Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lightning Strike at Guitar Lake

I remember the afternoon vividly. We were chased by dark clouds all the way  up from Bench Lake and across a broad, tawny plateau before hastily setting up our tents at 11,000 foot Lake Marjorie. Fog danced in and out of the spires surrounding the lake and an icy rain, more snow than water, pelted our tents.

It was still early enough in the day that my destination-oriented self (the main reason I should hike alone) longed to put in some more miles over Pinchot Pass instead of just lying in a tent. If it was going to rain, why not move? But a ferocious thunderclap put the end to that discussion. Moments before, our trail friends Jess and Brewer had disappeared into the heart of the storm and we hoped they were all right. (We never saw them again, and while I would know if they did not survive the storm, I would love to get in touch with them again. Such is the trail life)

As I crouched in my one person coffin, munching M&Ms and trying to read (an unfortunate choice, Gretel Ehrlich's book, A Match to the Heart, about her experience being struck by lightning), I comforted myself by thinking that I had never heard of someone being struck in a tent. Sure there are these poles...but I was on a thermarest, right?

We had been plagued by thunderstorms our entire last half of the JMT and nowhere was it a more frightening prospect than at high elevation, and possibly the most danger at our last campsite, Guitar Lake, the last outpost before climbing Mount Whitney. Guitar is starkly beautiful. Not a scrap of vegetation save some embattled grass clings to its shores. Talus and boulders and a lake the color of night are all you have here.

Arriving early on Day 18, I set up my tent amid a vicious hailstorm and waited for my companions. A few thunder rumbles echoed around the lake, but we were lucky. Encased in all the warm clothes we had, we were able to perch on rocks as the intermittent hail came and went.

Recently I was transported back to that time when I stumbled upon this account of being struck by lightning in their tent at Guitar, only four days before we arrived there. This was our Lake Marjorie day, the day I had wanted to go on but was discouraged by the storm.

I can't even count the number of thunderstorms I have waited out in the wilderness. It's just a part of the experience and they don't stop me from getting out there. I've had lightning strike a few yards away, flash across my face, and start fires while I watched. It's just one thing to prepare for as best you can. It is a random thing, a charge meeting another charge. I tell myself this.  But I may rest a little less easier now.


  1. Whoa that's a crazy story (the linked article)! That would sure put a damper on a trip... Like you said, though, there's only so much you can do to "prepare" for such an event, as it's so totally random, and ultimately, you can't really escape lighting. Like you, I've been very close to lighting strikes in the high country, and it can be quite frightening. However, that's just part of the game...

  2. Harrowing story. Lightning is also one of my largest fears. My most recent encounter was on Quandary Peak, a 14er in Colorado. Bright flashes and deafening booms on all sides, racing down the steep, wet scree field knowing that if I lost my footing it would likely end badly, passing a group of Boy Scouts who were huddled in a circle, screaming and praying together. The storm just came out of nowhere ... which has always been my experience with Colorado thunderstorms in July.

    But yes, for that reason lightning is an unavoidable part of the game. Although it triggers all of my big fear responses, I'm able to overlook the overall threat in the same way I overlook wildlife threats. It's just too omnipresent, and also a statistically small threat. But I make an effort to be mindful in the mountains, just like any reasonable person. Staying on the move, and staying low if I encounter a big electric storm that I can foresee. If I can avoid it I prefer to never camp above treeline, even putting in an extra long day if necessary. But I have camped at high elevations before, mostly in the Uintas. Sometimes it's unavoidable.


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