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Mountain Rescue: Tips for surviving lightning in the backcountry

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue
Courtesy of GCSAR
Staff Photo |

On average, three people are killed every year in Colorado by lightning and five times that number are injured. Colorado ranks third in average annual lightning deaths, behind Florida and Texas.

So far this year there has been one Colorado fatality; Kathleen Bartlett was struck and killed at 12,400 feet on Mt. Yale, near Buena Vista. In my career I have dealt with three lightning fatalities. Two were military personnel, killed together above tree line near the top of Stanley Mountain. The other was a black powder hunter in a forested area near Gore Pass who took shelter under a tree. The lightning came down the tree and ignited his powder horn.

Not all lightning accidents occur on our highest peaks – golf courses and lakes are also high probability areas. It is relatively easy to seek shelter in populated areas – inside a walled building or inside a metal topped vehicle. If you are on the water, getting to shore is usually your best option.

Surviving a thunderstorm is more difficult in the backcountry, especially above tree line.

“Prevention is the first line of defense. Check the weather before you head out. If there is a high probability for thunderstorms consider traveling at a lower elevation and away from peaks and ridgetops.”

Prevention is the first line of defense. Check the weather before you head out. If there is a high probability for thunderstorms consider traveling at a lower elevation and away from peaks and ridgetops. In Colorado, thunderstorms generally occur in the afternoons during the summer and fall. If you can complete your high altitude hike by early afternoon you will avoid most of the thunderstorms. Be aware that a storm could be brewing out of sight on the other side of a peak or ridge.

Lightning has been known to strike as far as 10 miles from the rain center of a storm. Experts say that if you can hear thunder, you are in the possible strike zone. Obviously, the closer you are to the storm center, the more dangerous your situation. A rule of thumb is to count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunderclap and divide by five to get a rough estimate of the distance to the storm center. Thirty seconds equals about 6 miles.

Once you hear thunder, or see clouds building and darkening, it’s time to consider your options for safety. Other, more immediate, warning signs are a crackling, buzzing or humming of metal objects like ice axes or trekking poles, hair standing on end or a bluish glow around pointed rocks or metal items called St. Elmo’s Fire.

Don’t let summit fever or peer pressure overcome rational thinking. Lightning tends to strike the highest object around, and then follows the path of least resistance. If you can, get off the summit or ridge. Seek shelter in a building if available. If there is no shelter, find a low spot in the terrain, head for a depression, gully or valley, but avoid water flowing in cracks or streams. Avoid overhanging cliffs or cave entrances that provide a gap for lightning to arc across. Do not seek shelter under a lone tree or under anything taller than everything else in the vicinity.

Separate yourself from metal objects – frame packs, ice axes, poles. If you are climbing, disconnecting from your wet climbing rope and ditching your hardware rack is recommended.

Once you have found a place to hunker down, try to squat or sit on a pack or foam pad, do not lie down. Try to make yourself small, feet together, hands on ears to protect from acoustic shock. Get comfortable, you need to stay put until the lightning subsides. This position helps protect you from a strike, making it less likely for current to travel through your torso.

If possible, spread your group out at least 50 feet apart, 100 feet is better. By spreading out there is less chance that more than one person will be struck. Survivors can then care for someone who is injured.

After the lightning danger subsides, take stock. If someone was struck and is unconscious and not breathing, start CPR. CPR in the backcountry is not often successful. However, a quick response after a lightning strike is an exception. Check anybody who was hit for other injuries, especially burns, and treat for shock if necessary.

Getting caught in a bad place during a lightning storm is a terrifying and potentially fatal experience. The measures above increase your chances of survival by only very small margin. The best plan is always going to be avoiding lightning on peaks and ridges with knowledge, awareness and timing.

Find out more about lightning safety at http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at greg.foley@grandcountysar.com. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.


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