I did a lot of things wrong the other day. First, I began hiking up Mount Taylor, west of Teton Pass, after lunch. Not exactly an alpine start designed to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
Second, I chose to ascend the south ridge, which is pretty much straight up, and was so focused on my feet that I neglected to watch the clouds building up behind me.
When I did notice them I decided I was close enough to the top to continue to the summit. Bad idea.
As I topped out I began to hear distant rumbling. At this point I did what I should have done a half -hour before and started hurrying down, trying to get off the high point as quickly as I could.
I was lucky. The storm moved by. I felt a few drops of rain and heard some distant thunder, but nothing ever got close, and I never saw any lightning flashes. Still, lightning was very much on my mind as I anxiously made my way down.
At the beginning of August, as most people around here know, a student in a NOLS course died from a lightning strike. From the information I’ve gathered, which admittedly is thirdhand and unofficial, the course participants were doing everything right. They were quite low in the mountains and were camped in an even stand of trees when the storm hit. They weren’t under an overhang or by a single large tree. They were camping in a place most of us would think was pretty safe, until it wasn’t.
That was all I could think about as I hurried down Taylor. That poor student. That poor course. And the hundreds of times I’ve been out in the mountains during lightning storms and gotten away with it. I’ve had my ice ax buzz. I’ve felt my hair stand on end. I’ve run off summits and rappelled off climbs in a frantic attempt to get down, presumably to a safe spot.
But, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s website, “there is no safe place outside in a thunderstorm.” None. If you can’t get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle, you can’t be safe.
I was actually pretty shocked to read that statement. I found myself wanting to argue back: But surely in the middle of a uniform woods you are safe? Surely if you are surrounded by mountain peaks you are safe?
Turns out those places are safer, but they are not safe, as that NOLS course unfortunately experienced. Basically, if you really want to be safe from lightning, you have to stay inside during thunderstorms. Oh, and while you are inside, be sure not to touch corded electrical devices or plumbing.
But for those of us who like to camp, hike, bike or climb, staying indoors or getting indoors at the first sound of thunder is not an option.
Sure, we can plan ahead to minimize our risk. I should have headed up Taylor in the morning rather than summiting at 3 p.m. And we can scan weather forecasts and be willing to change or cancel plans if things look stormy.
But none of us, I bet, are willing — or would consider — staying inside all summer because we are afraid of getting struck by lightning.
I’ve always believed lightning strikes are unbelievably rare. And they are. Based on data gathered between 2009 and 2018, the odds of being struck by lightning in the United States in any given year are roughly 1 in 1.2 million. So, it’s pretty darn unlikely. Still, on average, 20 people die in the U.S. each year from lightning strikes, and that represents only 10% of all strikes involving humans. The other 90% survive but can be left with mild to severe and lasting symptoms.
Based on these kinds of statistics, I’ve always taken comfort in the belief that the odds are in my favor, until the NOLS student died this summer. His death, unusual as it was, reinforced NOAA’s statement that nowhere outdoors is safe in a thunderstorm. And that realization is a pretty unnerving for those of us who like to recreate outside.
Over the years I have convinced myself that I am smart and know how to keep myself out of danger most of the time when I’m outside. And when I willingly confront hazards and risks? Usually I believe I’ve calculated the odds and have worked things in my favor. If I didn’t do this kind of rationalizing, I wouldn’t have had half the outdoor adventures I’ve had in my life. Part of what makes an adventure, after all, is not knowing its outcome.
But when I think about not knowing the outcome, I am thinking I might not make a summit or complete a climb. I’m thinking I might flip in a rapid. I’m not thinking I might get hit by lightning.
John S. Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist for the National Lightning Safety Council, prepared a report in February 2020 analyzing lightning strike deaths in the U.S. between 2006 and 2019. He wrote: “From 2006 through 2019, 418 people were struck and killed by lightning in the United States. Almost two thirds of the deaths occurred to people who had been enjoying outdoor leisure activities.
“The common belief that golfers are responsible for the greatest number of lightning deaths was shown to be a myth. During this 14-year period fishermen accounted for four times as many fatalities as golfers, while beach activities and camping each accounted for about twice as many deaths as golf. From 2006 to 2019, there were 40 fishing deaths, 25 beach deaths, 20 camping deaths, and 18 boating deaths.”
Jensenius found four common factors in all the lightning deaths: the inherent vulnerability of the activity (i.e., being outside); an unwillingness to cancel or postpone plans; the lack of awareness of approaching storms; and the inability or unwillingness to get to a safe place quickly.
On paper these things seem pretty straightforward and manageable. In reality? For those of us who live outdoors as much as possible, it’s all too easy to fall into one of those traps.
Look at my Taylor outing: The activity was inherently vulnerable; I was unwilling to cancel or postpone my summit; I didn’t realize the storm was approaching until it was pretty darn close; and I was unable to get to a safe place quickly.
There are ways to improve your odds in a lightning storm. And, of course, as I mentioned, the odds are already overwhelmingly in our favor. I mean, think of the tens of thousands of people who have taken NOLS courses, or climbed the Grand Teton without being struck by lightning. Getting struck is a fluke, but a tragic, undesirable fluke that most of us would rather avoid.
So when a storm approaches, there are things we can do to mitigate our exposure. NOAA stopped advocating the “crouch-lightning position” more than a decade ago, which was news to me.
Apparently there is no evidence it is helpful in the event of a strike. But it’s still a good idea to get off exposed high points, avoid being the tallest object in a field, stay away from overhangs, large bodies of water or big lone trees, seek shelter in even stands of trees, spread out from your friends, and pray lucks stays on your side.