Hiking safety: 3 tips to avoid lightning strikes in the mountains

Lightning at Rocky Mountain National Park. (NPS photo)

Lightning at Rocky Mountain National Park. (NPS photo)

For what it’s worth, plenty of you who read this site already know all about what I’m getting ready to discuss. For the rest of you who are not as experienced at hiking and climbing in alpine areas, this is just a gentle reminder that even though summer in the high country is prime-time hiking weather, there is one really big reason to watch the clouds.

Lightning.

On July 11, Rebecca Teilhet, 42, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was killed by a lightning strike in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

A day later, Gregory Cardwell, 52, of Scottsbluff, Neb., was also killed by a lightning strike in the same park. In those two days, 21 people were hospitalized after lightning strikes in RMNP, USA Today reported.

Finally, during that weekend’s Hardrock 100 ultramarathon in southwestern Colorado, competitor Adam Campbell was knocked to the ground by an indirect strike while he was racing atop Handies Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain near Lake City. He wasn’t hurt badly and finished the race. But a scary moment just the same.

According to the National Weather Service, more than 70 percent of all fatal lightning strikes in the U.S. occur in the months of June, July and August. More than 30 percent of all lightning deaths take place in July, making it the peak month for fatalities, USA Today reported.

I’ve also heard that New Mexico, a state with plenty of alpine/above-treeline territory, leads the nation in lightning-related deaths.

A few facts to be aware of:

The Rocky Mountains have a monsoon season, and that season runs through the summer. It works like this: As the sun heats the air during the morning, clouds form and coalesce. Little puffy clouds bloom into larger clouds, which eventually become storms. These storms then shower the mountains (and later the plains east of there) with rain and, unfortunately, lightning. During the summer, this is an almost daily occurrence.

Typically, the storms start forming around the lunch hour. And it doesn’t take long for a few puffs of innocent-looking clouds to turn into thunderstorms.

Knowing this, you need to be off the high point of your hike or climb NO LATER than noon, preferably before. The reason is simple: Most alpine routes are pretty long, at least a few miles from the trailhead to a summit, and it takes awhile to get from the midpoint of your trip to treeline again. So depending on how long your route is, it could take hours before your get to treeline and relative safety. Getting caught in the middle of a storm above treeline is quite dangerous.

When you are above treeline, you may be the tallest thing on that slope or ridge. And there is a good chance you’ll be carrying something metallic, such as trekking poles. Many hikers and climbers can tell horror stories about hearing an audible hum or ringing from a trekking pole or ice axe during a storm. You don’t want that experience.

When you see clouds like this one forming over Huron Peak, you know storms are on the way and it's time to get below treeline.

When you see clouds like this one forming over Huron Peak, you know storms are on the way and it’s time to get below treeline.

So here are a few tips:

1. Check the weather forecast. See what the chance of storms will be in the area you plan to go. If there is a high chance, you might pick another day.

2. Start early. Pre-dawn is a good idea to start your hike at the trailhead, and I’d say no later than sunrise.

3. Watch the weather. Look for those white puffy clouds. A couple in the sky aren’t a big deal. A bunch of them could be signs of things to come. If those clouds start getting gray bottoms, it is time to consider turning around. And if you see rain falling from them or hear thunder/see lightning, even if it’s miles away, start going down immediately. Lightning can travel several miles.

There are always exceptions. There will be that dry, clear-sky day where lingering above treeline in the afternoon is no big deal. Maybe rain is just rain and not from a thunderstorm. But it is always wise to heighten your chances for success and lessen your chances of a serious incident. There are enough potential pitfalls when wandering around in an alpine wilderness. So keep your eyes on the skies and your watch, and don’t let yourself be at risk of becoming the next lightning strike victim.

Stay safe!

Bob Doucette

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