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

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When adventure happens: Things don’t go as planned on Crestone Peak

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

The term “adventure” means different things to different people. For some, it could be something as benign as checking out a farmer’s market in a town where you’ve never been. For others, a day of climbing on a new crag or backpacking to a place in which you’re unfamiliar. And for the rare souls, maybe traversing foreign lands solo on a motorcycle, where the language is not your own, the food is strange and the risk of harm from wildlife, weather or other humans is real.

Perspective is everything here. But in my conversations with people about adventure, there is a common thread that surfaces just about every time: Adventure often exists in realms where the unplanned happens. If the success of your plans for a trip or an outing is guaranteed, it’s not an adventure.

This is something I keep in mind every time I head to the mountains. The interaction of elevation, weather and will can make or break your goals in the high country.

I found that out on Longs Peak last summer, when poor weather turned me and my friends back a mile and a thousand feet short of the summit. All that effort, only to walk away with disappointment. That was in the back of my mind when my friend David and I headed into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to tackle Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak.

I felt confident that I could handle the challenges of these mountains. But I also know that all mountains – from the benign walk-ups to their burlier, steeper cousins – have the potential to humble the most seasoned among us.

THE PEAKS

The plan was to attempt a climb of Crestone Peak, a rugged spire that shares the skyline with its more elegant kin, Crestone Needle, above South Colony Lakes. We’d considered climbing the Needle, but neither of us had been on that mountain before, and we’d read reports of people having route-finding problems in the way down. About a month ago, a climber died from a fall after going down the wrong gully, and just last week, another fall on the Needle required an extraction from a local search and rescue team. Crestone Peak is much more straightforward, so we opted for that mountain instead.

Crestone Peak is no piece of cake. The bulk of the ascent involves a good amount of exposed, sustained climbing on good, knobby rock. That has a special appeal, but the quality of the rock does not mean this is an easy mountain to climb. It has its challenges, too, and if you’re caught high on the peak with weather moving in, it’s a dangerous place to be. It’s considered the ninth-most-difficult of the 58 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado for a reason.

Humboldt Peak has a completely different nature than the Crestones. It’s a straightforward hike up it’s cool, windswept west ridge, and its appearance – described by mountaineer and author Gerry Roach as “a shapeless hump” – makes it seem like far less of a challenge than its South Colony Lakes neighbors. Objectively speaking, this is true. But even Humboldt has its surprises, particularly when snow and ice is present. Cliff bands on the middle and lower flanks of its slopes have proven to be quite dangerous to the unwary who have attempted glissades and ski descents. Humboldt has been known to kill. Snow and ice were nearly absent in the area when we arrived, but stories of mishaps on all these peaks were good reminders not to take any of them lightly.

ALTITUDE, RAIN AND CHILLED TO THE BONE

When I go to the mountains, one of my biggest obstacles is altitude. I live far away, at 800 feet above sea level. Even when I’m in shape, the challenge of altitude is high. No amount of running, hill climbs or heat training has adequately prepared me for hiking uphill with a loaded pack at 10,000 feet or higher.

So backpacking into South Colony Lakes was laborious. A road that led higher up the route had since been closed, so it’s a few miles from the new four-wheel-drive trailhead to the campsites near the lakes. It’s not steep, but it feels that way when your lungs and heart are still operating as if they were at sea level. Past the old upper trailhead, the route gets a little steeper and more rugged.

Rain began to intermittently fall on us as we hiked higher. Temperatures dropped. The level of work my body was putting in had already made me sweat through my shirt, so a little rain wasn’t going to make any difference. But things changed once we got to our campsite and stopped hiking. With the activity that kept my core temperature up now over, the whole “cold and wet” thing took over.

“Man, I need to get myself going,” I told David as I tried to get the tent out of my pack and get it set up, shivering.

“Yeah, can barely get my fingers to work right,” he said.

We fumbled around with the tent poles and the stakes until we finally got our shelter in place. There was still some campsite work to be done, but as my shivering grew more extreme, I decided I needed to get in my sleeping bag immediately. I had to warm up.

So I crawled into my bag and shook for about 40 minutes as the sun continued to set. I felt a little bad about it, partially because of the aforementioned camp chores that still awaited, but also because I felt like the weak link. Something that’s always in the back of my mind is a hope that my own deficiencies do not hinder my friends from achieving their goals. David has more than 60 summits under his belt, and from past experiences (we’ve climbed Mount Sneffels and Wetterhorn Peak together) I knew that he was the senior partner on this venture. I wondered if the sight of me huffing and puffing up to camp, and now shivering in my sleeping bag was bringing him down. It certainly didn’t look like a good omen to me.

