Lucky Encounters with Lightning

August 25, 2020 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue

In Yosemite, search and rescue incidents related to lightning strikes are not as common as other environmental factors like swiftwater or even rattlesnake bites. However, given the recent lightning storms across California, including along the Sierra crest that runs through the park, here are two notable Yosemite lightning-strike incidents, as well as tips on how to mitigate the risk of being struck by lightning while recreating outdoors.

I.
In the early 1990s, along the Ten Lakes Trail at the trail junction to Grant Lakes, below Colby Mountain, a pair of hikers was stuck by lightning. A longtime Tuolumne Meadows horse patrol ranger, now retired, recently remembered the incident as follows:

I was on horse patrol just outside the Tuolumne Meadows visitor center when a car drove into the parking lot. A woman was driving, and a man was in the reclined passenger seat, lying down. The driver jumped out of the car and said, “He’s been hit by lightning! What do we do?”

I replied, “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said, “I was with him.”

I wanted to do a patient assessment, and I noticed he was conscious, so I walked over to his side of the car and asked, “Are you able to get of the car, and what are your symptoms?” He lifted up his shirt and showed me a feather burn, reaching across his back from his right shoulder down to his hip. He got out of the car, I did a full patient assessment, and called it in [to the park’s medical control]. He then insisted he was OK and refused further treatment.

I asked, “Can I at least interview you to get the full story?” and they agreed. The woman said they had been hiking to Ten Lakes when a storm came in. She described lightning striking all around them, and they decided they better hunker down at the trail junction. All trail signs in Yosemite’s wilderness are made of metal, including the sign at this junction; the man sat down and leaned up against the metal signpost—a bad spot! The woman sat down nearby. The woman described a bright light and loud crash, and that is all she remembered of the lightning strike; the man had no memory of it. They were both knocked unconscious.

Another hiking group came along, saw them, and apparently took them for dead, covering them with a tarp. (We never got a report from that party!)

The woman woke up first, in her best estimate, a couple hours later, covered by the tarp. She saw her companion lying next to her. He seemed lifeless, his shirt was burned, and she could see the feather burn on his back. She tried to wake him, but he was lethargic and moaning and it took him a long time to come to. He was really struggling. At some point, he was able to get up, and they hiked out to their car parked at the Yosemite Creek Trailhead. She reported that for the whole hike he was in such a state of depression from the strike, she had to keep encouraging him to continue. They drove their car to Tuolumne Meadows, where they saw me. This is the best of my recollection almost 30 years later.

II.

In June of 2000, a team of three climbers was struck by lightning while ascending the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak. The trio was aware that afternoon thunderstorms were possible in high elevation areas of Yosemite, but did not get a weather forecast on the day of their climb. They also started their six-pitch climb two hours later than they had intended, at 10 am instead of 8 am. When they finished the second pitch, they noticed a few small clouds in the sky and after the third pitch they could see rain in the distance. They consulted as a group and decided not to rappel off the route, but instead to attempt to “outrun” the storm by pressing on with the climb, knowing they could quickly get down the climber’s descent route from the summit once they topped out.

While climbing the sixth (and final) pitch, rain and hail began hitting them. Before they could reach the summit, everything around them started buzzing, and lightning struck the granite and the team of three, knocking one of them unconscious. The two others, suffering only minor injuries, simultaneously performed rescue breathing on the unconscious climber, and, with the assistance of another pair of climbers who had topped out just before the lightning strike, dragged the unresponsive climber and themselves across granite slabs up to and over the summit. Approximately seven minutes after the lightning strike, the climber who was knocked out began to regain consciousness but was confused, lethargic, and complained of severe neck pain. Offering as much physical support as possible to the injured climber, the full group descended two rappels over steep slabs to easier terrain. Wet and cold, they continued downhill at an extremely slow pace until they met up with a team of Yosemite search and rescue responders. The rescue team used a wheeled litter to carry the injured climber out to the road, where he, along with one of his teammates, was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital in Mammoth Lakes. They both were diagnosed with minor burns and dehydration and were discharged a couple days later.

One of the three climbers, reviewing the incident later for lessons learned, explained, “In the final analysis, we got into trouble because we raced for the summit instead of retreating. All other considerations--forecasts, rain jackets--were secondary. Preparation is important but no substitute for intelligent analysis of the developing conditions.”
The full story, published by the American Alpine Club in 2001, can be found at
http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/13200104200

There is no safe place outside during a storm with lightning; the best you can do is to reduce your chances of being struck by lightning (the only truly safe option is being inside a vehicle with a hard top or a building).

  • Pay attention to shifting weather conditions: low, dark, and fast-moving clouds; an increase in wind speed; a drop in temperature; and the sound of thunder are all signs of changing weather. 
  • Be prepared and willing to turn around at any time: at the first sound of thunder, immediately descend from exposed summits and mountaintops, high ridges, and open granite slabs to lower terrain.
  • Do NOT position yourself next to a tall, solitary tree or a metal trail sign.
  • Do NOT take shelter under—or sit up against—exposed, overhanging rock.
  • In a forested area, if you are in a group, spread out but remain within earshot of one another.
  • Assuming the lightning position is an option: it is a low squat, with feet together (to reduce the effects of ground current) and arms tucked.
  • Learn about the seasonal weather patterns of the area in which you are plan to recreate. In Yosemite, thunderstorms most commonly develop in the afternoon; plan to reach the summit or high point of your trip each day by noon.
  • Check the most up-to-date weather forecast possible before setting off.
  • Pack extra layers of clothing and a raincoat. Avoid cotton—choose synthetic materials (polyester/polypro/spandex/nylon) or wool.

3 Comments Comments icon

  1. Bart
    September 01, 2020 at 02:44
     

    My personal scariest hike ever was one summer when I decided to hike to the top of Mt Tallac near Lake Tahoe. As I passed the tree line a bolt of lightning struck Fallen Leaf Lake and I knew I should have turned around much earlier. Now I raced down the mountain and as I got into the trees a bolt struck right near me. I couldn't see it but I saw the flash and heard the thunder almost simultaneously. I don't think I've prayed so much on any other hike! When I finally got inside my car I was so relieved. There was a guy in front of me that was much higher when the storm started producing lightning. I can't imagine being even higher up the mountain like he was!

     
  2. Niki
    September 01, 2020 at 02:09
     

    These stories about lightning are terrific because they make the danger real. I, myself, have had a couple of close calls, most recently when I ran outdoors during a thunder storm to check on charcoal smoldering for a BBQ. Lightning stuck ground not more than 20 feet away from me, near a large tree. I heard the incredible crack and saw a puff of smoke rise from the ground. Definitely NOT a treasured memory. My advice: Don't ever think you're out of harm's way simply because there are more obvious lightning targets nearby! Go inside; stay safe!

     
  3. Bill
    August 31, 2020 at 09:06
     

    Note that one or two were killed by lightning while seeking shelter in a rock “cave” on top of Half Dome.

     
 
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Last updated: August 25, 2020

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