lake, a really high alpine lake set between the massive sleeping giants, South and Middle Sister mountains where we could find stunning views and virtual solitude.
The 8 mile hike to Camp Lake was gradual, and absolutely stunning. Taking off from Pole Creek Trailhead the climb gradually gains elevation and passes through several ecosystems including alpine, sub-alpine, and taiga. From dense ponderosa forests to mossy ice-carved rocks and snowfields. I was thinking the entire time I was hiking, “boy Jeneé would LOVE this hike!” Little did I know that hike would be forever changed in a matter of hours!
Camp Lake sits at 7000 feet and above the treeline. Views of all 3 Sisters expand in all directions, and without much protection, you also can succumb to some nasty weather changes at the altitude. A truly beautiful place. After setting camp, and taking a swim, Gus and I hiked to explore some glacial moraines above the lake, and take in a sunset from 8000 feet at the base of South Sister.
The next morning, we ate what was left of a granola bar and some nuts, and packed a lightweight summit pack to explore the snow fields, and glaciers that flank Middle Sister. We hiked along the ridge connects South and Middle Sister before beginning an ad-hoc scramble to see if the South Sister summit would be within our reach. The climb was brutal.
Remember climbing construction site dirt piles as a kid? You take a step and then slide back 2 feet? Well image a 10,000 foot dirt pile with volcanic obsidian mixed in. Each step it felt like we slid back two. And with the best options to climb Middle Sister being, ice axe and crampon-style glacier slogging, it really wasn’t in the cards. After scrambling some rockfall and lava fields, and coming within 500 feet of the summit, I decided to turn back. I was impressed with our progress, but both my dog and I were exhausted, the barometer was dropping, and the 2.5 hour window I had given myself to make the summit had closed 20 minutes before. It was time to head back, break camp, and go home to watch some football. That’s when I saw the mushroom cloud looming over Middle Sister’s Southeast ridge.
A fire had EXPLODED in the area I was to hike down. In fact it seemed to be right where I had parked. After glassading back down to the lake in a hurry, I was told that the fire was blocking our way out, and Search and Rescue was sending a heli in 15 minutes to pluck us out of here. I stuffed camp into my pack in minutes, heart racing, and nervous about the prospects of facing a massive wildfire.
Others who had camped near the lake now waited for news, and this is where the mixed-intel started flowing in. One person would say they spoke with somebody, who spoke with somebody that said a heli-ride was in store. Others said a ranger was coming to lead us out, and even others said the trail was still pass-able just smokey. One thing was sure, I was not going anywhere near that mushroom cloud, and at mid-afternoon it was too late to hike out in other directions without being forced to bivouac somewhere high on the mountain. I called Jeneé, and made sure she knew we were staying an unexpected second night, and that we were absolutely safe up there. I then called 911, and was instructed to “save yourself” and that the nearest rescue points where S & R would be located were at trailheads over 20 miles in each direction, and on the opposite side of the mountains. Not good options at 6:00pm with a tired dog with raw paws and my legs weren’t exactly bridge stanchions at this point either.
So I made the decision to set camp high above the lake, on a rocky ridge protected by small pines and low shrubs. At this vantage I could see the fire’s movement, and gauge if it was getting closer or further. Near sundown on Sunday, the wind picked up leading in a cold front. The air from the Pacific is pushed up into the Cascades and funneled through these mountains with jet engine force. The wind throttled Gus and I in our tent, and made for an absolutely miserable, loud, cold night of anxiety and little sleep. At sunset the fire got ENORMOUS fueled by the winds. As well-defined smoke balls exploded into the air, it was the only point I was legitimately nervous, and I think the video below captures my emotions.
I decided to keep my entire pack ready to grab and go, where I could just ditch the tent and with Gus, could run to safety higher up. I set an alarm to wake up each hour to check the ridge to make sure I couldn’t see flames, and created 2 or 3 contingency plans if the fire were to approach. One included scrambling up to the glacial moraines I had seen the night before, and hunkering there until morning, and the other included pumping to the ridge, where I had seen several good spots to setup my rain fly and emergency blanket into a makeshift bivvy. Both sounded horrible, and I really hoped it didn’t come to that. After my dog and I split a dry pack of tasteless Ramen (a truly pathetic sight) for dinner, Gus and I curled up wrapped in down sleeping bag and down jackets, and both of us shivered on through the night. Wind gusts of over 50 mph rattled our tent, and made for a sleepless night for us both.
