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Mount Evans: An electrifying experience

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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

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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!

The start of my day versus the end of my day.

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.

Perfect day, right?

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.

Taking a break up the gully.

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.

Paula in the mountains.

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.

Thunderheads developing.

15 minutes later I checked the status of the clouds again. They looked much different.

Uh-oh.

Despite the clouds, I made it to the top of the Sawtooth Ridge and decided that things still looked okay.

Looking back at Bierstadt.

Clouds. Yikes.

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.

The situation went from bad to worse.

 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.)

Safe and sound.

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.

Lessons learned

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!

Lightning – not a lesson you want to learn the hard way.

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Author: paulamahla

Typical Colorado girl that can't make up her mind. Trail running, hiking, climbing, camping, CrossFit, ultimate frisbee, and skiing? E, all of the above.

22 thoughts on “Mount Evans: An electrifying experience

  1. what time of day was this?

  2. Holy crap, Paula! I would have peed my pants! Well, not really, but yikes! I’ll be sure that we con’t get struck by lightning at PIO! 😉

  3. That’s scary! I’ve been in lightening/thunderstorms before in open fields (Teller Farms in Boulder), but on a 14er would be awful! Be safe!

  4. Oh wow, that is scary! I’ve read stories about the buzzing, and personally, I’d like to keep them stories! We hiked Bierstadt on Friday and when we were headed down into storm clouds at 12noon there were people still heading up. It was snowing, rumbling thunder and getting darker but they kept heading up…I was very nervous for them!

    But you did make it to the top, so you at least have that going for you. At the very least you can drive up another day and take your summit photo! 😉

  5. Hi Paula, this is Suzanne, the person who drove you back to Denver. I was just Googling Mt. Evans + static electricity and ran across your blog. Thanks for the recommendations. We ended up having a picnic at Washington Park. It was nice meeting you. Take care.

  6. This makes me (NOT) feel very comfortable! Be careful…
    Love, Mom

  7. Ahhhh!!!! Crazy!!!! Thanks for sharing. I want to climb one sometime soon and it’s a good reminder.

  8. Pingback: Double digit club | return to the motherland

  9. PAULA! What the heck, girlfirend!!!! Not a good idea at all – Very glad you didn’t get hurt!!

  10. Pingback: Colorado: Hiking Mt. Yale (Or The Time I Got Sick On A Mountain) « lgsmash

  11. just now reading this…you’re cray!! glad you’re okay!

  12. Paula – I just love your story and pictures! My husband and I can relate to your willow miseries AND the static electricity at the top of Mt. Evans! When we were climbing to the peak and he put his hand on my back. . . we were fully charged. My hair standing straight up on my head. . . and the electrical charges told us to RUN. It was fun reading your account. Thanks for posting it! Glad you’re alive!
    -Kim

  13. Pingback: lgsmashColorado: Hiking Mt. Yale (Or The Time I Got Sick On A Mountain) » lgsmash

  14. Very interesting information!Perfect just what I was looking for! “The whole point of getting things done is knowing what to leave undone.” by Lady Reading.

  15. We totally had this happen to us last summer on El Diente! And it was only 10AM!

  16. Wow, that static electricity thing sounds scary! I’ve been up on the mountains when there were thunderstorms, but managed to steer clear of summits and even passes when they came through. Lucky for you catching a ride down!

  17. I’ve also been on 14ers when storms have quickly moved in. It’s scary. You did the right things getting the heck out of there. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Dang. I know I commented when you originally posted this but it still gives me (non-lightening related) goosebumps. Those clouds are scary in your photos!!!

  19. I almost got struck by lightning(about 200 yds away) on the saddle between Gray’s/Torreys a couple years ago. Also stupid for being there. Just got distracted and didn’t even notice the clouds until they were on top of me.
    i didn’t summit Evans until the 3rd time I tried because I kept getting turned back by weather. That mountain has an attitude!

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