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Lightning in the Mountains

Author(s): Tod Schimelpfenig
Posted: August 27, 2007

I spent last week in the Wind Rivers with my daughter and two of my sons. One afternoon at 10,000’ we had a tremendous thunderstorm, likely fueled by monsoon moisture drifting north from the remnants of hurricane Dean. Thor’s bolts and simultaneous flash bangs danced and lanced off the high peaks.

We saw the storm build and had the tent up before the first large raindrops turned to hail and grauple. Mark (17) and Emily (11) were in the tent, on their pads and in sleeping bags playing cards. Dave (25), as the dutiful NOLS Instructor that he is, was huddled under Whitebark pines making us all hot drinks. I was wandering around the krumholtz with those mixed feelings of fear and wonder at the tremendous display of storm and lightning.

Dave was in a lightning position, but more by virtue of managing the stove than risk management. I wasn’t in a lightning position, neither were Mark and Emily. I wondered what people might think if I was struck by lightning. “What a dummy. He should have known better.” I was also mulling over the value of the vaunted lightening position and it’s many variations – heels together or apart, mouth open or closed, fingers in ears, on a pad etc, etc. In the face of an awesome force of nature so powerful I can’t begin to comprehend it’s energy, what does hunkering down do?

Mary Ann Cooper MD, an acknowledged lightning expert, has written that the lightning position is hard for inflexible people to assume, and for anyone to hold for long. “Our best educated guess with science is that it’s acceptable to kneel or sit cross legged.” Old guys and weak kneed people thank Dr Cooper for permission to do what we have been doing for years.

In the 5th edition of Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine Dr Cooper also says “No action will achieve safety from lightning in the wilderness away from a substantial building or a metal-topped vehicle. None of the following are known to lower the risk: being inside a tent, sitting on a pad, removing metal objects from a person, or any configuration of the body.” Dr Cooper suggests, as we all do, knowing weather patterns and avoiding exposure during known times of greater risk.

We had already done many things to reduce our risk. We choose not to go higher in the valley and to camp on a wide ridge in a uniform subalpine forest with granite domes 60-80’ above us and the soaring peaks of the East Fork Valley towering 3400’ above. We were not on a peak or exposed ridge. We were away from water and drainages and we were not the tallest object in the middle of a flat field. Dave and I were spread apart, but could still see each other. I decided not to send Mark out into the storm to become wet and cold, plus he was a good distraction for his younger sister.

Would I ever use the lightning position? Absolutely. If I was in an exposed place with no other options – why not – there is at least comfort in action. I’ve been caught both in a wide forest and on a flat meadow where the only way to improve our lightning risk management was to space people apart and assume the position. I would not use it in place of seeking better terrain to wait out the storm, or if it meant scattering people into the dark or cold where injury, becoming lost or hypothermic were also risks.

While we seek absolutes to help us manage this risk it seems as if we only have educated guesses, and some common sense and a bit of science. As in many things we must weight the options and use our judgment.

Incidently, if you’re interested in another wilderness medicine blog, check out Medicine for the Outdoors at www.healthline.com/blogs/outdoor_health/. Dr Paul Auerbach is Clinical Professor of Surgery at Stanford University Medical Center, a founder and past president of the Wilderness Medical Society and editor of the definitive text Wilderness Medicine, now in it’s 5th Edition.

Take care


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