During the summer months, I try to spend as much time above the tree line of the Rocky Mountains as I can. Whether climbing mountain peaks or just going on a tundra hike, I like the crisp open air and pristine views that can only be achieved above 11,000 feet. By going this high, you can easily escape the heat of summer and also escape the crowds. The day hikers that are out for a casual stroll will avoid the steep grades, and continuing above tree line will very often result with little more than open space between you and the mountains.
Summer Lightning in the Rockies
The problem with hiking and climbing the Rocky Mountains during the summer is lightning. I was headed out this weekend for a glacier climb, when a headline grabbed my attention - "Storms Delay Recovery of Climber's Body on Longs Peak." After reading the article, I had a "shocking" reminder to the dangers that do exist in alpine country. The young man that died happened to be my age, and he was an experienced climber. He must have ignored the impending storm and been unable to take shelter. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After digging a bit deeper, I found that I am in the danger group. The Lightning Data Center from Denver has accumulated a lot of data from lightning strikes in the Rocky Mountains and offered several conclusions including the following:
- Being hit above timberline is often fatal.
- Male victims outnumber females four to one.
- The typical casualty is a healthy man in his mid-30's
- Three of the top activities are mountain hiking, climbing, and camping.
Other than being extremely healthy and not quite in my mid-30's, it looks like I better watch my step. But, if you follow some simple rules and don't place yourself at risk, your odds of being struck by lightning can be brought to about the same odds of winning the lottery. Take a look at the below tips to help avoid a strike.
1. Watch the forecast, but don't count on it.
It doesn't hurt to become a bit of a weather geek. The forecast can at least give you an idea of what to expect; however, the climate above 11,000 feet is very volatile and results in different weather than down in the mountain towns. I have been caught in a large hail and snowstorm at 12,000 feet, while it was sunny and 80 degrees in town. Also, learn to tell the signs of an incoming thunderstorm. Besides the clouds, you will usually notice cooler winds that suddenly come up. If it starts coming, head down, and if the forecast calls for strong storms all day, pick another day.
2. Start early, and be off exposed peaks by late morning.
Never plan on a lightning-free day while hiking in mountainous country. In summer months, storms can come up suddenly, and studies have shown that the first lightning strikes usually occur in the high country shortly after 11 a.m. It involves getting up early, but to lower your risk of a strike, you need to be where you can get to shelter by this time.
3. Set a turn-around time and stick to it.
In order to make it to lower ground before the afternoon storms, you should always agree upon a turn around time and stick to it. I know it is hard to turn back, when you are only a little ways form the summit and are only a half-hour long on your turn-around time. However, a push for glory can cost you big time. Look at it this way; the mountains have been there for thousands of years, and they will be there another day.
4. If you are above tree line when a storm comes up, get down as quick as you can.
Although you may be below the peak, you are in the danger zone. Making it to the trees will turn the tables in your favor. Wet rock can be very dangerous, especially on a descent, so take care as you head to the trees. Also, avoid the temptation of an isolated group of trees, and head to the forest.
5. If you cannot make it to the forest, find the lowest area possible and crouch down.
Find a gully or low area and avoid any pooling water. Assume a crouched position with all the weight on the balls of your feet. Do not touch the ground with your hands. You want to minimize any possible conduction with the ground. Now, wait the storm out, until it is safe to continue.
6. If you have an ice axe or hiking staff, ditch it.
The last thing you need is a lightning rod in your hand. You can always retrieve it later, and if you can't, even a nice $150 axe is not worth your life.
7. Watch the weather.
The weather can change quickly and don't ignore it or underestimate its powers - ever.
8. If someone is struck, immediately tend to the victim.
Contrary to myths, the bodies do not retain electrical charge and can be safely handled. Also, a victim can appear dead but still be able to be revived. If possible, call 911 or send someone for help, but if you are in the mountains, your only option is immediate attention to the victim. If the victim is not breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. If a pulse is not present as well and you know CPR, begin resuscitation efforts and stay with the victim until help arrives.
If you don't know CPR, take a course. It could save someone's life someday.
Hiking in alpine country is a great experience, and it offers views of nature that only a small percentage of people get to see. By following the above tips, you can also make hiking and climbing safe activities, regardless of the weather.
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