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The fearsome flash from above

M. John Fayhee
Special to The Vail TrailSafety literature these days suggests that backcountry travelers try to find a sheltered spot on the side of a slope, where they ought to huddle down till at least 30 minutes after the thunder stops. This is always a good time to utilize crying and blubbering as a lightning survival strategy.
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Though this seems to surprise many people (and though many of us are surprised by that surprise), Colorado is one of the most dangerous states in the country when it comes to lightning fatalities.

Sixty-nine people perished as a result of lightning in Colorado between 1980 and 2004. Between 1997 and 2006, there were 30 lightning deaths in Colorado, second only to Florida’s 71. No matter what time frame you examine, Colorado is perennially in the top three states for lightning injuries and fatalities, even though it ranks only 28th in terms of actual lightning strikes hitting the ground (499,888 between 1997-2001).

Every experienced backcountry person has a full quiver of lightning-based bar stories, stories that often turn even the most agnostic among us towards prayerful considerations. Here are two from my personal resume of fear:

– Once, while holed up, teeth-chattering, in a tent that felt mighty frail, I stopped counting at 800 (!!!) the number of lightning flashes I saw through the thin veil of nylon that separated me from whatever follows our frail corporeal existence. That number seems all the more captivating when you consider that I did not start counting flashes until the storm had already been raging for an hour, and it raged on for an hour after I stopped counting. And more than 100 of the flashes I counted were of the “flash-boom” variety, where there was no time between the lightning and the thunder.

– Then there was the time my wife and I were sprinting down from the tundra in the San Juan Mountains, scant seconds (we thought) ahead of a storm. Fifty feet in front of me, a pine tree was instantly transformed into sizzling sawdust, and the percussion knocked me on my keister so intensely that, when my wife found me sitting there disoriented in the middle of the trail, I did not know who or where I was. I remember seeing the bright flash, but I do not remember ever hearing the thunder. I literally had blackened pine bark in my beard, up my nose and in my throat.

The main thing about lightning though, is not its intensity and ability to translate that intensity to the mortality argument. Rather, it’s lightning’s unpredictability that causes so much heartburn among backcountry devotees.

A few years ago, I camped with a meteorology professor from Colorado State University who had spent his entire career studying lightning. Even as an intense thunderstorm seethed seemingly inches above our heads, he told me that, after 30 years of intense academic analysis, his most salient observation about lightning was that neither a single person nor a single computer on the face of the planet can tell you where or under what circumstances a given lightning bolt will hit a given spot.

“There have been plenty of people struck by lightning who did everything right,” he told me. “And there have been uncountable people who have done everything wrong and still not been hit.”

Great.

So, what’s a rational, death-fearing backcountry traveler to do during the height of lightning season in Colorado?

Without a doubt, the most commonly held advice for not meeting your maker (or even your health-care provider) via lightning strike is to avoid being out during storms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says if there are less than 30 seconds between a lightning flash and the resultant thunder, you ought to be concerned, because lightning can strike from as far away as 25 miles.

Most lightning storms hit the Colorado Rockies in late morning to mid-afternoon. If you plan to be out and about doing things like climbing mountains, try to get an early start. You should always be on your way down from a summit by noon.

Though there is some dispute in the literature, many experts claim that the most dangerous time for lightning strikes is at the leading and trailing edges of a storm. Either way, do not assume that, just because a storm is not yet directly above you, or just because it seems to have dissipated, you are out of danger.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to the contrary, you find yourself in the middle of a storm. My personal instinct at such times has always been to seek shelter under trees. Though that might serve as a psychological salve, it is bad strategy, as 25 percent of all people who were killed by lightning in 2007 died while, you guessed it, standing under trees. Lightning is attracted to the highest points in a given area. And, in most backcountry places, that would be trees. This highest-point issue also applies to mountaintops and ridgelines.

At the same time, you want to avoid open country ” like the tundra ” because you might very well be the tallest thing for miles. Safety literature these days suggests backcountry travelers try to find a sheltered spot on the side of a slope, where they ought to huddle down till at least 30 minutes after the thunder stops. This is always a good time to try utilizing crying and blubbering as a lightning survival strategy.

Then there’s the conductivity issue. A significant percentage of lightning fatalities occur in and around water, which, as we all know, serves as a very nice conductor for electricity. Definitely get away from large bodies of water, like lakes. Many experts also suggest avoiding even bogs and streams during a storm.

Outdoor magazines suggest that people squat atop their packs, in an attempt to break the direct conductive connection between human and terra firma. The goal is to make the most minimal contact possible with the ground while simultaneously getting as low as possible. (Lightning-induced electric currents can travel hundreds of feet through the ground.)

The one thing that all of us “know” about lightning is to stay as far away from metal objects as possible. But the literature now states that the main problem with being near metal is not its ability to attract lightning (” … the presence of metal makes virtually no difference on where lightning strikes,” says one Web site), but, rather, its ability to conduct electricity after the lightning has struck. So, as you are pondering which religion to take up as the bright flashes from the sky are popping all around you, best to jettison that pocketknife in your front pocket. It’s the least you can do, and ” who knows? ” it just might work.

M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at mjfayhee@yahoo.com.


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