After a bit, I rallied enough to get out of the tent and help out a little before we called it a night. Neither of us slept much, but consolation came as the clouds cleared and the stars came out. One of the benefits of having to take a leak in the middle of the night is getting a quiet moment to look at the night sky, and the tens of thousands of stars that shine overhead in ways you cannot appreciate inside a city or at lower altitudes.

I tucked in again and listened to high winds build through the pre-dawn hours. Sleep never came as I wondered what those winds would be like going over Broken Hand Pass, and then higher on the peak. Thankfully, the winds subsided by dawn, but the pass had its own obstacles.

A THOUSAND FEET OF YUCK

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

By morning, I was surprisingly energetic. Maybe it was the fact that the winds died down, or that bright sunshine seemed to indicate favorable conditions for the day. Our first sight was alpenglow hitting Crestone Needle – one of the most beautiful alpine scenes you could ever ask for. The Needle is a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s one of the most striking peaks I’ve ever seen.

The hike toward the pass is pleasant enough. But the pass is anything but. Broken Hand Pass is just shy of 1,000 feet above South Colony Lakes and is gained by hiking and scrambling up a loose, rubble-filled mess of a gully before ending with a short, grassy slope near the top.

We burned a lot of energy going up this pass, and David wondered aloud what it would be like descending it on our way back.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

The pass wasn’t a total bust – it had a short section of scrambling that was sort of fun, and a taste of what we hoped to see later when we reached the peak. But our progress was slow, and rockfall a concern. We both agreed that the gully and the pass would not be a good place to be if the weather turned.

Topping out at just shy of 13,000 feet, we looked down into mellower slopes leading toward Cottonwood Lake, and later, to the base of Crestone Peak.

Low clouds were beginning to blow in from the west, but it was still mostly sunny and the temps began to warm. Sunshine seemed to bring life into the valley, and by that, I mean the bugs. Once things warmed, mosquitoes and flies rose from the marshes and set upon us almost immediately. It was great motivation to get moving, get higher and get away from the swarm that sought to feast on us that morning.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

ON THE PEAK

For awhile, it appeared the clouds coming from the west were only going to amount to fog. They’d obscured Crestone Peak for much of the morning, but cleared just long enough for us to get a good look at the route. Some steeper hiking led to a signature feature in the middle of the mountain, the Red Gully, a water-worn strip of red rock that splits the center of the mountain’s south face. Above it were rockier, steeper pitches of conglomerate rock that were said to make for enjoyable, sustained climbing all the way to the peak’s summit.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

It’s important to note that the type of rock in the Red Gully is different than what is higher up. Runoff from the mountain flows down the face and has worn much of the gully smooth. It’s not that steep, but it is slick in spots, even more so when wet. You need good traction from your footwear at this point, something David was having trouble finding.

His boots were only a year old, but the tread, for whatever reason, wasn’t allowing him to smear the face of the gully without slipping. As the gully steepened, the problems only got worse.

“I think I’m getting past my comfort zone here,” he said, while also saying he wished he had has trail runners on at that point. “I can’t get any grip.”

We stopped for a few minutes to assess the situation. We figured getting up the gully could be managed, but getting down could get difficult. Water continued to flow down the gully’s center, reminding us what had made the rock so slick, and foretelling what it might be like should we get caught in rain. I looked up and saw the route ahead, with still another 1,000 feet or more of climbing yet to do. Crestone’s summit was again hidden by clouds, and over a couple of ridges, those clouds appeared to build. The forecast for the day predicted a chance of storms early that afternoon, but it was clear that those storms were arriving early. With well over an hour of climbing ahead of us just to summit and the other problems now at hand it wasn’t looking good. Halfway up the Red Gully, we pulled the plug.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

David was feeling pretty bad about it, noting that I’d come a long way to do this particular peak. But if there is one thing I appreciate about him is his respect for risk, and his experience in determining what those risks are. I’m positive we could have summitted. I’m not so sure how safe the downclimb would have been, especially considering how the skies were beginning to look. As they day wore on, his boot problems might have been providential, giving us pause at the correct moment to turn around before we became overcommitted going up as the weather worsened.

