I just had to post this recent message from a local climber here in Boulder who was struck by lightening… I’ve excerpted from a much longer message, but I thought these portions of the story were particularly interesting. I’ve also attached photos from her legs that she sent with the original email. I changed all names for anonimity.
I was struck by lightning last Wednesday at Lookout Mountain. I’m writing to let you know, because if I’d heard a story like mine, or known someone first hand that survived a lightning strike, I would have made different decisions climbing that day. I am extremely fortunate and thankful to be alive. Pasted below is part of a letter of complaint submitted to the Colorado Mountain Club from a fellow climber, who remembers things more vividly than I, and who I credit with saving me. Also, please take a look at the pictures of my legs that I’ve attached. I have some nerve damage to my legs. Please feel free to share my story with any other climbers or outdoor enthusiasts that you know, and please make sure to have an exit plan if lightning comes upon you suddenly on a climb. Please also consider how to respond if people are in shock. We were all in a bit of shock- once I eventually regained movement, it was assumed that I was ok, and I was allowed to drive home from Golden to Boulder. I now realize that, being in shock (literally having been shocked), I was unable to think clearly. Yet, others didn’t step in and get me the medical attention that I needed. I drove myself to Boulder Community Hospital. At the hospital they told me that the most dangerous thing was for me to have driven. I could have gone into cardiopulmonary arrest, because an electrical charge of that magnitude can short-circuit the body’s electrical systems, like the heart, or the respiratory center of the brain. I’ve changed the names in the account below to protect the privacy of the other climbers. It was a Colorado Mountain Club top rope climb.
Climb on, safely,
Lightning Strike, Lookout Mountain, Wednesday, June 25, 2008
“The weather was for the most part fine, with some clouds rolling in and past without incident, until approximately 6:50pm. While I was belaying a climber, I and another belayer, Ella, spotted lightning. I immediately announced it to the group, and Ella confirmed it to the group. We heard thunder approximately 5 seconds later, although neither of us counted the exact time. But we both looked at each other and confirmed that it was likely not far off. My climber immediately descended, but Ella’s climber, George, continued to climb. Shortly thereafter, we both spotted another bolt, and we both counted 5 seconds until the thunder. At this stage the storm was close, active, and we were exposed. George continued to climb, topping out and then descending. After he got down, Brooke and I both pushed to pull the ropes and seek shelter. George was not inclined to be on the top of the crag during the storm, which was the right decision. But I was not advocating pulling all of the gear. I wanted to pull the ropes to prevent them from getting struck, and head to the cars (parked above) to ride out the storm. It would have required us to hike up to the road, being exposed briefly. The group was indecisive, in part because after he got off belay, George downplayed the significance of the lightning, the risks, and the chances that we could get hit. He pointed to us being below the high point, and that the top of the crag had a small roof. Ella and I were uncomfortable with the situation, but succumbed to the group’s intention to wait and see what happened. We chatted for a few minutes, discussing the untimely arrival of an additional climber, the weather protection of the rope I had just bought (it was being used on one route), and George’s opinion that we were not in danger. While chatting, I spotted two more bolts, the last of which produced thunder 2 seconds later.
I removed my climbing shoes, put on my hiking sandals, and debated about the best course of action. We were still exposed, with no protection to get to and the storm was getting closer and increasingly active. At this stage, I estimate anywhere between 7-15 minutes had passed since Ella and I first spotted lightning. George, meanwhile invited Brooke to start climbing, indicating that the “crack” route we were standing in front of was available. Ella voiced her hesitation given the lightning, but George persisted, eventually talking her into tying in to climb. While Brooke was preparing to climb (not yet on the face), I was bending down to adjust my sandals and we got hit by a bolt. I’m not sure where exactly it hit, but suspect that it hit the top of the crag, traveled down the crack she was about to climb, and into at least four different people. Brooke collapsed next to me paralyzed both physically and mentally. As the group fell into a state of chaos, Ella was shouting that she couldn’t feel or move either of her legs as she lay panic-stricken next to me. I was not hit, and did not feel anything. Instinctively, I grabbed her harness, untied her, and shouted commands to others in our group to help me pick her up so we could carry her off the crag to lower ground. Janelle and John rushed over to help, and the four of us quickly, but carefully tried to carry Brooke down to some cover. As we were trying to get to lower ground, I shouted at George something to the effect that “we should not have fl’ing been up here”, to which he replied “NO SHIT!” As we hiked down, George, as far as I could tell, remained in place, imploring the group not to panic because “lightning does not strike the same place twice”. As the four of us continued downward, handing Ella off to one another, it quickly became apparent that there was no where for us to go, no shelter, and the trail was quickly coming to an end. Luckily, the storm was blowing over without any more activity in our immediate area, and Ella was regaining feeling and some strength in one of her legs. … Ella was at this stage surrounded by our fellow climbers sitting in her car, having regained nearly all feeling and strength in both of her legs.
There were certainly many lapses in judgement which led to Ella’s injury. She was very lucky. Below are the images of her skin after the strike. Notice the electrical branching marks here — I find this fascinating! The red marks are clearly not veins, I instinctively recognize the pattern as being electrical. I saw the same pattern in the ground when lightening hit a hut when I was in Guinea (West Africa) — it travelled through the ground and killed two people. When I visited the hut, I saw these same electrical branching patterns, visible as raised welts in the ground. The earth there is iron-rich, which I assume makes a difference in how well the lightening conducted through the ground.
My old boss at the Exploratorium always said to climb down immediately if you see lightening on a climb. The National Lightening Safety Institute says to get out when lightening is 6 miles away.
The 30/30 Rule says to shut down when lightning is six miles away. Use a “flash to bang” (lightning to thunder) count of five seconds equals one mile (10 = 2 miles; 20 = 4 miles; 30 = 6 miles).
Note that in Ella’s case, the lightening was about 1 mile away, and moved within a half mile.