Revisiting the storm:
Sierra Trading Post is featuring “mistakes in the outdoors” on their blog this week and during their weekly #STPLive Chat this week on 3/27/2014 (Join the fun on Twitter at 6:00 pm EST/4:00 pm MST!). When I was asked to contribute I really couldn’t think of anything worse than when I got caught in a lightning storm on a 14er in 2012. Hope you can learn from my mistakes! ~Paula
Between missing the trail completely on La Plata Peak and my recent experience hiking Mount Evans, I am not having the best luck on 14ers lately. At a minimum, I’m certainly learning some lessons the hard way this summer!
My most recent hiking misadventure took place this past Saturday, when I attempted hiking Mount Evans with a group of friends. Mount Evans is often overlooked as a 14er, since there is a road to the top of the summit that a lot of tourists drive. Driving Mount Evans doesn’t count though, so I was excited to hike up to the top. After failing at La Plata Peak, I figured Mount Evans would be a nice, gentle way to kick off the 2012 14er season. Oh how naive I was.
The morning started out innocently enough. We all gathered at my friend Jessica’s house and then carpooled up to the trailhead. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. Ironically, we actually had a conversation about how great the weather was. I mean there was a 30% chance for thunderstorms after 12:00 p.m., but that’s basically every day in the mountains. I was unconcerned.
The route to Mount Evans from Guanella Pass is 8 miles, and it started out with a nice bushwacking session through the willows. There’s actually no such thing as a nice bushwacking session through the willows. Willows are just straight up a pain. We finally made it through the willows and up to the gully where the climbing really began.
I was tired from climbing and trail running in Colorado Springs the day before, so I decided to just take a slow and steady pace up the mountain. When the rest of my group took breaks, I just kept going. If I had stopped, I don’t know if I would have been able to start again! I soon got a little ahead of my group, and I figured if I reached the summit first I would have more time to relax and hang out.
See that hump? That’s the final ascent to the summit!
After getting to the top of the gully, there was a final boulder field before the summit. I was basically hiking alone at this point, and I was a little concerned when I glanced back and saw some thunderheads developing. I still thought it would be a few hours before anything came to fruition though.
15 minutes later I checked the status of the clouds again. They looked much different.
Despite the clouds, I made it to the top of the Sawtooth Ridge and decided that things still looked okay.
Final ridge to the summit. I was so close!
I promise I’m not completely inept. I actually have a lot of respect for the power of mother nature! But at this point I decided it was safer to try and make it to the summit than to turn around and head directly into the storm. I texted my friends that if worse came to worse I was going to hitch hike down from the summit of Mount Evans. Then I continued.
I was about 35 minutes from the summit at the bottom of the final ridge, but all of a sudden the weather got way worse. It started to snow.
At this point I was stuck. I could not turn around because the storm was coming from behind me. I decided to just try and summit as quickly as possible. All of a sudden, I felt something strange on my head. I thought it was a bug or something because it felt like a buzzing. Then I realized my entire body was buzzing, and it wasn’t from bugs. It was from static electricity, and it was the scariest situation I have ever experienced. I knew this was a very, very bad sign. Adrenaline kicked in and I sprinted the final stretch to the summit. As soon as I made it to the summit, I immediately looked for an escape. There was no pausing for a victorious summit photo picture. I flagged down a car and asked for a ride down to the base of the mountain. (Remember how Mount Evans has a road to the top of the summit? Once I made it to the summit, I was on a road.)
I assumed that the rest of my party had turned around earlier than me, so I decided to just ask for a ride back to Denver. The ladies that I flagged down were on vacation from Austin, Texas and could not have been nicer. I heard back from my friend Jessica that everyone else in my group was okay, and that was reassuring. I was safe, but that was definitely not the hike up Mount Evans that I had been picturing.
I was extremely lucky to make it out of my situation just fine, however, I learned some very important lessons. When I got home, I did some research on mountaintop lightning exposure that really freaked me out. For example, this:
- If your skin and hair feel prickly or you see your friend’s hair start to stand up, you are a prime target and the clouds and the ground are negotiating a path for the lightning bolt. (RMNP Lightning in the Mountains)
- The summits of mountains, crests of ridges, slopes above timberline, and large meadows are extremely hazardous places to be during lightning storms. (Camping Safety)
- There is no “warning sign” that will tell you reliably that lightning is about to strike; don’t depend on having your hair stand on end, or whatever. The first sign of a CG may be the flash itself. Of course, if your hair does stand on end, then you should take steps to protect yourself immediately! (Camping Safety)
What kills me about the situation is that I noticed the thunderheads developing and dismissed them. If I am ever in another situation where I see the weather worsening quickly, I will immediately abort mission. Hiking Mount Evans gave me a false sense of security, since I knew there would be cars at the top if things got dicey. Still, every mountain should be treated with respect. The mountains aren’t going anywhere, and I really never want to have such a close call ever again. Safety first!