RETREAT OVER THE PASS

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

While it was a bummer to bail on the summit, it did allow for more time to enjoy the scenery around Cottonwood Lake. The monsoons had given the lake plenty of water, fed by runoff from the surrounding peaks and a busy little stream that split the valley. By early August, many of the wildflower blooms were long over, but not here. The banks of the stream were carpeted by tall plants with golden blooms, a great contrast to the green grasses and stony brown and gray walls surrounding the lake. Above us, clouds continued to move in like freight trains, quickly and steadily rushing across the skies and in between the spires high above. The interplay between the sun and the clouds, of bright light and dark shadows, gave the entire valley an ethereal feel. I stopped frequently to look up and around, taking pictures and enjoying the wild scenery before the real work of reascending Broken Hand Pass began.

Both of us had talked about the possibility of hiking Humboldt Peak the next morning. It’s a less demanding ascent, but we were pretty beat. But after getting turned back on Crestone Peak, there was more determination to salvage what we could out of the trip.

That thought had us looking ahead, perhaps a bit too far. The skies reminded us to pay attention to the now.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

About two-thirds of the way up the pass, a loud and prolonged peal of thunder sounded off. The best I could tell, it came from the east, and the weather patterns indicated that anything going east of us would be heading away. Even then, I knew lightning strikes could travel in any direction. But no matter what, we’d be forced to keep climbing. It didn’t matter what the storm was doing – we still had to go up and over the pass in order to get into camp and relative safety. There was no good place to shelter where we were, or back down at Cottonwood Lake. We’d have to take our chances high on the pass and in the trickier parts of the descent on the other side and hope for the best.

Near the top of the pass, another peal of thunder, this time louder, bouncing off the walls of the mountains in a fast-moving explosion of echoes, like timed dynamite charges. The clouds darkened. Again, it was east of us. But it was a sign to get moving and get down quickly.

When we topped out, we could see the storm and its handiwork. Large volumes of rain were falling, and traces of hail or grauppel – we weren’t sure which – frosted the rugged cliff bands of Humboldt Peak. It was quite a sight, dark and forbidding. But it also confirmed to us that the storm was moving on and had not dumped much of anything on the pass. A good sign, seeing that the descent would be tricky enough as it was.

It took awhile to get down. We descended in choreographed segments, making sure whoever was downslope was clear of the fall line in case the person above accidentally kicked something loose. Rockfall is a real issue on the east side of Broken Hand Pass.

As time passed, the weather improved. We were tired and cursed the difficulties of the pass (“If I never see Broken Hand Pass again, it will be too soon,” I muttered more than once), but optimistic about what we could do the next day.

ONE MORE SURPRISE

The steepness of the trail eased once we reached the lakes. The day was ending well, and the upside to the hike was clearly seeing the route on Humboldt. David said the trail work done there recently was excellent, and its length wasn’t that much, so a good night’s sleep and some hot food should have had us ready to roll the next morning.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

We entered the woods just below the lakes and neared camp. About then David stopped and walked up to a partially uprooted tree, then pointed it out to me.

Looking around a bit, he said, “It’s gone.”

By “it,” he meant his bear canister. He’d stashed it there, about a hundred feet away from our tent, as per the instructions that came with it. All of our food was in that canister, with the exception of what we had in our summit packs: half a summer sausage, a couple of cheese sticks, some apple sauce, trail mix and some dried fruit. Barely enough for one person’s single meal.

We looked around camp. No sign of it. One of two things happened: There is currently a bear around South Colony Lakes playing soccer with David’s canister, or someone saw where it was stashed and made off with it.

I’m thinking it was people rather than wildlife. There had been no reports of bear activity in the area that we’d heard of, and no signs of bear tracks or scat. A brand new canister loaded with food might have been tempting to campers lacking a conscience.

What this meant for us: Humboldt was now a no-go. That choice had been made for us by others. The only question remaining was whether we stayed the night and hiked out in the morning or packed out that afternoon.

We chose the latter. But not before chowing down on what we had left and getting a good snooze. We earned that much. Once that was done and we started packing out, David said something that summed up the last two days:

“Well, you could definitely say we had an adventure.”

I thought about that for a bit, and it stuck with me. Yes, we did have an adventure. It wasn’t a Mallory-on-Everest adventure, or Amundsen-Scott in Antarctica, but it was an adventure. We had some hardships, like the beginnings of hypothermia. There were challenges, like getting over Broken Hand Pass. Threats from the skies, like high winds in the middle of the night and storms the next day. And in some cases, too much of the wrong things to make the trip “a success,” when weather, gear and human morality all failed.

