Dancing with Lightning on the Summit
By Timothy Carlson
Mother Nature has taught me many lessons. I have learned each the hard way. Occasionally risking life and limb comes with the territory of being outdoors. Despite my best risk management efforts, Mother Nature likes to throw in curve balls.
For example, always wear a helmet, for rocks will fall on even the most bluebird days. If you are going to plug the hole in the rapid, commit to it, but not before the rogue wave sends your passengers for a swim. If you hear running water while crossing a snowfield, it’s a good bet that the water is running below your feet, and that you are standing on a tenuous snow bridge. These factors are not always expected, but they can be managed.
Yet, the toughest teacher is the weather. The weather never lies, but your phone’s weather app can. The smallest chance of afternoon rain actually means monsoon style lightning storms. A forecast for a light breeze in the evening will mean that you’ll be clutching your tent partner, shivering in your soaked sleeping bag while every lightning strike sounds to be your last. All the technology of the modern day is not as accurate as we’d like it to be.
This lesson was learned atop a desert tower in Arizona. One Spring day, two friends decided to take me on my first ever multi-pitch lead. I was so proud, feeling very accomplished that I had reached this milestone as a rock climber. My party took its time enjoying the view and posing for silly pictures. I had checked the weather every day for a week, and the only forecast was a small chance of afternoon rain. Until the very moment we began our descent, the conditions were calm and friendly. A few clouds drifted by, but nothing we felt was concerning.
We had dismantled the anchor, set up the rappel, and reorganized our gear. We anticipated no problems on the way down. Yet, as the mountaineers say, the most dangerous part of the climb is often the descent. My partner and I readied to throw the rappel line. We counted to three, and tossed them off the tower. A gust of wind felt it a fine time to whip them into the rock face, sending our falling ropes into a twisting dance. They became entangled, snagging themselves on the ledges below. My partner and I watched the whole scene play out. We looked at each other, sharing the same mix of frustration, and annoyance. These ropes would take time to untangle, if they even could be untangled.
The same gust of wind that tangled our ropes preceded an unexpected storm. A moment later, the rain began. Next came the thunder, and the sky darkened. In the distance, lightning strikes could be seen hitting the tops of canyons and spires. The storm was moving in.
One partner sat clipped to the anchors, remarking on the weather. The other set to work untangling the ropes - a not so envious task. All I could do was sit there and watch. I was incredibly uneasy. Lightning is my greatest fear, I’ve found. Sitting atop an exposed spire, covered in metal is perhaps the worst place one could be in an electrical storm. It was only a matter of time before a bolt would find its way to our windy perch, way in the sky. I was certain of it.
When I thought the weather was bad, it turned worse. The sideways, stinging rain quickly turned into snow. It was growing blizzard-like atop this spire in the middle of the Arizona desert. The hairs on my neck were standing up, and I thought I heard a strange sound not unlike the crackles of high tension electrical towers. I looked in my friends eyes, entirely sure that the end was nigh. Any moment now and we will be struck down. I had read about what lightning strikes do to a human body. It is not pretty. Don’t read about it, and certainly don’t Google the aftermath.
Those moments were some of the longest of my life. The anticipation of the end. Struck down in my prime because we did not listen to the weather forecast. The ropes were finally untangled, and the first friend - the most experienced of the three of us, rappelled down. Then, I assisted the second, as he was the least experienced. Finally, with the storm still at full force, I began to set up my rappel.
I was relieved that I was finally getting off the summit. At one point, while setting up my descent, I held a metal carabiner in the air. It buzzed. Buzzed? I checked again. The carabiner was indeed buzzing. It seemed that this piece of safety equipment was picking up unseen electrical currents. We were sitting right in the electromagnetic ebb of the storm. I whispered a curse word to myself. We had spent the day hiking, scrambling, and climbing our way into a spot that no human should ever find themselves in. There are strange forces at play, up in the sky.
We made it off the summit, back down to the safety of Terra Firma. Of course, as soon as we reached the ground, the storm stopped. We again found ourselves in the middle of a clear, warm afternoon. Each of us exchanged a knowing glance. This would be an experience we would never forget.
Don’t be so quick to trust the weather forecast. It is not always as right as you need it to be. When playing outdoors, trust your judgement. I learned a lot about risk management that day. Perhaps the toughest lesson learned that day was that you can never be too prepared for whatever nature can throw at you. I used to be so cocky. I walked around like I was an invincible mountain man. These days, I’m a little more humble. I respect the outdoors more, and I know that your fate can turn on a dime.
Timmy Carlson is a Hiker, Rock Climber, and Blogger living in beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona. He loves Wilderness Medicine, Photography, and Black Coffee. Previously, Timmy worked as a wilderness guide, leading backpacking and river trips throughout the American Southwest. These days, he runs the blog Hike The Planet!, where he writes Trail Reports, Gear Reviews, Technical Tips, and the occasional humor piece. In the future, he hopes to pursue a career in travel nursing, where he can be allowed to climb and hike wherever the road takes him.