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#157204 - 11/11/11 07:30 AM Lightning!
OregonMouse Offline
member

Registered: 02/03/06
Posts: 6401
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
I'd like to bring forward the discussion on lightning safety that was causing considerable thread drift in the Make Your Own Gear forum on MYOG trekking poles.

For starters, here's the excellent NOLS article on lightning safety that Lori cited on that thread.

It's generally considered a good idea to get off high exposed places before lightning gets close. In the Rockies, that generally means getting on the trail early so you get off those high ridges, passes or peaks by shortly after noon. If a thunderstorm is brewing, go down as fast as you can!

My closest call with lightning was when I was 20 and horsepacking with my parents in northern Colorado. One of the pack horses' packs was unbalanced, turned over and ended up under the horse's belly. She was a really sweet horse and just stood there looking pitiful until we got the pack off. With a less amenable horse, a rodeo would have ensued. While we were repacking, a bolt of lightning hit about a mile in front of us. When we got to the area of the strike, we saw a large Engelmann spruce tree (they have diagonal grain), freshly split into numerous sharp-pointed chunks 6-20 feet long, all embedded in the ground at least 3 feet. We quickly realized that if the horse's pack hadn't turned over, we would have been right by that tree when the lightning hit! For you Coloradoans, this was along the Continental Divide just east of Steamboat Springs. The stricken tree was right at the junction of what is now the Continental Divide Trail and the side trail west to Long Lake and Fish Creek Falls, north of Fishhook Lake. That area consists of a forested plateau with a number of lakes. For Northwesterners, that area is very similar to the Indian Heaven Wilderness Area in Washington.

Since then I've had a very healthy respect for lightning!

If you are stuck in a high exposed area when a thunderstorm hits, it's probably a good idea to get away from your pack (if it has metal or carbon fiber stays) or your trekking poles or tent poles. If you're not in an exposed position, you probably don't have to worry about pack stays or tent poles. Try to go lower to camp if at all possible.

Out here in the Pacific NW, we consider a severe thunderstorm any that has more than two lightning strikes for the whole storm. For those of us who know the Rockies, that's laughable. The Midwest and the Rockies have REAL thunderstorms which those who grew up in the Pacific NW can't imagine!

Even out here with our wimpy thunderstorms, people are killed by lightning, some as much as an hour after the storm has passed over. Please respect the power of lightning and stay safe!


Edited by OregonMouse (11/11/11 07:58 AM)
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#157206 - 11/11/11 08:08 AM Re: Lightning! [Re: OregonMouse]
oldranger Offline
member

Registered: 02/23/07
Posts: 1735
Loc: California (southern)
Lightning is nothing to mess around with, regardless of the material from which your hiking poles might be fashioned. My first outdoor job was as a fire fighter in the Rincon mountains, Arizona, and I got to see lots of very large ponderosa pines shattered by lightning, as well as dealing with the fiery consequences.

more recently, i was taking my blushing bride on one of my favorite climbs and we were camped in a saddle just below the spot where we would have roped up. During the evening a fairly strong thunderstorm moved in. I finally said, 'I think it is about time we assumed the position," meaning the lightning position. She gave me the oddest look, later telling me she had no idea of the context of my statement.

We got through that event OK, but it is truly scary, because when you are caught out, despite whatever precautions you take, you are throwing the dice, and your fate is left to random chance.


Edited by oldranger (11/11/11 07:42 PM)

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#157217 - 11/11/11 12:40 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: OregonMouse]
billstephenson Offline
Moderator

Registered: 02/07/07
Posts: 3890
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
Great idea to move this discussion into it's own topic OregonMouse!

And a big thanks to Lori for posting that link. It's more than worth the time to read it.

I'd never even heard of assuming "The Position" (at least not in that context wink )

OM, we do have vicious lightning storms here. I live on a ridge that get struck quite often. Half the trees in my front yard have been hit.

There are "Weather Apps" for both cell phones and smart phones that show the number of lightning strikes a storm is producing and some of them number in the thousands in a 30-60 minute period.

I know we can't always rely on these kinds of apps when we're in the backcountry, but they have saved my butt more times than I can count. Stopping to take a look at the radar every hour or two is a good habit to get into around here.

Having a tool that allows you to see a storm front heading your way, and to estimate how long it will take to hit you, is simply amazing.

The severity of the storms we get here is one of the main reasons I plan my trips when there is little chance of them. Rain isn't a big issue, wind is a bit unnerving in the forest here. Big trees are just as likely to blow over as small ones, and big, healthy looking branches crash down even in perfect calm, so wind adds to that likelihood too. But lightning adds the same sort of thrill that bombs hitting all around you might. We get it in droves.

