Lightning – Scurge of Hikers and Mountaineers

Lightning is the scurge of hikers during the summer and even skiers during spring skiing in the high mountains. Lightning can even occur if its sunny! I was once on a summit at 14,000 ft during August watching a cloud coming towards us. I didn’t think nothing of it until the boom and lightning hit me simultaneously. It was terrifying! I found myself literally jumping off the summit landing in a pile of boulders hurting myself in the process. If there was a serious lightning strike I would’ve been struck by the lightning anyway since jumping 12 feet would not have been far enough to save my life.

Every year, 24,000 people get killed world wide from lightning. According to the National Weather Service, there are 51 deaths in the US every year due to lightning. What is lightning? It is an electrical charge that is built up from the friction between water droplets and ice particles. This results in a postively charged clouds relative to the ground. This can result in a discharge between two clouds or between the clouds and the earth. While lightning is beautiful it can be deadly especially for hikers in the mountains or those exposed in open plains. Even if you are not killed by lightning, long term injuries can be caused. People that experience a close strike can experience long term effects: chronic pain, sleep problems, attention deficits and even depression.

How far are you from lightning? Use the “F to B System” or Flash to Boom System:
Count the time it takes from the instant you see the flash of lightning to when you hear the boom. Divide the time by 5 for miles (by 3 for kilometers). Danger occurs if the lightning is 25 seconds or less- ie, less than 5 miles.

How does lightning work? Lightning is always trying to reach the ground. If you are between the ground and the sky–you, being over 90% water, are a perfect conductor for the electrical charge. So, you must get low so you don’t stand out. And/or insulate yourself from the ground so that currents from above or below cannot connect inside you! Remember, lightning doesn’t hit just a single point of contact. The lightning hits a zone and spreads out instantaneously so that you will be in a zone that is charged with electricity.

You can be in danger if you start to feel tingling on your skin-as if you ran into a spider web! You know you are in a potential strike zone if your hair stands on end! You might be laughing at the sensation but you should also getting down the mountain at the same time being careful not to hurt yourself in the process. Another clue to lightning danger is the presence of a blue glow around metal objects like summit markers or even ice axes sometimes called “St. Elmos Fire”. These are all signs of the static discharge occurring in the storm around you. Do not carry skis or long ice axes on your back. They should be abandoned and recovered at a later time. Also stay away from metal railings or any other metal structures in the mountains such as ski lifts, electrical towers or radio – weather towers.

Here are some things that will keep you saver: People most often get hurt from ground currents rather than direct strikes. The rubber soles on your boots are a good start. What if you are caught out in the middle of big field without any shelter in sight? You can squat down asian style with only your boots touching the ground. Do not rest your butt or hands on the ground as that will complete a pathway or circuit through which the electricity can travel. You won’t have to stay there forever, although it will feel that way. Storms do travel quickly and the immediate danger will pass in 15 to 20 minutes. You will be wet and cold but you will be safe from lightning. If you have a climbing rope or a pack you can sit on those objects to negate or “short” the circuit.

As far as shelter goes, don’t get under a rocky overhang or inside or a gully or crack. Remember- lightning is somewhat like water – seeking the path of less resistance down gullys, chutes, couloirs and under overhangs. Don’t sit under a solitary boulder in the middle of a field as the lightning will seek out that high point. Don’t get into an open pit as currents can jump a ditch and hit you. Lone trees should be avoided of course. But a large thick forest can offer safe protection. Stay off ridges and other high points at all costs. If you must go out of your way to camp do so. Descending a half mile off your route is worth the increased safety and protection that a lower camp site can give you. During the night remember that your sleeping pad is most likely rubberized which will nullify ground currents. Camp in thick trees if possible with your tent rear facing into the wind.

Lightning must be respected especially in the high mountains. With some common sense you can avoid dangerous situations. Are storms clouds moving in? Is the time between thunder claps growing shorter? Awareness of your surroundings is key. Know your weather. During periods of unsettled weather during Spring and mid Summer you must always consider thunderstorms and thundersnow as a possibility and something to be ready for.