19 July 2013 2:01 pm0 commentsViews: 38

“About noon, as usual, big bossy cumuli began to grow above the forest, and the rainstorm pouring from them is the most imposing I have yet seen. The silvery zigzag lightning lances are longer than usual, and the thunder gloriously impressive, keen, crashing, intensely concentrated, speaking with such tremendous enery it would seem that an entire mountain is being shattered at every stroke.”
- John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

When you are outside, thunder and lighting are immensely different than when you are indoors.

When you find yourself indoors during a thunderstorm:

  • You are dry.
  • You are warm.
  • There are probably lights on.
  • You hear rain patter on your roof and see it splash against your windows but you don’t feel it on your skin.
  • The powerful wind is not felt and its sounds are muffled by the almost-pleasant noise of rain colliding with the structure that shelters you.

The permanence of your dwelling creates a disconnect between you and the storm: lightning, thunder, and storms pass largely without impact. In the rarest of cases an immensely close crack of thunder might cause your heart skip a beat. But you are still dry. You are still warm. You still continue on with negligible interference.

When you encounter a storm on the trail, all the disconnect created by a permanent shelter is removed.

You are no longer in control. You are exposed. You are weak.

Conditional Risk

Statistics about lightning strikes are meaningless if you ignore conditional risk. Risk of being struck is dependent on your behavior. If you’re hiking through a raging storm along an exposed ridgeline with a trekking pole to play the role of lightning rod, you have substantially increased your risks of getting struck compared to sitting on your porch at home.

Do not mess with lightning.

You have no power over a storm. It is all too easy to forget this while sheltered in a permanent dwelling. It could have fatal consequences to forget it on the trail.

Risky behavior begets additional risk. Be willing to bend with the weather in order to preserve your safety.

Seven Safety Tips for Lightning:

  • Get to lower ground — When a storm is looming, do not hike implacably higher up a summit.
  • Do not be the tallest thing around.
  • Do not seek shelter under the tallest thing around.
  • If in a forest, seek shelter away from the leaning and snag trees that are most likely to fall.
  • Separate your self from all metal objects.
  • Isolate yourself from the ground by kneeling or crouching on top of your camping matt.
  • Minimize contact area with ground.

In 1985, a party of 5 was was hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome when a thunderstorm approached. They were barely halfway to the summit when the storm was noticed in the distance, and the party made the unsafe decision to press higher up the natural lightning rod that they were ascending. By the time they reached the summit, the thunderstorm had arrived and lightning struck the summit. Two were killed instantly, two suffered severe internal injuries, and the fifth person escaped with minimal injury. This 3-minute video details their hike and the major mistakes that were made leading to the fatal encounter.

You must be adaptable.

Regardless of how badly you want to keep to your schedule or make the summit you had planned, do you want to die for it? I’m going to venture a guess of probably not. Being adaptable to the trail will improve your trail experience while making you safer.

Hiking on a tight schedule to get to a destination is the opposite of being adaptable. One way to increase your adaptability on the trail is to hike long. By hiking long, you spread your miles across all available daylight hours and build in the flexibility to delay a few hours for an afternoon thunderstorm and still make your destination by nightfall.

Hike smart & happy,

“The wind began to shift. Suddenly, from nowhere, there were grey stramers in the air and, as if to announce them, thunder.” – James Salter, Solo Faces

[Image: Flikr user Lnk.Si]

[Comic: Randall Munroe's Xkcd]

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