Fear, loathing and hiking in the land of lightning

atodd's picture

One of the magical things I love about living in the San Juans is the set-your-watch-by-it arrival of the monsoon season. Seldom do thunderstorms fail to crank up sometime in the first week in July — just when June’s glaring sun and single digit humidity begins to wear on heat-intolerant mountain folk. Talk about “afternoon delight,” cool, soothing rain is mood medicine. The downside of our thunderstorms is unpredictable lightning; it can be deadly, especially for those who feel compelled to wade alpine meadows of wildflowers or bag one of our sundry peaks. Last week a group of eight hikers were stuck by lightning in Rocky Mountain National Park, followed a few days later by a couple. Sadly one person died and several were hospitalized in the first group. The lady in the second event narrowly survived; her hiking boots were literally blown off her feet.  
Bobbie and I hiked up to Bullion King Mine and Lake that same week, looking for a workout and wildflowers. A substantial amount of snow remained, and we only found a few early blooming “appetizers.” The basins above timberline should be close to primo by the time you read this edition of the Plaindealer. We lunched on a lichen-covered rock that jutted into Bullion King Lake, its placid water mirrored rust colored ridgelines and rotten rock crags against an ultramarine dome. Barely eleven o’clock and only a few innocuous white puff clouds hugged distant peaks. After lunch, as Bobbie and I fought over the last three M&M’s hiding amongst our trail mix, those innocuous “puffs” had morphed into magic dragons — billowing clouds that spiraled and mushroomed into the stratosphere like plumes from atom bombs. A nice sunny hole hovered over Bullion King’s magnificent upper basin, but black-bottomed clouds threatened our perimeter, rumbling and growling like a perturbed junkyard dog. I flung breadcrumbs toward a school of neon green trout, plying the shallows for food. Brilliant red coloration flashed near their gills as they hit the surface — as if bleeding. “Cutthroats,” said Bobbie.
Darkness and lightning reset the mood as we hustled down. I felt exposed; I always do when foul weather catches us above timberline. It’s a lonely feeling when you are the biggest lightning rod in the basin. I wondered I’d remember or feel anything if I got struck like those people in the news, or if I’d just wake up riding a Flight for Life helicopter, wondering what the pungent aroma of burnt hair was all about. During our lengthy avocation of hiking and backpacking, Bobbie and I have been subjected to sudden, violent weather scores of times — on mountaintops and ridgelines, in alpine basins and stands of dark timber. Occasionally we’ll go through old photos that show us risking foul weather on top of some 14’er. One minute the sun is shining bright and you feel invincible, the next you’re running for your life and making promises to Almighty God.
Over those reckless years Bobbie and I slowly developed a “lightning protocol.” At the top, “Save Yourself.” On the surface it sounds cowardly, but putting distance between you and your hiking partner effectively shrinks the “target” and insures that, God forbid, lightning does strike, one or the other will survive to assist, rescue and call for help. Our protocol also calls for ditching “magnets” like metal-framed backpacks and hiking poles, and turning off cell phones. If you must stop during a lightning storm, try to squat as low as possible, head down, arms and hands wrapped around legs with only feet touching the ground.
One of the worst storms we ever got caught in was last year, right in our backyard, on the exposed ridge to Twin Peaks. Amidst a sudden, deafening firestorm of lightning, we aborted just short of the summit and bolted (no pun intended) off the ridge and into heavy timber. In addition to sonic booms of thunder and simultaneous lightning, we endured a deluge of rain mixed with painful quarter-sized hail. I finally belly crawled to the protective bows of the biggest pine tree in the vicinity (a stupid breach of protocol) and waited to draw my last breath. Bobbie was squatted down in the open a few yards away, huddled under raingear, absorbing Mother Nature’s pummeling. Finally, the storm abated and we lived to hike another day. In haste born of fear, we had flung our hiking poles into the woods so far it took some detective work to locate them.
Facts to ponder: 20 to 30 million lightning strikes across the U. S. result in an average of 273 injuries and 48 deaths each year. National Geographic estimates the odds of being struck by lightning are only 1 in 700,000 in any given year. However, over the course of a lifetime the odds jump to 1 in 3000, a significant difference…especially when you live, work and play in the mountains.

Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when exploring the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing and mountain biking. He authors two "wanderlust" based blogs: www.Artfulrvadventures.com and www.Boxcanyonblog.com.