In July 2014, two hikers in Rocky Mountain National Park of Colorado were killed by lightning strikes in two separate incidents on back-to-back days, and collectively, about a dozen others were injured. While these fatalities occurred on hiking trails relatively close to the road, lightning is an even bigger risk for backcountry and alpine climbers who are committed to being far away from a safe place for hours at a time. As the number of these climbers grow, it’s important to realize that lightning is a very serious threat that occurs practically every day in the high country. We teamed up with meteorologist William Roeder, who works with the U.S. space program in central Florida (aka Lightning Alley), and NOLS Curriculum and Research Manager John Gookin to compile the most pertinent information and best protocol for backcountry climbers.
First and Foremost
The only places that are completely safe from lightning are in a fully enclosed building with wiring and plumbing (house, office, restaurant—not a gazebo or open-sided shelter) or in a vehicle that has a solid metal roof and solid metal sides. That means the biggest and best rule for lightning safety is not to be outside when a storm hits—period. Time your activities so you’re not outside if a storm is coming, or turn back on the approach or bail off a climb if a storm is moving in. Roeder says, “You should never refer to ‘outdoor lightning safety’; instead, you should call it ‘lightning risk reduction.’” But even if you’ve done everything to mitigate risk from the start, a storm you don’t expect can still present problems. When lightning threatens, your first goal should be to get indoors or back in your vehicle. If that’s not possible, the next step is to get to the safest place available; follow the diagram below to see where the safest spot is, based on where you are.
If you are in the backcountry and get stuck in a storm, immediately move to the safest position possible, following the diagram above. However, two common situations that climbers might find themselves in that are not covered in the diagram are: being stuck on a vertical face or in a large, treeless boulderfield. Both of these situations are risky and subject to judgment based on the specific situation as to where lightning might strike. The spots most likely to be struck are based on three factors (in order of importance): relative height (summit vs. valley), isolation (think tall tree in an open field), and a streamlined, skinnier shape (tree vs. a boulder). Rock shelters and cave entrances are also dangerous because lightning will travel along any surface to reach electrical ground. If any part of your body touches any part of these surfaces, the lightning will travel through your body (fig. 1).
Boulderfield: Sit on a dry crashpad (or sleeping pad or pack-—whatever you have with you), not a wet one. Both hiding in rock caves and sitting exposed out in the open are dangerous, but since most people won’t want to get drenched during a storm, you’ll probably take shelter under the rocks if available. In this situation, the biggest risk is lightning flashing over rocks. Mitigate cave risk by sitting far back from the entrance and having as much space between your head and the rock ceiling as possible. That means potentially finding a different cave to wait out the storm.
Vertical face:Generally, it’s best to keep moving down to safer terrain, unless you come to a spot that’s more dangerous—such as a rock cave on the side of a face (fig. 1). If the storm is right on top of you, get into the lightning position (see next page) until the storm moves away. If the storm is still pretty distant, sneak across the danger zone as quickly as possible. Same goes once you reach the ground: Keep moving until you hit a dangerous area (e.g., exposed ridgeline). If the storm is right over your head, assume the lightning position. If not, move over that spot as quickly as possible.
First Aid Primer
Lightning fatalities and injuries occur due to the high voltage of electricity, the heat, and the blast of air (like an explosion). While burns, temporary loss of hearing, unconsciousness, and other injuries can occur, the most serious problems are cardiac arrest and respiratory arrest, so the most important first aid is CPR. (Call rescue services, 911, or emergency medical professionals immediately.) Roeder recommends following the most current CPR procedure, which emphasizes chest compressions rather than rescue breathing. AEDs (automated external defibrillators) work well, too.
XRubber tires or shoes insulate you from lightning. The amount of rubber in these items is way too small to insulate from the incredibly high voltage of lightning; it’s actually the metal body of the car that protects you. When a car is struck, the current travels around the outside of the vehicle (only if it has a metal top and sides), protecting the people inside.
X Your rack or cell phones attract lightning. Metal rods on skyscraper roofs do attract lightning; your cams and biners won’t. Don’t waste time shedding gear; focus on getting to safety early and quickly.
X Someone who has just been struck will electrocute you if touched. Nope, you should immediately start providing first aid.
X It won’t happen to me. Possibly the most dangerous myth—the threat of lightning should be respected and taken seriously, even if you have to change your plans.
X Lightning never strikes the same place twice. False! You’re not safe until you’re inside a building or vehicle.
X Thunder doesn’t mean lightning.Thunder is caused by lightning, so if you hear thunder, there IS lightning. The flash can hide behind a mountain, deep in a cloud, or just the opposite direction of where you’re looking.
Ground current is when the voltage from a strike runs along the ground; this happens with every bolt.
Side flash jumps from tall objects (trees, antenna) when that object is struck.
Contact voltage comes from touching a conductive object that was struck (wire fence).
Upward leaders originate from tall, pointed conductors trying to touch the approaching lightning a split-second before the strike.
Direct strikes are just what they sound like: The bolt hits you directly.
The most important part of this position is to stand with your feet together, which reduces exposure to ground current. You can stand or squat, on top of a pad or a pack if you have it, just keep your footprint on the ground as small as possible. Your biggest goal is getting to one of the two safe places listed earlier, and only do this lightning position if you experience the signs of an imminent strike (see “Quick Hits”). After 10 seconds, feel for signs of an imminent strike again. If present, get back into position. If not, continue seeking shelter.
>>Rule of thumb for time: On top by 10 a.m., off by noon.
>>Only 10% of those who encounter lightning are killed, but 70% of survivors have lifelong debilitating injuries.
>>When thunder roars, go indoors.
>>Spread out when hiking in a storm; current jumps from person to person. Aim for 20 feet between people to reduce the chances of others getting hurt, but make sure you’re within hearing distance.
>>Signs of imminent lightning: hair standing up, cracking/static sounds from the air, skin tingling, light metal objects (cams, biners, ice axe) or your rope vibrating.
>>NEVER lie flat on the ground, which increases your exposure to ground current.
>>Turn around immediately if you hear thunder, which means lightning is less than 10 miles away.
>>Sounds travels one mile every five seconds. Count the seconds between the flash and the bang, then divide by five. That’s how many miles away the storm is.
>>Avoid any and all water.
It felt like being stung by 10,000 wasps at the same time, from the inside out. I can’t describe how much pain I was in. I’d had more than a dozen close calls, ground shocks, and near-death lightning experiences on serious climbs before being blasted nine years ago. After all that, to finally be “lit up” ripped my life apart. This is a subject that strips me bare and exposes the rawest edges of my being, and I do not take it lightly. The real Phil Broscovak died that day. And since then, I’ve dealt with the consequences: a lifetime in a very personal but invisible hell while everyone tells me how “lucky” I am to have survived. The electrical shock caused a traumatic brain injury that’s left me with periods of normalness punctuated by massive mood swings, hypersensitivity to sound, difficulty writing and speaking, insomnia, extreme fatigue where I can barely force my eyes open, and an inability to regulate body temperature (sweating at 30°F and shivering at 80°F). This has affected every one of my relationships, and it was a huge factor in my divorce. It’s only been in the last two years that I have begun to “normalize” around bad weather. People acknowledge some of the risk, but they do not comprehend any of the consequences. If any of my stories can promote greater awareness, then I will continue to talk about it. No one dies from awareness.
John Gookin As the Curriculum and Research Manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School, John Gookin, Ph.D., is an expert in backcountry lightning risk management. He’s also on the Lightning Safety Team for the National Weather Service.