As the clouds grew closer, we knew it was time to seek shelter. But where? We were standing in the middle of a boulder field on the Eastern flank of King’s Peak and there was no safety in sight. The morning had started off clear and calm, with only a few lingering clouds on the horizon. By ten o’clock, large puffy anvils began filling the sky and the ominous black-bottomed monsters that every hiker fears encroached on our good time. Within half an hour, the storm was upon us. Lightning striking the peaks a few miles distant told us that we were in the thick of it and we best hunker down. Josh grabbed a tent footprint from out of his pack and the five of us bellied up amongst the boulders. The furious claps of thunder deafened our ears and the hair on our arms began to stand on end. Under the 5×10 tarp we huddled, praying that the storm would spare our lives. Nickel sized hail began to pelt the tarp and the sky grew an unnerving shade of purple-gray. Flickers of light illuminated the surrounding area and the increasing wind threatened to rip our only stitch of shelter out of our hands. Moments seemed liked hours and finally the storm began to relent. Once the thunder subsided, we emerged from our primitive sanctuary and continued on our way. The clouds rolled by as we contemplated our fate and whether or not it would be safe to push for the top. Ultimately, we decided to summit, a decision marked more by nervous adrenaline than level headed thinking. Fortunately, that was the last we saw of the storm, and we were able to summit successfully.
Lightning has awed man for as long as he has looked to the heavens and wondered why the Gods were angry. It has lit up the night skies and brought fire to the planet. And to the outdoor enthusiast, it is one of the most deadly natural phenomena, though one of the most avoidable. According to a study by the National Weather Service (NWS), an average of 58 people were killed each year by lightning over the past 30 years. In 2010, 24 people have been struck and killed; many others have been injured. The same study calculated that your odds of being struck in any given year are 1/750,000. A number most of us can live with. However, the odds of being struck in your lifetime (80 years) increase to 1/6250. Seeing this number should serve as a stark reminder of the very real potential of being struck, especially if you are an avid outdoors person. Nearly one-third of all lightning fatalities occur during recreational pursuits or sporting events and it is important to remember that there is no safe place outside during a thunderstorm.
Long before the days of Ben Franklin and his infamous kite, the majority of civilization believed that lightning was a way of the Gods expressing discontent. The Greeks believed that Zeus would heave bolts of lightning onto the cities below, and many Indian tribes attributed the flashes of light to the flapping wings of a great and powerful bird that soared about the heavens. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that modern man began conducting scientific experiments to determine the true cause of lightning and thunderstorms. The curious Mr. Franklin hypothesized that clouds, and therefore lightning, were electrically charged and that he could prove his theory with a simple demonstration. By placing a key on the end of a kite sting and flying it during a thunderstorm, Franklin witnessed the effects of the electrical phenomena as current passed through the key and down to the ground. Luckily, Franklin had the foresight to tie an insulating ribbon on the end of the kite string to hold on to. His predecessor, a Swede named G. W. Richmann, ultimately proved that thunderstorms contained electricity when he was struck dead during an experiment in 1753.
The contemporary view on lightning can be explained rather easily, but to even begin to understand how the process works requires a degree in physics. I will attempt to convey the information in a pseudo-scientific way to add to the impact of this article.
Step 1: Warm and cool air collide and the warm, moisture-laden air is thrust violently upward. As it rises, particles of ice begin forming in the upper portions of the cloud. The formation of this ice is critical to lightning creation. As the small particles ascend, and the larger particles descend, positive charges accumulate in the upper cloud, and negative charges in the lower cloud.
Step 2: Along with charges in the air, positive charges follow the storm along the ground. As they encounter tall objects such as trees, rocks, or buildings, the charges move up the object towards the negatively charged cloud bottoms.
Step 3: The negatively charged cloud bottoms send out an invisible “stepped ladder” towards the ascending positive particles. When the ladder meets the particles it creates a channel for electricity to flow through, what we see as lightning.
This rudimentary explanation offers some insight into why our hair stands on end or the metal in our skis begins to hum. The particles are moving through these conductors towards the stepped ladder. These warning signs should be heeded immediately.
Most of us have a thrilling lightning encounter that we bust out after a few drinks around the campfire, but few have had the misfortune of actually being stuck by lightning or been acquainted with someone who has.
On July 27th, 1985, a group of life-long friends were making their annual pilgrimage to Yosemite’s Half Dome. The gargantuan granite monolith towers above the Yosemite Valley and has attracted adventures and artists for centuries. Each year, thousands of park visitors test their fitness against one of the West’s most recognized peaks, and each year the massive peak is bombarded with lightning-rich thunderstorms. The “Conquer Your Fears” group as I will call them, set out that fateful day with the intent of sleeping on the summit of Half Dome and enjoying the scenic landscape below. Midway up the trail, the dark clouds that had been lingering in the distance began to lay siege to the valley and the ascending group could hear furious claps of thunder. Ignoring nature’s, and the park’s, warning signs, the intrepid crew pressed on. The thrill of dancing in the lightning atop the great peak seemed like the ultimate way to stare unrelenting into the face of fear. Reaching the summit in a barrage of bolts, the first two hikers stripped down and danced about the mountaintop. When the others arrived, they all sought shelter in a small cave in the lee of the storm. From their seemingly secure sanctuary, the doused men peered through a small opening onto the glorious valley below. Feeling invincible, the men dried themselves and bantered jokingly about the day’s trials. In an instant, their jubilant celebration turned to tragedy that would affect their lives and the lives of many rescuers forever. A bolt struck the peak and its pulsating current ripped through the granite cave, severely injuring most of the men and killing one. The dazed men struggled to make sense of what had happened and couldn’t understand the magnitude of the situation. One man was left convulsing on the edge of the cavern, and despite the other’s best efforts to retrieve him; he slid off the ledge and into oblivion 2,200 feet below. The cave was stuck once more before the storm retreated and the surviving men were blasted with millions of volts of flesh-searing electricity. When two soon-to-become rescuers reached the summit nearly an hour later to enjoy the sunset, the scene that awaited them was more than horrifying. Two dead, two gravely injured, and one in hysteria. The actions of the two first responders and the subsequent rescuers that followed saved the lives of the three remaining men. The full account of the catastrophe can be read in Bob Madgic’s Shattered Air.