This offers at least a little comfort:

"the laws of probability say you are hundreds of times safer in a forest with hundreds of trees than you are near a lone tree in an open space."

"High pointed terrain attracts lightning to the high points, and even to the terrain around it. Avoid peaks, ridges, and significantly higher ground during an electrical storm."

I wonder if that's where the old saying "Head for the hollers!" came from?
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#157219 - 11/11/11 12:49 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: billstephenson]
lori Offline
member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2801
I personally have not had a lot of experiences with lightning, but perhaps this is because I read up on the subject and tend to bug out to safer ground when the storming starts.

There was an incident a few years ago where we (my hiking group) went on a dayhike to Mt Givens, around 10,000 feet or so. Went off trail up a ridge and climbed boulders to the top. There was the remnants of a weather station up there - all this mangled metal in the boulders around us as we ate lunch. I was just tossing back the last bite of my string cheese when I turned around and saw the clouds - my immediate response was "OH#&$*, WE GOTTA GET DOWN OFF THIS" leading to a dozen hikers hopping rock to rock while tucking stuff in daypacks. The darkest meanest looking clouds were coming up on us from the south - to the north we were blue skies and white puffy clouds.

We made the four miles back to the cars parked at Kaiser pass in record time, and just as I shut the door the clouds let loose! We drove past a lightning fire on the way down toward Shaver, and fire trucks were going the other way to deal with it since it was close to Sierra Summit ski resort.

We had been hiking on a pretty exposed ridge most of the way, but could have dropped a few hundred feet into trees once off the mountain itself. I am surprised it did not rain on us before we got down to the cars. We could see the rain and lightning just a few miles away.
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#157224 - 11/11/11 01:02 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: lori]
ppine Offline
member

Registered: 01/10/10
Posts: 184
Loc: Minden, Nevada
All this talk of lightning reminds me of an experience about 1985 in Colorado. We had just packed up the camp and lined out our packstrings when the lightning started in earnest. The plan was to cross the Continental Divide around 10,500 feet or so, but the bolts of lightning were touching the ground about 900 feet above us. We sat horseback in the rain, for about an hour and a half, until there was a break in the weather and we made it across. It was July, and the high temp that day was probably around 50 degrees.


Edited by ppine (11/12/11 12:38 PM)

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#157260 - 11/12/11 01:47 AM Re: Lightning! [Re: ppine]
TomD Offline
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Registered: 10/30/03
Posts: 4963
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
For an eye opening account of what can happen if you ignore warnings about lightning, read "Shattered Air" by Bob Madgic about hikers on Half Dome who were hit by lightning. If that doesn't convince you that lightning is not something you want to ignore, then nothing will.
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#157266 - 11/12/11 12:14 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: TomD]
phat Offline
Moderator

Registered: 06/24/07
Posts: 4107
Loc: Alberta, Canada

Here in the eastern slopes of the rockies, we get wicked ones. I've been in a bowl in the mountains where literally, you could pretty much see continuously by the strikes on the ridges (it was like a strobe light) with constant noise.

I bail out of trips (or get delayed) probably more for threat of lightning in high areas than anything else. I'm not too worried down low, but walking across exposed ridges during one of those is more risk than I will take.

If you're heading into high exposed alpine, top of ridge stuff, stay down if there is lighting threatening, or get down if you get caught out. best is not to get caught out, of course.
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#157290 - 11/12/11 09:03 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: OregonMouse]
Jimshaw Offline
member

Registered: 10/22/03
Posts: 3938
Loc: Bend, Oregon
1) Metal zippers in sleeping bags conduct at high voltage, but not very well.
2) as was said, many experts considered doing all of the"right things" would probably have extremely little effect. Didn't they say like a ".1" out of 10? So anyway its kinda like cutting the handle off your tooth brush. wink
3) The presence of metal does not "attract nor concentrate" current or voltage. What happens is the electrical field around you induces a certain voltage in conductors depending on many things, that be as high as 300,000 volts per meter. So if you had a 3 meter long metal tent pole and held the ends in your hands, a million volts of potential would develop. Frankly the area of the coil wold be so large that the current through it just might be lethal, but the metal itself doesn't attract lightening. As the article implied "everything around you including your body" would have the same field applied to it. And you could be killed by a skin current "entering your orifices" (doesn't that sound icky :o") even without any metal around.
4) For me, I think the idea of moving a tent after a lightening storm starts is stupid, so its probably better to look for a decent spot in the first place, however for me at least - descent to the tree line represents safety.
5) unfortunately in the high country, often the ONLY spots level and soft enough to camp are directly under a tree, a large old tree isolated and standing nea a pond, but if its old, then obviously under it MIGHT be the safest spot.
6) as always, look around and think.
Jim
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These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.

