Lightening strike- 1992 article
A shocking story
I recently had a hair-raising experience, literally. I was caught in an electrical storm on a 13,000′ mountain. It was a transforming experience as we say here in Marin. Wheeler Peak is the second highest point in Nevada and is the centerpiece for our newest national park, the Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. During the last week in July I took a group of people camping there to thoroughly explore the area.
After spending five days hiking and getting acclimated to the elevation, eleven of us decided to climb the peak. I have done it before, it is not a technical climb, no snow or ice and the trail is easy, steep but easy. The previous evening I went over the equipment list — rain gear, long underwear, hat, gloves, warm jacket. I said that we probably won’t need this stuff but it’s essential to carry. The weather on the mountain can change instantly. If there is any sign of thunderstorms we would abort our venture. And if per chance we were caught out we were to get off the mountain as fast as possible and get down low to avoid beting struck by lightning. I didn’t expect any of that stuff to happen of course.
The next day was bright and blue with only a few high cirrus clouds. I hadn’t seen that kind of cloud and wondered what they meant. In West Marin they mean a front is coming in, usually in 12 to 18 hours. We were on the trail at 7:45 AM, one way of 4 1/2 miles and an elevation gain of 3500′. It takes most people about 6 hours to do the round trip. The first mile was pretty easy, the second got us above timber line. And then it was huffing and puffing as we switchbacked back up the 30 degree slope. Our screaming lungs aching for a break, admiring the tough alpine plants. By now our respective abilities staggered us over a mile. When the first three made it to the top in a little over three hours, there were two clouds in the sky. One over a mountain to the north that was 40 miles away and the other to the south over a closer peak. I kept watching them. They were leaking, you could see rain attempting to fall, never reaching the ground. That is called virga, which is Latin for twig.
It was us and a hundred ravens were circling the mountain, tumbling and dancing. Ravens are associated with death, harbringers of bad news. But I like them. We watched a pair of Kestrels pursue every unfortunate small bird that flew over the mountain to get the valleys. I went over to the edge and stared down a 1500′ sheer drop to the glacier far below. That invisible hand kept pushing me from behind, death always seems so close at edges. One step, one slip and that’s it, no going back. I am always fascinated at how little separates us from death.
We were on top of the world and could easily see 125 miles in all directions. Eventually the others arrived. I kept watching that cloud on the near mountain, it was very high but it was getting bigger. I started to think we should go but some had just arrived, it didn’t seem fair to make them go right back down. So I was mum. The plan was to eat lunch at the top but it soon became clear that our innocent sunny day was rapidly becoming ominous. It was definitely time to leave. A couple of people had wisely already made that decision on their own and were plunging downhill.
I said let’s go, no eating lunch here. Moments after starting down, a cloud literally immediately formed right over our heads, seemingly out of nothing. It was suddenly very dark and then there was a brilliant flash of lightening, I immediately looked at my watch. After three seconds the thunder surrounded us. The resounding roar filled the valley and literally shook us. I may have only thought it or I may have shouted ..”We are where the Gods make lightening.” It had struck a mere half mile from us. It was getting scary.
The adrenline surged. The trail so very slowly and painfully negotiated only moments before became a blur. As we raced downhill there were two groups of us…three ahead and five behind. I began to feel the static electricity, the hairs were standing on end and a crackling filled the air. I heard a shout behind me, up the mountain. As I turned I saw Dick go down on one knee. I had already considered one bad thing that could happen. A twisted ankle on loose rocks and we would have to carry someone down the mountain. I thought Dick had slipped and hurt his foot. I yelled back what happened, no one heard me over the wind that was building. I watched Dick through my binoculars. He put his hand on his forehead and was kneeling on a rock. I was praying he would lift his head up, I did not want to go back up that mountain. Danger was up, safety was down. He soon stood up and I breathed a sigh of relief, his ankle wasn’t hurt. I didn’t realize that 6’6” Dick had been struck by lightening!
Dick, had just been hit by ground lightening, recovered quickly.
I flew down the mountain, hopping across boulders, charging straight down the hillside. The entire rocky surface had become a highly charged area. There was another tremendous flash of lightening very close that coursed throughout my body, I actually felt that electricity in me. At that moment I realized that we could be killed on this mountain. It was still too steep to run. I kept turning and looking back at my friends, counting them. A young boy scout ran past me saying that he was too young to die. I felt exactly the same way.
You could feel the tension building in the air. It was nearly imperceptibly at first, and I didn’t know whether I was just imagining it. But then my ears would crackle, a buzz would fill the air, and weird light flashes were in my peripheral vision. I yelled at my hiking mate, Alan, to get down immediately. We bowed our heads to the mountain, forced down to our knees and waited. Crackling and more buzzing and then the thunder would come, the pressure was relieved, we were not struck and could get up and start running again. The body knew what to do, all of us were responding on a gut level and doing what was necessary to survive. We were all prostrating ourselves, thrown down to the ground by forces so powerful they were beyond imagining.
They told me later that Dick kept saying that it was a good day to die. I didn’t think so. I was not going to die that day. There was too much left to do, besides I hadn’t gotten mortgage insurance yet. I was thinking about my family. Macabre thoughts. I imagined my dying words would be that line from the old teenage car-wreck song…”tell Laurie I love her, bum, bum, bum.” I could not imagine my son growing up without a father, not fair. I saw a butterfly flit by and I heard the ravens calling. To them it was just a normal day on the mountain, just like any other afternoon. To me it seemed the fury of nature was being unleased on us puny humans. We did not belong there.
Safety was still a mile below, in the trees on the other side of the saddle. I felt the electric tension build again and then I heard sharp crack behind me. I whirled around, I thought Allan had thrown a rock. It was later I realized that lightening had popped very close by. Then the hail started. Time for rain gear. It seemed to take me forever to get my poncho out and I couldn’t find the head hole and I couldn’t get my pack back on. Meanwhile the temperature dropped rapidly, just like the Park Service pamphlet said could happen on the mountain. It became cold and nasty. I was in shorts and the hail was pelting my legs. It stung. Another painful message from the Mountain Gods. And far below out in the desert the sun was obscenely shinning. Finally the trail became less steep and I could run. I began to sing, a comforting, spiritual song. I watched the hail bounce up out of the fields of alpine flowers; I thought how beautiful it was. I felt strong and sure and knew I could run for twenty miles if necessary. I got below the storm and for the first time felt confident that I was going to get off that mountain.
I went over an edge and could no longer see the five people far behind me. They were sticking close together and unbeknownst to me three of them had been struck by lightening. Not large bolts of lightening coursing down from above, but ground lightening (static electricity on a very large scale). Large painful pricks in the head, strong enough to knock them for a loop. During an electrical storm it is best to keep apart but they were doing what humans do best, helping each other in difficult times. Probably keeping close increased their chances of getting struck.
I finally got down to the trees and waited for the others to arrive. I hoped that they all would make it. I did not want to go back up the mountain after someone and I didn’t know whether I could or would. But fortunately everyone made it. The hail stopped and we began to walk and talk together. With laughter, tears, and anger we discharged, just like the lightening. Happy to be unhurt, we all felt changed in some way by the five amazing hours on Wheeler Peak.