Nearly twenty-five years later, a similar scenario unfolded on the face of the Grand Teton in Wyoming this past July. The call came over the radio, “Attention Jenny Lake Rangers, we have received multiple calls about sixteen climbers trapped on the Grand, one has already been blown off the mountain by lightning and the others have reported being struck four to five times. Can you respond?” The blood of any mountain rescuer runs cold after hearing something like this, but the intensity that begins to burn in their veins as they prepare for battle rekindles their passion for the job. Talking with Drew Hardesty, one of the rangers called out that day, revealed the absolute focus it takes to respond to such a situation.
On July 21st, several climbing parties were attempting to summit the Grand when a ferocious storm rolled across the peaks, engulfing everyone in its path. To add to the drama, the parties had all crossed the 13,000-foot threshold and there was no relief from the tormenting tempest. Hardesty and company, along with the assistance of a daring helicopter pilot, staged the rescue of the stranded climbers from the Grand’s lower saddle. Since there is no walk-up route, the rangers had to climb their way to the injured from this point. Once arriving on scene, Hardesty’s victim had lost complete use of his lower body and he would have to be short-hauled off the mountain. A short-haul involves bringing the chopper and a 150-foot line attached to its fuselage, clipping the patient into a “screamer suit” and airlifting them to safety. However, before this could happen, the pilot had to wait for another break in the weather. “There are more disturbances on the way Drew, you’ll have to hold tight ‘til we can get to you,” relayed the rescue leader. Not the words you want to hear in the middle of a fierce electrical storm. Hardesty stabilized his patient and immediately dropped his harness and ice axe in a secure location and stood on his pack to insulate himself from the wet rock. The minutes ticked by and finally the thwock, thwock of the helicopter signaled that salvation was on the way. “I will never forget the look on the gentleman’s face as I clipped him in and he realized he was going to live. We had saved his life,” said Hardesty. After several hours of tedious struggle, the rescue was over and all sixteen surviving climbers were on their way to advanced medical attention, though the rescuers were left to get down on their own. “Running to the rappel station was tricky on the slick surface, but I was able to rope down to a landing and make my way to the heli,” added Hardesty.
In all, the rescue went down as the largest in park history. “We’re fortunate to have such a devoted and well-trained staff of rescuers. Additionally, the skill of our pilot, the fire and police crews, and the medical staff at St. John’s really made this rescue the success it was,” said Jackie Skaggs, Public Affairs Officer at Grand Teton National Park. Over 70 people took part in getting the stricken climbers down to safety, and all the parties involved understood their roles in order to produce an efficient rescue. Unfortunately, a climber named Brandon Oldenkamp was completely blown off his belay ledge on the Northwest Face and fell nearly 3,000 feet into Valhalla Canyon. “He would have had no chance of surviving. We had to retrieve his body the next day after the weather cleared,” noted Hardesty. Survivors noted being struck 4-5 times, and received a range of injuries from bumps and bruises to lightning burns and electrical injuries, numbness, and trauma from being thrown by lightning.
Sobering tales like these should remind us that when we recreate outdoors, Mother Nature always holds the upper hand. However, we can use the tools at our disposal, such as accurate weather forecasts and storm information from the National Weather Service to assist in our decision-making.
Lightning Myths Busted
While most are aware how to avoid being struck by lightning, some neglect to heed the obvious warning signs. Of course, the best method of prevention is abstinence. However, for those of us who need our adrenaline fix, here are some tips to help you stay alive if caught in a sudden electrical storm. The following info is pulled mainly from the National Weather Service and NOAA, the leading authorities in lightning safety.
Myth: You’re safe under a semi-enclosed structure or in a cavern.
Busted: You are only safe inside a completely enclosed building or vehicle that has a proper ground. The lightning will travel from the metal conductors and into the ground. Stay away from metal objects, doors, and phones during a storm. Caves are particularly dangerous due to the conductive properties of wet rock.
Myth: If I’m not the tallest object, I will be safe.
Busted: Not always true. Although the charges travel up taller objects, the fickle nature of lightning chooses the path of least resistance. Lying flat doesn’t protect you from ground current. If no shelter is readily available, keep moving to a safe location. Never seek shelter under a tree. Although you may be dry, a majority of deaths occur when a person has moved under a tree.
Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Busted: The Empire State Building is struck on average 25 times a year. Half Dome was struck more than six times in the 1985 disaster. The Grand Teton was stuck at least five times during this year’s tragedy. Enough Said.
Myth: Lightning victims are electrified.
Busted: If you see someone struck by lightning, assess the safety of the situation and then proceed to assist him or her if it is safe to do so. Since lightning disrupts the body’s electrical system, the most likely cause of death is cardiac arrest, or ventricular fibrillation. Immediate CPR is necessary and a defibrillator should be located and used as soon as possible.
For more information on lightning safety, check out www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov. Also, remember to check your local forecasts on www.noaa.gov before venturing out, and don’t get caught up in “summit fever.” The mountains will remain forever; your chances of being able to lead a normal life after being struck are minimal.