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#157345 - 11/13/11 09:00 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: Jimshaw]
Steadman Offline
member

Registered: 09/17/09
Posts: 510
Loc: Virginia
Hey, anybody work at a college that is a government repository? If so, you might have access to a copy of The Morbidity and Mortality Statistics of the United States. Yes, there is such a thing. It is a tome, but in it you can figure out how people died, and come to conclusions about how risky, in aggregate, certain things really are. I haven't seen a copy since I did my undergrad 15+ years ago and that college is in another state so I can't get at them any more.

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#157379 - 11/14/11 09:54 AM Re: Lightning! [Re: Steadman]
lori Offline
member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2801
I was just reading a poster over on some BLM property (we were fishing) that claims in the past 100 years, 15,000 people have been killed by lightning. 1300 by snakes. 10,000 were killed by deer. Black bears, 63.

I'm sure there is some rounding involved in some of those numbers.... No real info on geographical area factored into those numbers either.
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"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki

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#157385 - 11/14/11 11:31 AM Re: Lightning! [Re: lori]
billstephenson Offline
Moderator

Registered: 02/07/07
Posts: 3890
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
The big surprise there is the number killed by Deer. I would have never assumed that.
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#157389 - 11/14/11 12:01 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: billstephenson]
lori Offline
member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2801
Mosquitoes, of course, kill millions every year - but that's usually in third world countries.

I suspect the high rate for deer has to do with cars hitting them - but I am certain that there are many attacks by deer of various kinds, including moose. There was a freak accident in Yosemite where a spike buck killed a toddler - the trouble with habituated wild animals that let people get too close.

And yes, thread drift again - but the figures on lightning are pretty significant, tho probably worldwide. And don't include people who are injured by it, probably.
_________________________
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki

http://hikeandbackpack.com

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#157392 - 11/14/11 12:51 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: lori]
oldranger Offline
member

Registered: 02/23/07
Posts: 1735
Loc: California (southern)
Very useful data, Lori, and it certainly highlights the overemphasis placed on "death by predator." Did they perchance mention how many died by falls or drowning? Those are bound to be the really significant killers.

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#157397 - 11/14/11 02:15 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: oldranger]
lori Offline
member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2801
The top killers in Yosemite at least are falling into water and falling off rocks. I read Death in Yosemite some time ago - it is a difficult read but the info goes back to the 1800s at the very beginning of the park, and is quite enlightening. In more recent memory, there are lots and lots and lots of people who die of natural causes (like heart attacks), rocks, water, and a whole slew of other things like plane crashes, car accidents (a vanload of kids was among this year's tragedies)... very few animal related deaths. Some of them weather was a factor - the slipping-off-Half-Dome sorts of deaths usually happen because people don't pay attention to the signs and verbal warnings and just do it anyway.

Animal deaths just don't enter the picture much, at least not in California. Lion attacks get tons of press, but the ones I've heard about are not in what I'd think of as the backcountry. Lightning doesn't seem to get a similar amount of attention, perhaps because it's not something you can do anything about...

This document at the CDC website has statistics on US lightning injury or death - still sobering how many actually happen, and how debilitating an injury can be.

What we can do in terms of avoiding lightning strike seems to fall under risk reduction, not risk elimination. Still probably not going to happen to many of us in our lifetimes, but still a risk.
_________________________
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki

http://hikeandbackpack.com

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#157401 - 11/14/11 03:04 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: billstephenson]
aimless Offline
Moderator

Registered: 02/05/03
Posts: 2862
Loc: Portland, OR
It may be that almost all of those deaths attributed to deer were from deer stepping into a road in front of a fast-moving car. (Just guessing about that.)

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#157405 - 11/14/11 03:56 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: aimless]
Steadman Offline
member

Registered: 09/17/09
Posts: 510
Loc: Virginia
Ok, I found the stats from 1993 on CDC's webpage. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/vsus.htm

If you download the file, go to page 710 using the Adobe numbering system.

In 1993, 57 people died from lightning strikes.

For comparative purposes, an even number of people died from Venomous animals and plants as the cause of
poisoning and toxic reactions (pg 709); Other deaths from animals totaled 119; 74 of these occurred at home or on the farm (ie, probably not a predator, such as a bear, wolf, or shark). 1521 died from accidental firearms discharge (pg 714).
For further reference, the total number of non transport related accidents was 42,169.

Sorry, I think this sort of stuff is cool. Thanks for letting me geek out a bit.


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#157406 - 11/14/11 04:04 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: Steadman]
lori Offline
member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2801
It's fun to geek about stuff like this - it reminds me how much more comfortable I am in the wilderness than I used to be, and arms me to help noobs come along with less fear.

