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881 Summer Stories
Afternoon Storms

View of a storm from the summit of Fairchild Mountain

Storms moving across Mount Ypsilon from the summit of Fairchild

While visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer of 2013, we made an overnight trip to Lawn Lake (cloudhiking's guide and map). The lake is a popular destination as it is nestled among three 13,000 feet peaks. We had previously climbed Mummy Mountain and on this trip we were planning to climb Fairchild Mountain and Hagues Peak to complete the trio.

Leaving Lawn Lake Trailhead, we backpacked the 6.2 miles and set up camp at one of the Lawn Lake designated campsites. As evening approached, we packed up our food and cooking gear and moved closer to the Lake for dinner. As we drank coffee and marveled at our surroundings, we met a couple of folks from Georgia who were hiking down the trail that leads to a couple of the surrounding mountains. As they, too were from the south, we practiced a little southern hospitality and asked about their trip and their stay in the Park.

The men told us about their vacation in the Park and of climbing Fairchild. They, like us, tried to visit the Park as often as possible. As the conversation continued, they told us that they had enjoyed climbing, but they had been caught in storms near the summits each afternoon.

Curiously, I asked what time they left camp for the climbs? We were planning to climb Fairchild the next day and were hoping to avoid the afternoon storms. Any information on when the daily storms were arriving would be helpful.

They hesitated a bit and then one stated that they left camp around nine, because it was very difficult to get everyone moving.

Well, what time did you summit?

Around two-thirty on each day.

The conversation lasted a few more minutes. We wished them better luck with the storms on the rest of their trip and then they left to return to camp.

The next morning, we left camp before five and summited by nine-thirty. The storms were already moving across the neighboring mountains as we snapped a few photos from the top of Fairchild Mountain.

If we would have left camp at nine that morning, we would have been caught in an afternoon storm. As it was with our early start, we did not have to dodge lightning bolts and for that matter we did not even get wet.

Afternoon thunderstorms are part of the daily routine in the Rocky Mountain Range. Mountaineers have understood this phenomena and have adapted their schedule to give themselves the best chance of success in the mountains by using the alpine start. The theory of the alpine start is to wake and leave camp early enough to beat the afternoon storms. To be honest, sometimes the early starts are successful and other times they aren't. We have left camp early in the morning and still have found ourselves running from lightning, then on other days, the storms never come at all. The alpine start is not a guaranteed cure all, but, as a generalization, the morning weather is more stable than it is in the afternoon.

As for our friends from Georgia, I don't know if an alpine start would have helped them avoid the afternoon storms or not, but it should definitely be worth a try!

Happy Afternoon Storms on the trails


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