It is summer in Colorado, this means hiking 14ers, trail running in the Front Range, and swimming in cold mountain lakes. Unfortunately, it also means afternoon storms capable of moving quickly and producing hail, lightning, and rain. About two weeks ago, 15 people were injured by a lightning strike while hiking on Mount Bierstadt. Hikers that day say that the storm crept in quickly, almost unnoticed, and before they realized the extent of the danger, lightning struck, sending three individuals to the hospital and killing their dog (Villanueva, Sylte, “3 Hospitalized After Mt. Bierstadt Lightning Strike”). The storm built early in the day, around 11:30, and seemed to appear right on the summit, rather than accumulating out in the distance. Stories like this are far too common, and before you set out to hike a 14er, or before even a casual stroll through Chautauqua, it is crucial to understand the dangers of lightning.

Storm rolling in over Rocky Mountain National Park

Storm rolling in over Rocky Mountain National Park

The best way to avoid a situation like that on Mount Bierstadt is to head out early. No matter where you are hiking, most storms (not all) roll in after 12:00, so getting off the mountain before noon is your best bet to stay safe. However, if you do find yourself stuck in an alpine storm (or any storm), there are some steps you can take to minimize the risk of a lightning strike.

Tree with lightning scar at Rocky Mountain National Park

Tree with lightning scar at Rocky Mountain National Park

The first thing to do is to get to a lower elevation, especially if you are above tree line. Lightning can strikes can travel extremely far distances, so, even if a storm appears far off, as soon as signs indicate that a storm is approaching, head down. If you are caught in a storm, never lie on the ground or seek shelter under a tree or rock. Lightning typically strikes the tallest object, therefore, trees and rocks may shelter you from rain; however, they can attract lightning. The best thing you can do when lightning is extremely close is to move into a depression or valley and reduce your contact with the ground. To do this, assume the “lightning position,” crouch with your feet together and your hands covering your head, and as soon as possible, continue moving to a safer location.

Dangerous clouds quickly approaching

Dangerous clouds quickly approaching

Ultimately, the only way to stay safe from a lightning storm is to avoid one. This, however, is not always possible, so keep yourself educated and keep a close eye on the weather. Each storm is different and may require different steps to stay safe, below I have attached links with more detailed information regarding lightning and how to stay safe.

Happy hiking, enjoy the outdoors, but remember, storms move quickly, and your safety is far more important than a tick off your summit list.

For more lightning tips:

http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/tips.shtml
http://www.climbing.com/skill/learn-this-laws-of-lightning/
http://www.backcountry.com/explore/sol-surviving-a-thunderstorm

Article Sources:

Ellison, Julie. “Learn This: Laws of Lightning – Climbing.”Climbing. Web. 18 July 2015.

Villanueva, Raquel, and Allison Sylte. “3 Hospitalized after Mt. Bierstadt Lightning
Strike.” 9News. 30 June 2015. Web. 18 July 2015.