But it wasn’t a total loss. In between all those misfortunes were grand scenes of some of the most dramatic places in the Colorado high country: the rays of the rising sun bathing Crestone Needle, for example. The lush greenery around Cottonwood Lake. The fierce ramparts of Crestone Peak, shrouded in clouds, glowering at us from a couple of thousand feet above. Those sights are seared into my memory, as is the knowledge gained from being there. If there’s a next time, I have a good idea what to expect.

I also had good company. That matters when you’re out in the backcountry. A good, strong partner who can hold a conversation is valuable, especially when it’s someone you know you can trust and who will put up with your own flaws.

So we did have an adventure, one that didn’t go as planned. But it was worthwhile nonetheless.

Hiking out.

Hiking out.

Bob Doucette

Waterlogged: When it’s time to give the trails a break

My favorite place to run, but maybe now is not the best time to be there.

My favorite place to run, but maybe now is not the best time to be there.

This is the time of year when I would like to transition my long runs to the trails. I’ve got two trail races I’m eyeing over the next couple of months, and it makes sense to put those big miles on the dirt tracks of the woods.

But there is a problem. As it turns out, 2015 was the wettest year in Oklahoma history, capped off by an extraordinarily heavy weekend of rain over the Christmas holiday. Adding to that was some rain and snow over the past couple of days.

My local trail running haunt, the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, is saturated. The last time I ran there, only the highest trail atop a ridge crest was halfway dry. Everything else was anything from muddy to flooded.

Mud and standing water is a de facto badge of pride for trail runners. Trail running is tougher than road running, mostly because the paths trail runners take don’t avoid elevation gains, traverse sketchy terrain and force runners to tackle the elements on their terms. Part of that includes mud.

I’m OK with that. Especially when it comes to races, rotten route conditions add a little spice to the event.

But there comes a time when you have to think bigger. The places where I run are pretty busy, and not just with runners. Cyclists, hikers and other trail users frequent my local trails by the hundreds every day, at a minimum. All that use has an impact on trails under the best of conditions. Add enough rain to the mix and trail erosion and degradation is greatly accelerated.

So when Saturday’s programmed long run came up, I stayed off the dirt and hit the pavement.

I know one person won’t cause much damage. Neither will 10. But hundreds will when the trails are in such poor condition, as they are now. And with so much rain behind us, it may be a bit before they dry out to the point where erosion and other damage is slowed.

As a trail runner, I care about the places I run. I care enough to get active in protecting the places those trails cross. I want to make sure the trail system is cleaned of trash, protected from urbanization and maintained in a sustainable way. I’ve even learned a little bit about trail restoration along the way.

But I also know that part of protecting those trails can be more passive. In their current state, my presence will likely add to deeper ruts and other associated harm that comes from my weight digging into the mud via my feet.

It’s also key to understand how many runners, hikers and even some cyclists react when confronted with a big pool of water in middle of the trail. Most try to sidestep it, to avoid getting their feet wet and to preserve those pristine kicks from the dingy stains of muddy water. Never mind that the edges of the trail are also likely to be very muddy, and that going around mud puddles causes even more damage, which is why we are told to run through the middle of the mess in the first place. But human nature is what it is.

So while I take a little pride in coming home from a trail run with mud splattered all over me, I also understand that maybe now it’s a little too muddy, a little too wet, and a bit too fragile for me. Not everyone will share this conviction, and I understand that. But it is something we should consider.

Maybe next weekend it will be different. But for now, I’ll grudgingly pound pavement and give my trails a break.

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

Five (dubious) reasons why running in a storm is awesome

Bad running weather? Depends on how you look at it. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Bad running weather? Depends on how you look at it. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

The other day, I’d planned a trail run and took a look up at the TV in my gym to see what the weather was doing. I knew there was a chance of storms, and sure enough, there was that green, yellow and red arc forming to the northwest that signified a line of storms headed my way.

They looked to be about 50 miles away, so I figured I had time.

I was wrong. Really wrong. About two miles in, I was far away from finishing when storms just unloaded on me.

There are a lot of negatives to being caught in a storm. Hail, for one. And tornadoes. Fortunately, none of those were present. But there was plenty of lightning, and that’s not so great.

But there are some pretty awesome things about doing a trail run in the middle of a storm. So here’s my Top 5 reasons why running in a storm is awesome…

1. The temperature change. After pounding out a few miles in hot, sticky conditions, that quick temperature change feels sweet. Couple that with the wind, and it’s a refreshing experience. Never mind that it might be a portent of doom. Just enjoy the moment.

2. No sunburn! One great thing about a cumulonimbus cloud formation is it does a pretty great job of blocking the sun. It might drop hail on you, or gale force winds, but it lovingly spares you the dangers of ultraviolet rays. I think.

