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201 Surviving the Storm 2010-03-12

climbing Mount Wilson in storm

It is a stormy spring like day in Nashville. Thunder and lightning fill the sky.

Our good dog, Jake, has gone to his safe place in the stairwell waiting on the storm to pass. As noted before he has astraphobia - a fear of lightning and thunder. But, then again, don’t we all fear the booms? Many times in our travels in the backcountry we have wanted a good safe place to hide...

In the summer of 2009 we were climbing the 14,000 foot peaks. During our stay in the mountains we had ample opportunity to be caught in storms, but we generally avoided them by making an early start. However, when we climbed Wilson Peak and Mount Wilson, we got spanked.

Starting early in the morning from Navajo Lake Trailhead we were hiking slower than expected. The trail was very rocky which slowed our cruising speed down to a crawl. We did not summit Wilson Peak until 9am. Not a bad time, except we still had to climb Mount Wilson.

We were set up to still summit before noon, but the storm beat us to it. High on the mountain, near the ridge, we were caught. If we had not had our goal of climbing the Fourteeners, we would have turned around at that point. Instead we hunkered down to wait for a break in the action.

As lightning crashed around us, we quickly found an exposed spot down from the ridge. We were looking for a safe place, one where we would not be the highest object; yet still trying to isolate ourselves from the possibilities of ground current. Quickly we took off our packs and got rid of all our metal gear - ice axes, trekking poles, crampons, etc. Next, we donned all of our clothing and sat on our packs, huddled together shivering, as we tried to stay as small as possible.

The minutes passed to over an hour. A number of time we had hoped that the storm was passing, only to be met by the wave of rain, hail, lightning, and thunder. Shivering, we endured.

Finally we made a break for the summit. Judging from our elevation, we were close to the top, but the summit was naturally further than expected. It is never, just right there!

It wasn’t long before the storm returned. We did not turn back, but instead dashed for the summit. A tricky climb brought us to the small summit. As I videoed the summit shots, the buzz of electricity was in the air. We quickly descended, reclaimed our gear and headed down the mountain as quickly as possible.

We were happy to walk away.

Lightning and stormy weather is a part of the mountains. It is important to learn how to lessen your exposure to the weather.

  • Check the forecast - continually do the research, it is part of the game.
  • Climb early - avoid the daily afternoon storms (in the Rockies).
  • Avoid false patterns - If one day is clear in the afternoon, don’t expect the next day to be that way too.
  • Be prepared - always carry rain gear and extra layers.

If you are caught in a storm:

  • Choose a location - avoid water or being highest on a ridge, also avoid overhangs or depressions - they seem safer but are more exposed to ground currents.
  • Conductivity - get rid of all metal gear, you don’t want to be a lightning rod.
  • Protection - don your rain gear and layers if you are cold.
  • Insulation - sit or squat on your pack, rope, etc.
  • Position - stay low, curled in a ball, allowing only your feet to touch the ground. If in a group separate at least twenty feet apart. If one person is hit, the others may be able to perform CPR.
  • Patience - wait on the storm to pass before you expose yourself again.
  • Buzz - when you hear the buzz, you are probably not in a good location, move fast!


Happy stormy trails!


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