When, not if, lightning strikes: Watch those skies, folks

Storms forming near Mount Sherman, as seen from near the trailhead. When this photo was taken, at least a dozen people were still heading up the mountain, some just above this spot.

Hiking down the slopes of Mount Sherman, I was taken aback by the striking beauty of storm clouds beginning to form, contrasting with bright blue skies and the muted tones of the mountain itself.

An old mine building atop the ridge looked particularly photo-worthy, so tiny and fragile compared to the enormous scale of the mountain and the blossoming cumulus clouds in the distance. I stopped, framed the image and snapped one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken in the high country.

By this time, my nephew Jordan and I were almost down to the trailhead where his car – and the promise of a sizable lunch – awaited. It was late morning, and a good time to be almost down.

But we both noticed something troubling. Plenty of people were still on the way up.

Jordan spotted some people higher on the ridge, with at least an hour of hiking ahead of them – and a growing collection of puffy, gray-bottomed clouds all around. Down the trail, maybe 15 minutes from the trailhead, even more people – a young woman with her dog, a middle-aged couple, and four bros power-hiking every 20 steps, then stopping to rest – were going up. Over their shoulders, a particularly angry-looking storm was getting ready to explode over White Ridge.

Further conversations I had with folks that week noted some interesting comments from people walking into forming storms.

“Oh, I’ll keep an eye on the weather,” was a common one.

“I’m from Kansas. We get storms. I’m not afraid of getting wet,” was another.

“I’ve been doing these for awhile. I know what I’m getting into.” Uh-huh.

I’m not one of those who stops people with dire warnings about how cotton kills or how they shouldn’t try a summit so late. I’m guilty of many high country hiking sins, and frankly, a stern warning from a stranger rarely goes over well. People don’t like being told they’re wrong. But I don’t mind giving people advice if they ask.

But here in cyberspace, it’s different because people search the internet for tips and information on how to safely navigate the potential hazards in the mountains. Hence this post.

Back in 2015, there was a day when more than a hundred people were on the slopes of Mount Bierstadt. Around 11:30 a.m., storms had formed while people were going up and down the mountain. A lightning strike slammed into a group of hikers, injuring 15 people and killing one hiker’s dog.

It should be noted that lightning strike fatalities are rare. So far this year, 12 people in the U.S. have died by lightning strike, including one horseback rider in Colorado who was struck in an open field, according to the National Weather Service.

But when it comes to hiking in alpine areas, success is partly build upon minimizing risk. Marching into a summer storm is counter to that. Summer storms can not only hurl lightning on unprotected hikers, but can also create dangerous conditions on relatively benign routes, and make tougher routes deadly. On a summer day late in August of 2004, another hiker – dressed in summer attire and running shoes – died from hypothermia after getting caught in a storm high on Longs Peak.

Weather changes the nature of mountains. Experienced hikers and expert mountaineers can push weather boundaries more than most, but as peak-bagging becomes more popular, there is a rush of people with scant experience in the high country itching to try their luck in the mountains. Bragging rights to friends or triple-digit (quadruple?) likes on Instagram sometimes trump good judgment. And frankly, not knowing what you don’t know is just as dangerous as anything else. Ignorance is not bliss.

Going back in some of my older posts, I pulled out a list of ways people can mitigate the risks that summer weather poses. It’s worth looking at again.

Start early. Dawn or predawn is best. Even if you’re in shape, it’s going to take you a lot longer to hike 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. Isolated clouds or high, wispy formations are usually pretty harmless. But small, puffy clouds often multiply, coalesce and grow. A gray bottom is a good sign that the clouds are forming a storm. 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 during that 2015 lightning strike who can tell you how dangerous it can be when you’re 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.

Bad weather and poor route conditions caused by storms have turned me back a few times. It’s a bummer when you work so hard for a summit, only to be turned around short of your goal. But it’s better to do that than to become the subject for a story about tragedy in the mountains.

Bob Doucette

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

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