3. You get a cool, refreshing shower. This is actually pretty awesome. Summer running can feel downright gross. But that pesky downpour will wash all that slimy sweat away, and as a bonus, it will cool you off. And a cooler runner is a faster runner.

4. You get a built-in excuse to play in the mud and jump in puddles. However long you’re out there, you get to revert to when you were 8 years old and play in the rain without having to feel weird about it. Splash away!

5. Solitude. No one else is dumb enough to be out on the trails in the middle of a thunderstorm, so you get to be away from people for as long as you like. No one yukking it up while you try to absorb the powerful atmospherics of rolling thunder, blowing winds and driving rain. This is actually a really cool experience, if you’re one of those “embrace the elements” type of people, which I am.

The bonus for me was rolling up on some friends at the trailhead who were chillin’ under a pavilion and knocking back some suds. Being the good people that they are, they shared, and it turned out to be a pretty awesome time.

Do you like running in bad weather? Not likely, but if you do, share some of your favorite bad weather trail run moments in the comments.

Bob Doucette

On fitness, motivation and beating the indoor curmudgeon

Under a bridge on a misty, cold-weather run. Beautifully dreary.

Under a bridge on a misty, cold-weather run. Beautifully dreary.

You can call this a Sunday confessional.

Generally speaking, there are two types of people. The first kind is the type who cannot sit still. They’re the ones who get bored easily. They want to do stuff. They want to be moving, acting, getting out there and shredding it until their body says, “No mas!”

The second kind of is the type who doesn’t mind chilling out. Grabbing some quality couch time. These are the kind of folks who can (and do) participate in Netflix binge-watching. Those AMC marathons? Yep, regular participants. They don’t mind getting out and doing things, but the Svengali-like power of the Lay-Z-Boy has much sway over this bunch.

Count me among the latter.

Say what? You may be thinking. But yes, it’s true.

I’d rather be among the former, just because it would make doing the things I enjoy – the hard things, mind you – that much easier. It would never be a debate if I was going to do another season of marathon training. It would be a done deal, barring injury, of course. Weather would never deter me. The temptation of watching “The Godfather” for the millionth time would be too weak to prevent me from doing more stuff outside.

Unfortunately, I’m not that guy.

There are a lot of great things about being able to chill. You don’t sweat the small things. You keep cool in stressful times. Restlessness is more easily controlled.

But inertia is a powerful thing, especially when your inertia is, well, static. It’s a lot easier to stay moving if you’re already moving. Getting going when you’re at full-stop is more physically taxing and mentally daunting.

That’s a problem we have here in the U.S. in general, where overeating and sitting still can be empirically measured. Every year, we’re reminded how much more obese the country is becoming. My home state of Oklahoma is a top-10 state in the nation when it comes to obesity rates; Colorado was recently ranked No. 2 in being the least obese (Montana is the leanest). And yet, with about 20 percent of its population considered obese, Colorado’s population is more obese now than Oklahoma was back in the 1990s. So that No. 2 ranking has a big Catch-22.

Clearly inactivity is not good, and it poses a particular challenge to people who gravitate toward sitting still.

Here is what that struggle looks like: Yesterday, the weather outside was crappy. The temperatures were in the mid-30s and it was rainy. I needed to get out and run. Keep in mind, I’m not a treadmill guy. I need to be outside, if for no other reason than to fight off the boredom that comes to mounting a machine and going nowhere.

My inside curmudgeon was ready to pack it in. I didn’t have anything to prove, and Sunday’s forecast looked much better. “Just bag it,” inside curmudgeon whispered in my ear. “Tomorrow is another day.”

And I was down with that. But there was still daylight left. It wasn’t that windy. And that rain? More like a fine mist.

“Get up,” outdoor curmudgeon said. “Get your run gear on, put on a ballcap and pound out a few miles. Make it five. You’ve run in worse. Much worse. Don’t be  wuss!”

These two battled it out for a couple hours as the afternoon wore on. The merits were weighed, and outdoor curmudgeon won out. No one else was out, but that was OK. The riverside trails were all mine. There was some beauty to the dreariness. Five miles later, I can say I didn’t regret a second of it.

If you’re the first type of person I mentioned earlier, God bless you. This dilemma rarely confronts you. If you’re within the second group, take heart. It might take a little more to knock you out of the couch-induced sloth, but you can do it. Consider each battle an exercise in growth, with each victory making it easier to transition from couch potato to human dynamo.

Bob Doucette