Afternoon thunderstorms can come out of nowhere in a hurry in the Rocky Mountains—so be prepared to make good choices when you go hiking in the high country.
When the mountains called, they didn’t mention anything about getting struck by lightning. Instead, they beckoned and I got my boots on. I headed for the Bear Peak trailhead, only to find it swathed in heavy gray clouds.
I had second thoughts, but they were fleeting. Colorado averages 500,000 ground strikes a year, most of those in June, July and August. Since I was hiking in October, I thought it would be fine. Besides, at 8,500 feet, Bear Peak is relatively just a wee mountain and, though I’m not usually one to follow the crowd. I saw plenty of people who looked like they knew what they were doing heading out. So I lemminged right after them.
Once I hit the peak, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I immediately turned to go. Within five minutes the storm unleashed a terrifying assault of sleet, hail, thunder and lightning.
That’s when I realized my mistakes. For one, I’d hiked, on purpose, to the second highest point in the Boulder Mountain Park when it was completely socked in. Though I hadn’t witnessed any lightning or thunder up to that point, as weather.gov points out, the first lightning strike is just as deadly as any other.
Plus, we all know how much lightning loves high points. Second, once the storm let loose, jabbing lightning fingers all over the mountain, I had no idea what to do. I knew I couldn’t hide under a tree, but what about a boulder? Should I just run?
I ended up just running, which Runner’s World magazine recommends—if you can do it without plummeting off a cliff.
When I later asked Patrick Kerscher, operations manager for El Paso Search and Rescue, about the best choices in a lightning storm, without hesitation he said, “Be aware and avoid the situation to begin with. Climb early to avoid the afternoon storms. Get out of the situation as quickly and safely as possible. If you’re in a group, spread out so a strike won’t take everyone out and there will be someone who can go for help or perform CPR.”
If you must get out during stormy weather, check the forecast. Dave Christenson of Rocky Mountain Rescue told me, “The weather service does a good job of predicting lightning.” Once lightning is present, its behavior is almost impossible to predict. It can strike from clouds 10 miles away or travel along the ground far from the original strike. NOAA, weather.gov, and several other sources state (usually with an exclamation point at the end), “There is NO safe place outside during a thunderstorm!” So there’s that.
A study by the National Weather Service on lightning fatalities between 2006 to 2017 found that most people who got struck had shelter nearby, but waited too long to seek it. Trees, dugouts or picnic awnings aren’t shelter, they’re lightning rods. For true safety, nothing beats a car or building. Check out weather.com for more lightning information.
In the end, I made it off the mountain that October day only breaking my phone, but according to the National Park Service, “On average, 11 people die from lightning each year in Colorado,” and Colorado has ranked fourth in the nation for lightning fatalities since 1959. Last year was one for the record books, in a good way: Colorado had zero fatalities in 2018. Let’s all play smart to maintain our winning streak.
Donna Stewart is a freelance writer and the author of Yoga Mama’s Buddha Sandals: Mayans, Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls. You can see more of her work at www.donnastewartwrites.com