This, can be terrifying.
The sun is beaming down. You’re pushing hard to get in those last few miles before the evening begins to set in. You’ve done so well, eight miles in already. You’re on a roll. You’re focused, concentrating, and completely overlooking the fact that a few miles away a storm is rolling in. Finally, you reach the crest of the mountain, and as your eyes peer across that high mountain destination, your heart flutters with glee, until you notice the black thick of danger rolling in on your position. At this point, you’re already in danger. You must act, even if it looks like it’s blowing by.
You didn’t check the weather forecast before heading into the back country, or, you blew off that 30% chance of thunderstorm as an improbability. Instead, you told yourself that it’s worth the small risk, that you can handle any situation. If you are at high altitude, especially on a mountain peak, even a 10% chance of thunderstorms should be considered.
You’ve not payed attention to your surroundings. Always be aware of what is going on around you, especially in the back country. Weather changes, and it changes fast.I have had blue skies turn to hurricane winds in 15 minutes. Keep your eyes open.
What do you do.
If you are in the back country, and thunder storms are rolling in, there are no safe places to be, but you can reduce your chance of a catastrophe.
Your safest bet. If you can get out to a building, or even a car, these are your safest bets. Tents offer no protection against lighting. Forget shelters too. You need a legitimate standing structure that’s not made of stone, which can actually conduct. If it has power, it’s probably OK. Cars and buildings with electrical tend to be grounded, which will protect you.
If this isn’t an option, you have to move to your next best options. There is no safe place in the wilderness during a thunderstorm, but you can increase your chances.
First, get off the top of that mountain. Lightning can strike from several miles away, and you can be hit long before you ever hear the thunder. If you feel your hairs stand up, you’re in imminent danger of a strike. Get off the top off the mountain, fast, but don’t get yourself hurt trying to run downhill. Pace yourself, and be careful, but keep moving. Falling off of a cliff is more likely to hurt you than a lightning strike.
Second, find a low spot, as far down the valley as you can get. Lightning tends to strike the highest point, so find a dip, a valley, or anything that can get you below your surroundings. Avoid tall trees, and areas that could turn into water run offs or streams during the storm. Stay away from lakes or completely flat areas, you’re probably the tallest thing there. A large dirt dip in the earth is a pretty good spot. Avoid rock crevices and caves.
Third, once you get to a low spot, hunker down. Stack anything you can underneath yourself, such as a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, backpack, etc. You must get yourself off of the ground, and keep your feet close together. This will minimize any damage that could occur if you are hit. Keep your legs, arms, and head tucked in as close as possible. Make sure you are not near any dead trees or limbs that may fall during the storm. Wait thirty minutes past the last strike to move.
Avoid, hiding under or near rocks and caves. Most rocks, including granite and limestone, will conduct under the voltage of a lightning strike. This will actually increase your risks. Don’t hide in a river bed, even if it’s dried up. The water may be flowing just below the surface, or worse, flash flooding may occur and severely complicate things. Never try to stick it out on the top of the mountain, even if you have set up camp. Ditch the tents, and go. Leave any metal behind, including trekking poles and steel framed backpacks. Stay away from potential rock slides and falling trees or branches.
Lighting is amazing, and beautiful to watch, but it’s dangerous. Take care out there.