At 6AM my watch went off. I had managed to sleep soundly from 3-6, and myself and a few other backpackers had decided to rally at 7AM and discuss options. I poked my head out the tent, and Mother Nature had thrown another curve. What had been a clear night blasted by icy wind, had turned to dense fog, freezing mist, and spitting snow. Visibility dropped to a half-mile, and our contingency of “up and over” the ridge to the other side of the Cascades for a 20 mile hump, turned into a surefire chance to give myself hypothermia.
We met the other hikers, and as a large group decided to make our way down out of the clouds. Reports that morning trickled in that the trail was open to Soap Creek (where the fire had started) connecting with Green Lakes trail, and besides being burned, it was passable even though it was black. I had developed a healthy cynicism of these reports, and decided I would take bits and pieces, and then follow my gut. I knew two things: I wasn’t going to mess getting close to that fire, and I would keep at least one body of water between me, and it.
Fortunately, within our group there was another person – Wilbur – who shared my conservative outlook. Because we had topo maps and had a compass, we became the de-facto leaders of the expedition. We started on the trail down, and by the first trail intersection (2.5 miles down) we were already in heavy smoke. With eye-stinging smoke, and ash falling like snow, we all decided this was as far as we would get into the monster. We broke trail, and follow the N. Fork of Wychus Creek due east for 3+ miles until it intersected with the Green Lakes trail. Bushwhack style, we followed the path of the stream down hill. It was nice to lose elevation, but still nerve-wracking to be within a mile of the fire.
Finally we popped out on Green Lakes trail, which runs North/South through the wilderness. This was a point of celebration for our group, because now we knew we could take Green Lakes trail south, and each step we took would get us away from the flames and smoke. We took water, and ate some trail mix, then shouldered our packs for the 6+ mile slog to Park Meadow.
After 6 miles (through unreal scenery I might add) we were met by Bill, the forest ranger. What a welcome sight! He took our names, and other intelligence we could provide and let us break for 30 minutes or so. He told us we had one more 5+ mile stretch to the trailhead where Search and Rescue would be waiting to give us rides back to Sisters. There we would find out if our car was one of the 4 out of the 24 cars parked at Pole Creek trailhead that was toast, or if it was ok. Yikes.
Gus and I quietly lumbered the 5 rolling miles of Park Meadow trail. My legs felt like they were made of goo, and I had quarter sized blisters on my feet. All I could do during the hike was sing Sweet Brown’s now infamous viral YouTube hit to myself the entire way (It has over 1 million hits) to keep my mind focused. “Oh lawd Jesus it’s a faahhr! Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
A shedding sense of relief came over me when I loaded into the back of the Search and Rescue suburban. I called Jeneé, and was so happy to hear her voice! Gus plopped helplessly into the back, and immediately fell asleep. We drove the 15 miles back to Sisters where they dropped us at the Forest Service station. I was interviewed by several authorities, then found out the fate of the Highlander.
In an amazing stroke of luck, I had randomly parked on a pitch of gravel off to the side of the trailhead. All the cars around my car has burned to the ground, yet the Highlander remained relatively unscathed!? A melted license plate cover, and rear bumper slightly burned, as well as a pack-a-day smoke smell on the inside was all she had to show for withstanding the nasty fire which blew through the Pole Creek trailhead. In fact, the forest rangers and fire personnel had taken several pictures of my car, because they were so amazed it hadn’t burned.
The officer flipped me my keys, I loaded up Gus and we drove home. It was an amazing sense of relief to get home, and pound a Deschutes Green Lakes Amber Ale as I sat quietly in my living room dirty and sore. Overall, we had done 16 miles that day, which included 3+ miles of bushwhack and gone 36 hours without food. But we were safe, and home!
To read more about the details of the fire click here.