Lightning strike on Mount Bierstadt: 5 weather reminders for hiking in the high country

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt (right) and its Sawtooth Ridge.

There are “rules” when it comes to hiking and climbing in the alpine areas of the Rocky Mountains. And yes, some of those rules supersede all others.

The summer is the busiest time for hiking in the mountains. The temperatures are friendlier, the snow is mostly gone and the weather is somewhat more predictable and “safer.”

I use that term with a serious caveat, however. Just because the likelihood of getting caught in a wind-driven blizzard is far more remote than in the other three seasons, summer in the high country has its own risks.

Chief among those: lightning.

Storms build in the mountains during the late morning, often bringing afternoon storms to the peaks and, later on, the high plains to the east. So, as a general rule, we’re often told that when you get to the top of a high summit, you need to make your way down by noon.

But this rule gets trumped, just as it did on Sunday.

A storm hit Mount Bierstadt in Colorado during the late morning hours. Lightning hit the peak when there were about 100 people on it, injuring 15. Some were taken to a hospital. A dog who was accompanying a hiker was killed.

The incident took place about 11:30 a.m., well before that “noon deadline.” But that’s the thing: the weather doesn’t run on our time schedules.

So while it’s good to keep the noon rule in mind, you should also keep your eyes to the skies. Blue skies are safe. Wispy summer clouds are also relatively benign. An isolated white, puffy cloud is no big deal. But when the sky starts to fill up with white, puffy clouds, the weather bears closer scrutiny.

The sign that it’s time to get down quickly is when the bottoms of those fluffy clouds turn gray. At that point, those clouds are trying to become storms and can start throwing lightning at any time.

This is a serious and potentially deadly situation. Above timberline, you might be the highest object on a slope, ridge or summit, making you a potential human lightning rod. Lightning can travel for miles, along horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes. And it comes with almost no warning.

So to sum it up, here are some things to remember when hiking above timberline in the high country:

Start early. Dawn or predawn is best. Even if you’re in shape, it’s going to take you a lot longer to hike 3 to 5 miles at altitude than it would at lower elevations. Give yourself enough time to summit early so you don’t have to play “beat the clock” with the afternoon storms.

Check weather reports. Afternoon storms are almost a given, but be sure to check forecasts the night before and the morning of your hike or climb. Real-time data will give you a better look at what might be in store.

Watch the skies. Looks for signs that storms might begin forming. Small puffy clouds get bigger, and when they do, that’s a good time to reassess your plans.

Don’t be afraid to turn around. Summit fever kills. You might decide to take a chance, but there is a place where you reach a “point of no return” when it comes to getting below treeline before storms hit. Time spent getting to safety can be measured in hours if you’re in trouble on or close to a summit — a long time to be stuck in bad weather in such a vulnerable place. Remember that the mountain isn’t going anywhere, and you’ll likely be able to try it again another day. That won’t be the case if you get killed rolling the dice with the weather.

Respect all the mountains. Even the “easy” ones can be treacherous under the wrong conditions. Bierstadt is considered one of the easier 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, but there are scores of people who were on that mountain Sunday who can tell you how dangerous it can be when you’re up there at the wrong time. So whether you’re doing a short walk-up hike or a really demanding climb, treat each ascent with care.

— Bob Doucette

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