I watched in abject terror as a whitish-pink bolt of lightning struck only 100 yards away from my rocky sanctuary. I had ditched my pack nearby on the open scree field for fear my skis—secured in an A-frame configuration—might attract Zeus’ unwanted attention. The light from the flash glinted off the skis’ metal edges, mocking my unhappy predicament.
I’d found security huddling beneath an overhanging boulder, and prayed the next crack of thunder wouldn’t announce my demise. I didn’t know it was one of the worst hiding places I could have chosen: sheltering from lightning in a shallow cave or under an overhang can result in arcing currents that’ll cook you like a microwave oven.
Summer is the height of backcountry season; it’s also prime time for severe weather. While mountain forces as diverse as fire or snow can create hazardous weather conditions in the middle of July, lightning is the true bane of the backcountry traveler. With hikers, climbers, peak-baggers, mountain bikers, and other enthusiasts venturing well above treeline in mountainous states, dangerous encounters with severe weather are a certainty. The following are some ways to prevent becoming an annual lightning statistic.
Know the forecast.
Make sure you get the weather forecast before going out. Your best source of up to date weather information is a NOAA weather radio. These devices can be purchased at most electronics stores, such as Radio Shack. If you do not have access to NOAA weather radio, carry a portable radio
Be aware of mountain weather.
High cirrus clouds, sometimes called mare's tails, are the classic harbinger of a storm front, usually within 12 to 24 hours. Using a wrist altimeter
to keep an eye on barometric pressure can be helpful in recognizing trends. However, mountain storms often build in the heat of the afternoon, regardless of barometric stability or lack thereof. Watch how fast clouds build. Instruments like the Brunton Sherpa Atmospheric Data Center
can help you track changes in weather over the course of your trip.
If you’re caught in a storm...
...find the flattest spot possible and sit or crouch on your pack to insulate yourself from the ground. Ball up as much as possible to reduce the distance that a current can travel through your body. Recent research indicates that there may be no such thing as a “safe zone” above treeline. Only dense, uniform timber provides protection.