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Lost hiker could see helicopters searching for her, but they never spotted her off the trail

Palmer woman shares details of her harrowing journey after losing her way hiking Pioneer Peak and being charged by bears
Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 5:14 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Palmer resident Fina Kiefer was resting comfortably Thursday afternoon in her home, a day after she emerged from the woods after getting lost on a hike on the Pioneer Ridge Trail that sparked a massive search effort. She and her husband, Steve Kiefer, were able to share more details about what happened.

“It really makes you aware of what you have,” Fina Kiefer told Alaska’s News Source on Thursday. “I was fighting to see my family again. I was fighting to see my husband and my daughter and my son.”

Although Fina Kiefer, 55, had never been on the trail that leads to Pioneer Peak, Steve Kiefer said his wife is an avid hiker who did the Lazy Mountain Trail “every other day.”

A multi-agency search began on Tuesday for Fina Kiefer after her husband got a message from her requesting help, and saying she had been charged by bears. Volunteers and professional search and rescue teams scoured the trail and surrounding area for her throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, from the ground and air.

Just when the search had been suspended for the night on Wednesday due to deteriorating weather, a volunteer spotted Fina Kiefer coming out of the woods about a mile from the trailhead.

Multiple entities are conducting a search and rescue operation for a hiker in the...
Multiple entities are conducting a search and rescue operation for a hiker in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough after she reported encountering bears along the trail early Tuesday morning.(KTUU)

She left their home Monday about 2 p.m. but Steve Kiefer said he imagined she didn’t start her hike until about 4 p.m. He said he was in contact with Fina several times throughout the evening by cell phone and she assured him she was fine, although the trail was taking longer than anticipated. He said she checked in again at 11 p.m.

Then, at 1 a.m. Tuesday, he received a text saying she’d been charged by two bears and only had half a can of bear spray left.

Steve Kiefer called 911 when he couldn’t get back in touch with Fina. He said it was frightening not knowing what she was experiencing and not being able to communicate. Later, she told him she’d hiked back up the mountain to avoid the bears and had gotten lost off trail. Her cell phone had stopped working.

Fina told her husband she could see helicopters searching for her during the two-day ordeal, but they were never able to spot her in the dense brush. She spent the night in the woods, lighting a fire with water-proof matches she carried and continued to walk down.

Fina Kiefer described making it back down off the mountain and finding herself in someone’s yard.

“And I could have kissed their lawn,” she said.

She said she rang the doorbell of the home, but no one was there. That’s when she went out to the road.

“Four vehicles passed me,” she said. “And I knew I had to get back to the ... parking lot because my vehicle was there, and I could get all my wet clothes off and get in my vehicle and get warm.”

That’s when volunteer searcher Stephen Dunphy found her around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, and took her back to the search basecamp.

Steve Kiefer said his wife was taken to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center but released that evening. He was thrilled to have her back at home surrounded by several family members who had flown in from out of state as the ordeal was unfolding. Steve Kiefer said he was amazed at the response to help find her and grateful to everyone who participated in the search.

Fina Kiefer did make it to the top of the Pioneer Peak trail, which had been her goal. But she said it first dawned on her she was in trouble when she realized she had started on the trail too late in the day. It was getting late and she left the trail in an attempt to get back to the parking lot faster.

“I didn’t realize how vigorous the trail was until I was actually on the trail,” she said. “And the second mistake I made was not staying on the trail, trying to go on my own — making my own trail down. And by the time I realized I wasn’t going to make it to the trailhead, the parking lot, my battery of my cell phone was dwindling.”

Fina Kiefer described encountering what she initially thought were moose as she tried to make her way down off the mountain, while she was in a valley.

“Once he turned his head, and we both looked at each other, I knew it was a bear,” she said. “We both looked at each other, and then at that very moment I had to make a decision.

“At that moment I thought, ‘is this the way I’m going to die, God?’” she continued. “He’s charging me and he’s going (from) 50 yards to 25, and I have to turn around, and I stood my ground, grabbed my bear spray and then ... I had to look at him while he’s charging at me. By the time he came about me, about 25 feet, that’s when I said ... I yelled ‘Hey!’ And then I spayed and then he stopped.”

She said the bear hesitated, looking at her. She deployed her bear spray again and yelled at the bear to go. The bear turned around and ran away, along with a second bear that was nearby.

Fina Kiefer said the bears were blocking her way back to the main trail. She climbed back out of the valley, and sent the text to her husband saying she had been charged by bears. It’s the only text he could receive from her before her phone died, and that’s when he alerted the Alaska State Troopers.

She described hearing and seeing the helicopters searching for her on Tuesday, but said they couldn’t see her through the thick brush. While she waited and worked to get off the mountain, she said she ate cranberries and snow.

She found a creek to use as a water source.

At one point while making her way through the brush, Fina Kiefer described falling and hitting her head. As darkness came on Tuesday, she found a place to build a fire with her water-proof matches. She slept on and off through that night.

She described watching the searching helicopters continue to pass her location, even while she had a fire lit.

“I was praying a lot,” Fina Kiefer said.

By Wednesday, she said it was clear the searchers couldn’t see her from the air. With the weather turning, she knew she had to get off the mountain.

She could hear the dogs that were part of one of the search groups, but the people looking couldn’t hear her.

Fina Kiefer said she followed a creek down off the mountain, which led her to the home and the backyard.

She said she thanks the Lord for giving her the ability to make it back alive. She also thanked the first responders and all the people who prayed for her.

“It makes me be so happy that I’m able to hug them again,” she said of her family. “Because nothing else matters if you don’t have that.”

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