DENVER (KDVR) — If you carry bear spray when hiking and you really want to stay safe on your next hike, you’d better know what to do when it storms because over the last 50 years, lightning has killed 37 times more people than bears in Colorado!
Many people look for the positives in the forecast and disregard the ominous signs in the sky when storm clouds loom, especially when tempted by the glory and valor of getting to take that social media snap while holding a little cardboard sign atop your favorite 14er.
Today and tomorrow storms are in the forecast and that means hikers need to plan ahead and be ready to descend quickly from areas above timberline by early afternoon to avoid the threat from above. As storm clouds brew and thunder rolls, even if it’s not raining (or hailing) where you are, lightning can strike up to 10 miles from a storm! That means if you’re hiking on a sunny Chief Mountain and a storm is pounding across the valley on Mount Evans, you could still get hit.
The highest density of strikes in our region happen along the Palmer Divide and the Foothills, where storm ingredients come together more commonly than in the High Country or the far eastern plains, so the take-away here is that you don’t have be hiking a major peak to be in danger. You may just be out walking your dog at Red Rocks or carting groceries in a parking lot in Castle Rock.
Lightning may not be the number one killer in Colorado each season, as avalanches now take that title, but it has killed nearly 30 times more people in Colorado than tornadoes in a period of 58 years from 1959 to 2017. Hikers routinely get caught above 12,000 feet and, often, find that they’re the tallest object around which puts them in the danger zone.
Memorials can be found on popular hiking destinations around Colorado, serving to remind all that this is a real and unfortunately, all too common hazard. One on Mount Princeton is dedicated to Catherine Martha Pugin who was found where this plaque lays today.
At 148 lightning deaths, Colorado is ranked #4 behind Florida, Texas and North Carolina. Your chance of being hit by lightning here are 1 in 10,000. That’s greater than your shot at Powerball by a factor of about 30,000.
Rules of thumb
If skies turn dark and threatening, make your exit before the storm develops. This means you may not reach summit after a full morning of hiking and that can be quite disappointing. But to loosely quote the Roman historian Tacitus (and later, Bob Marley):
He that fights and runs away, may turn and fight another day; But he that is in battle slain, will never rise to fight again.
Replace, “fight” with, “hike” and it’s an easy-to-remember rule of thumb. If you do get caught out there in a big storm, you can do a few things but whatever you choose, do it fast! Don’t stand around thinking about it.
I sat in on a Rocky Mountain National Park Ranger talk, while visiting the Alpine Visitor Center last summer and his advice was simple, but impactful. While it may not represent the official line from the Park Service, it was a reminder of the true nature people and of lightning threats in Colorado.
“When you’re up above tree line in the wilderness on an adventure, you’re on your own. If you are injured by lightning, that bad weather will keeps rescuers away until it passes. Few park rangers would risk their live to save you atop a mountain during a thunderstorm with lightning could kill them as well. If you hear thunder and it’s approaching, run. Run as fast as you can downhill to get below tree line. Don’t linger. Make haste and move! Once you’re below tree-line, make yourself small. Don’t stand under tall trees or rock formations, which could attract lightning. If the lightning is really bad and you have nowhere to go, crouch down on the balls of your feet, removing your metal-lined hiking pack, hiking poles and mountaineer axe so that if lightning does strike near you, it channels past instead of through you.”
Cut and run. That’s the bottom line when it starts storming in the High Country. This helps to insure you’ll have a safe summer and many long years of mountaineering ahead.