In 2014, I was caught on top of a big mountain (14,000 ft.) during a lightning storm that hit 1 dog, and spread through to 15 people. We hadn’t broken any of the rules that will generally keep you safe from lightning at high altitude, but when dealing with the mountains, rules change.
What started as a few fluffy around the area, quickly turned into swirling islands of dark blue lightning filled, scary storm clouds.
There are a few basic rules to avoiding lightning on 14ers:
Start right around sunrise.
If you start seeing clouds form, head down immediately.
If you hear thunder, and its too late to get down, stand next to something a lot taller than yourself.
Don’t get caught on the ridge!
Here is what happened to us:
We had just finished the Sawtooth traverse at around 11 o’clock, and were enjoying views of the world that can only be found at 14,000 ft. above sea level, when a strange surge of energy filled our body, and the hair on our arms and head started standing on end. A massive thunder clap shook the area.
While we started running down the mountain, hail began falling in a downpour, bouncing off our heads and legs as we sprinted towards the safety of tree-line. Small rocks were sticking to our shoes. Thunder and lightning boomed through the sky. We lost the trail, but kept running anyway.
About a mile from the top, we found our way to a cave, and took shelter in there.
(Acording to some comments on Youtube, sheltering in a cave is a bad idea. But I just have to say, those people may never have had to sprint down a mountain during a lightning storm, and felt how comfortable a cave can be during thunder and lightning.)
While sitting in the cave, we wondered about what went wrong during our descent?
What had started as a bunch of fluffy clouds in the valley below, had turned into lightning infested storm clouds as they rose in elevation. We had taken the early time (11 a.m.) for granted, and disregarded clouds as being a possible source of lightning. It was an innocent mistake at the time, and a difficult sign to acknowledge, because the weather had been so beautiful that whole morning.
A few clouds in the valleys below also do not necessarily mean storms. Much of the time, you can get away with a few clouds in the area, so long as they don’t turn stormy. (Cant say I would or would not risk summiting because of clouds in the future. Summits are cool.)
The fluffy clouds that had been floating scenically earlier at a lower elevation, quickly became angry storm clouds as they rose up the side of the mountain. What had started as a pleasant morning, became a stormy mess in a matter of seconds. The only thing to do now was sit in a cave, and think about how stupid we were.
Then we had to hike through miles of trail-less willow bushes (littered with sections that got cliffed out).
Then we had to cross some swelling, thigh deep rivers (effing scary).
Then came the extremely muddy swamps (effing yuck).
And finally, we had to be examined by the paramedics who were waiting for injured people at the bottom of the mountain (effing safe).
As we hopped into our car to leave, a flight for life helicopter careened towards the saddle between the 14,000 foot mountains Bierstadt and Evans, searching for additional people who had been hit by the storm.
So in closing, I would just like to say that in spite of the rules people will try and place over mountain travel, the most important rule is listening to what natural signs are showing you. The mountains make their own weather, and their own rules, so be careful to adapt your travel plans around whatever mountain weather decides to do (cuz mountains can be dicks).