Too many people think about bears and not at all about falling, drowning or lightning. In California at least the bears are not the real danger - something to know enough about to avoid them, and why. Just not the most likely to kill or injure you. Lightning isn't even a real big danger for a lot of folks who see a few drops of rain on the forecast and stay home. One of my semi regular backpacker buddies cancels his trips for rain. He just doesn't like hiking in it.

Knowing what the real odds are and knowing what to do "just in case" always helps.
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"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki

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#157407 - 11/14/11 04:11 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: lori]
OregonMouse Offline
member

Registered: 02/03/06
Posts: 6401
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
Probably the most dangerous part of backpacking is driving between home and the trailhead. Driving home after the trip is probably worse because you are tired!

On the other hand, taking sensible precautions, such as staying off high exposed places during thunderstorms and taking sufficient insulation/rain gear to stay warm and dry in adverse weather conditions, is (or should be) only common sense. It's not something to spend a lot of time and energy worrying over, though!


Edited by OregonMouse (11/14/11 04:11 PM)
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#157411 - 11/14/11 04:43 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: OregonMouse]
skcreidc Offline
member

Registered: 08/16/10
Posts: 1590
Loc: San Diego CA
I agree OregonMouse. With lightning if you have to move, then move. Don't ignore it but don't worry about it. But one of my favorite bpking trips with my kids involved an intense 3 hour lightning and hail storm near Waugh Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. All 4 of us hunkered down in our tent and played indian poker the whole time. I don't think the four of us have laughed so hard, with occasional screams with the really close ones. Then again, no one's hair was standing up on end either and I was confident of our campsites location.

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#157434 - 11/14/11 08:56 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: skcreidc]
wandering_daisy Offline
member

Registered: 01/11/06
Posts: 2752
Loc: California
Lightning danger is site specific. The Rockies are much more lightning prone than the Sierra or Cascades. I do not think those CDC statistics are very useful for backpacking. So what if a lot of golfers die of lightning strikes? Or a cow kicks a farmer. I would be more interested in looking at specific data for the back country. Like "Accidents in North American Mountaineering".

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#157438 - 11/14/11 09:09 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: wandering_daisy]
lori Offline
member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2801
As would I. Except there only ever seems to be that sort of statistic for places like Yosemite, where the stats are skewed by the presence of millions of non hiking tourists trying to do things like climbing and backpacking.

Of course, it may be because of those millions that the numbers are looked at in the first place.
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#157440 - 11/14/11 09:42 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: lori]
OregonMouse Offline
member

Registered: 02/03/06
Posts: 6401
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
Oregon lists its Search and Rescue statistics every year and I've been told that other states do, too. It would probably take a lot of googling to find them! Oregon's stats keep being cited by Portland Mountain Rescue every other year when a bunch of city legislators start clamoring about charging for mountain rescue. I didn't bookmark the site, though, and the legislature won't meet again until 2013.
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May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey

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#157441 - 11/14/11 09:55 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: wandering_daisy]
skcreidc Offline
member

Registered: 08/16/10
Posts: 1590
Loc: San Diego CA
I definitely agree that lightning danger is usually site specific. Usually we are not in a locality long enough to really know by experience. The Sierra Nevada is fairly safe, but it can turn ugly as it did this year near WHitney. This is only because I went down there so much, but the most I have been exposed to intense lightning has been just north of Laguna Hansen in the region around Canyon Tajo just south of the boarder. Funny but south at Laguna Hansen or in the Sierra San Pedro Martir not nearly as bad. There was just something about that area at the time (haven't been back down in a while). The thickest bolts I have ever seen.

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#157443 - 11/14/11 10:27 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: wandering_daisy]
billstephenson Offline
Moderator

Registered: 02/07/07
Posts: 3890
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
Originally Posted By wandering_daisy
Lightning danger is site specific.


Someone told me a few days ago that they read, or saw something on TV, that lightning tends to strike the same area, and that once an spot has been struck it is more likely to strike there again.

The article Lori linked to seems to lend some credence to that. I have no idea where they said they read or heard that, but I'd like to know more about it.

I used to walk the trail on Morro Rock in Sequoia NP when I was young, and recall the signs warning of lightning striking it. I didn't worry much about that when I was on the rock though, I was way too busy praying I didn't fall off of it blush

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#157445 - 11/14/11 10:36 PM Re: Lightning! [Re: OregonMouse]
lori Offline
member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2801
I have *some* search and rescue statistics. But that doesn't tell you everything either. The basic listings are "uninjured" and "injured," not how they were injured.

I've been able to find county by county numbers, but none of them told me what was going on with the victim - just the number of people rescued and whether they were dead or alive when found.

Does not seem to be a national or other centralized statistical data collection from which to source such information. I even found a PDF full of data from a satellite network that monitors PLBs - most of the rescues in that were maritime.
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