Gerry Roach blogs on Lightning.

Safety First

Climbing is dangerous, and each individual should approach their climbs with caution. Conditions can vary tremendously depending on

time of day and time of year. Don’t always assume good summer conditions. Lightning is always a serious hazard in Colorado during the

summer months. Snow conditions and cornices vary from year to year. Spring and early summer avalanches can be a function of winter

storms that occurred months earlier. The previous winter’s snowfall determines snow conditions in August.

Before charging forth with your city energy and competitive urges, take some time to understand the mountain environment you

are about to enter. Carefully study your chosen route and don’t be afraid to retreat if your condition, or the mountain’s, is unfavorable.

Better yet, do an easier climb nearby to become familiar with the area. When both you and the mountain are ready, come back and do

your dream climb.


Lightning

Colorado is famous for apocalyptic lightning storms that threaten not just your life, but your soul as well. This section will have special

meaning if you have ever been trapped by a storm that endures for more than an hour and leaves no gap between one peal of thunder and

the next. The term simultaneous flash-boom has a very personal meaning for many Colorado climbers.

Dangers:

• Lightning is dangerous!

• Lightning is the greatest external hazard to summer mountaineering in Colorado.

• Lightning kills people every year in Colorado’s mountains.

• Direct hits are usually fatal.

Precautions:

• Start early! Be off summits by noon and back in the valley by early afternoon.

• Observe thunderhead buildup carefully, noting speed and direction; towering thunderheads with black bottoms are bad.

• When lightning begins nearby, count the seconds between flash and thunder, then divide by 5 to calculate the distance to the flash in

miles. Repeat to determine if lightning is approaching.

• Try to determine if the lightning activity is cloud-to-cloud or ground strikes.

• Get off summits and ridges.

Protection:

• You cannot outrun a storm; Physics Wins.

• When caught, seek a safe zone in the 45-degree cone around an object 5 to 10 times your height.

• Be aware of ground currents; the current from a ground strike disperses along the ground or cliff, especially in wet cracks.

• Wet ropes are good conductors.

• Snow is not a good conductor.

• Separate yourself from metal objects.

• Avoid sheltering in potential spark gaps under boulders and trees.

• Disperse the group. Survivors can revive one who is hit.

• Crouch on boot soles, ideally on dry insulating material such as moss or grass. Dirt is better than rock. Avoid water.

• Do not put your hands down. Put elbows on knees and hands on head. This gives current a short path through your arms rather than the

longer path through your vital organs.

• Do not lie down; current easily goes through your vital organs.

First Aid:

• Know and give CPR. CPR has revived many lightning-strike victims.

• Treat for burns.

• Evacuate.

Stories:

1. Many decades ago, I climbed one of the steep couloirs on the large west face of the Arapaho Peaks west of Boulder. After visiting the

summit of North Arapaho, I started the ridge traverse to South Arapaho and the easy route down. I had done this ridge many times, and

knew exactly how to do it. As I progressed, a thunder storm blew in. As I approached a 15-foot Class 3 downclimb right on the ridge, the

buzzing became extreme, and I decided to bail off the ridge to the west. I went down about a hundred feet and hunkered down to let the

storm pass, but it was just starting. After a bit I went back up, but the bussing was as bad as before. I retreated again. After more waiting,

I tried again to no avail. After more waiting, I tried again, to no avail. This time I waited longer. I could see to the west and the storm

seemed to have a lull coming. On my fifth attempt, I zipped up to the ridge, and scampered quickly down the key passage. The buzzing

was diminished, but still there. I have never forgotten those moments on the Class 3 downclimb, where I could have easily been struck

by lightning. I zoomed on down, and got the heck away from the ridge.

In retrospect, that ridge is a prime candidate for lightning. North Arapaho is the highest peak in the Indian Peaks, and that ridge

stays high for almost a mile. It is a horizontal lightning rod. Carefully consider the terrain you are in.


2. On another occasion. I climbed the Ellingwood Ridge on La Plata Peak. This ridge is a long complicated affair, and takes longer than

you think it should. I finally reached the sub summit East La Plata only to see that the weather was crapping out. I moved out to the west,

zipped over the true summit of La Plata, and started my descent of the standard route at top speed. About a thousand feet down, I was

still racing along to reach the trees. To my amazement, I passed a lone male climber still going up. I did not slow down or deliver my

Physics Wins speech. The lone climber was in sandals, and not well equipped. I simply hoped that my speedy descent would send him a

message to turn around. He kept going up into the now serious storm. If this climber is still alive, I’m sure that he believes that he is

exempt from lightning. No, Physics Wins.


3. On another occasion, I climbed the route Dreamweaver on the North Face of Mount Meeker. Above all the difficulties, all that

remained was the summit of the peak. Unfortunately, a big thunder storm moved in. I hunkered down well below the summit to wait it

out. Facing out, I was amazed to see a huge bolt of lightning strike the trail thousands of feet below. Fortunately, there was no one near

the strike. So, the lesson here is that, yes, the probability of lightning striking summits and ridges is higher, but that does not mean that it

cannot strike lower elevations.


4. On another occasion, I was high on the Fifth Flatiron above Boulder in one of the notches in the summit ridge. Lightning was all

around, and I decided that the summit was not the place to be. Hunkered down in my notch, I was amazed to see a huge bolt of lightning

strike the parking lot in front of the South King Soopers, the grocery store that I normally shopped at. I had walked across that parking

lot hundreds of times. From my considerable distance, I did not see anyone keeling over. The lesson here is that mere probabilities don’t

save you. In bad storms, seek safe shelter, but don’t perch under an overhang.


5. Yes, you are safer in a car, but if struck, the current will travel down the metal frame, then leap to the ground. If you are touching the

metal frame, then you will get zapped. Once, a motorcyclist was hit and killed by a strike while coming northwest down the hill from

Davidson Mesa approaching Boulder. The nearby motorists in their cars all witnessed the tragedy. Again, Physics Wins. Don’t make

yourself a target.


6. Yes, beware ground current. It can travel long distances from the actual strike. If you are crouching or standing there, it can fry your

feet. If you are on a technical climb, the current can travel down wet cracks and ropes. Ditch your rack, and get away from cracks.


7. You are safer below treeline, but not immune. Once, while starting to pack in to Capitol Peak, lightning struck nearby in the trees, and

a sharp spark flew off of the tip of an ice ax being carried in a hand. OW! It was immediately dropped.


8. The main lesson in all of this is to start early. Yes, it can often be hard to be on the summit by noon, so start earlier. Turning around is

always an option. I once turned around at 9 AM when a wicked storm swept across the West Ridge of Pagoda. If it’s that bad, get out of

there!

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