One of the only atmospheric phenomenon that I truly fear is lightning. Once I learned about the lightning electrification process, and how I could become positively charged while under a thunderstorm, my entire perspective on lightning safety changed. If a storm contains lots of lightning, I no longer sit outside to observe. Or if I do, it’s never in an exposed location.
This summer I had my closest encounter with lightning while hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I was working for a children’s summer camp as a camp counselor and our day hike this day was up to Mount Chocorua. Mount Chocorua sits at 3,490 feet and features an incredibly exposed peak.
As you reach the peak you are treated with a half mile or so of 360 degree views as you hand over hand rock scramble to the ultimate peak of the mountain. When hiking with a large group of young kids your pace is significantly slowed. Couple this with climbing physicality limitations and the kid’s general lack of perception of risk, and you’re setting yourself up for a potentially dangerous situation if storms roll through. The worst place you can be while hiking in a thunderstorm is on an exposed ridge.
That day was ripe for convection. It was extremely humid and you could see lots of mie scattering(milky appearance in the sky signifying lots of moisture available to storms). I checked the short range, high resolution models before setting out and saw some forecasted storm reflectivity signatures for the area by early to mid-afternoon. However, models tend to do a poor job predicting these “popcorn” storms since they are so small scale. Despite the small scale nature of these storms, they can still pose serious lightning threats. This was especially true on a day with high moisture content. For some reason our hike got a late start. I had initial concerns, but I thought we could still make it up and down before storms fired off. I did not voice my concern(something I regret a bit. Logistically, it’s difficult to cancel these hikes, and if I was wrong about storms I would of felt pretty bad if the hike didn’t happen). I vividly remember explaining to the hiking specialist Greg the three ingredients needed for storms on the drive to the trail head. 1. high moisture content: check, 2. instability: check, 3. source of lift: check. The day was primed for thunderstorms, but it was going to be a matter of timing if we were hit or not.
When we made it to the exposed ridge I was finally able to get cell phone reception. It was still spotty, but I was able to pull up the radar. I saw three tiny cells to our NE and headed in our general direction. The track, however, seemed to be at least an hour out, and was trending away from us. I showed the radar to one of the hiking specialists and told them I think we can push on to the summit. Looking back on the situation, I should of advised against pushing on. For one, the radar scan was about 15 minutes old. Second, the tracks can be misleading. However, it’s very difficult to tell 40 kids who just hiked 3 miles to reach the ridge that we needed to stop. We decided to tell the kids that we would only be staying at the summit for a brief amount of time.
As we sat at the summit I continuously checked my phone for radar updates, but they were coming in rather un-reliable and at delayed speed. Eventually, the updated scan showed three small thunderstorm cells headed straight for us, but they looked to be at least 30 minutes out. I relayed this information to the hiking specialists and gave the kids a 5 minute warning to start putting on their packs.
On radar I saw an initial shower in front of the storms headed our way. We got sprayed briefly while the sun emerged behind the shower. This provided the most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen. What made it even more impressive was the fact that we were actually above the rainbow. I’ve never experienced an atmospheric phenomenon like that before. We also watched as it slowly dissipated from the right to the left. It was fascinating! Unfortunately, however, this distracted all of us for 5 to 10 minutes, when we probably should have been climbing back down the mountain.
Link to a video of the dissipating rainbow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S3qaQn2ldQ&feature=youtu.be
I turned around and saw rain shafts and storm clouds barreling down on us. We began to hurry the kids to start back down the mountain. I looked to my left and I saw smoke streaming up nearby from what I presume was a lightning strike. Then all of a sudden I saw a bolt of lightning hit some trees off to the right. I realized at this point, not only did I need to get these kids off this exposed mountain top, but I needed to get myself off it as well!
The challenge here was we needed to be adamant about moving quickly, but we also had to stress safe methods for down hill rock scrambling. Also, we did not want to induce panic in any of the children. Quite honestly, I was blown away by our hiking specialist’s ability to command the proper retreat. Once the kids had retreated to a lower part of the rock scramble I took a few shots of the incoming storm with my phone. Looking back on this I was a little upset with myself. I consistently rant about how unsafe it is for people to place themselves in dangerous weather situations just to obtain the coolest video or photo. Here I was, taking a photo right before the storm nailed us, completely doing exactly what I’ve so many times discouraged.
Despite my harsh internal critic, it was pretty fascinating to watch this storm fly in. It happened so quickly that it was almost like a time-lapse video. The anvil of the storm fluttered in like foamy waves rolling in along the coast. Most of the kids were pretty far along the rock scramble when we started getting nailed with strong winds, horizontal rain drafts, and deafening thunder. However, one girl had hurt her ankle and was struggling. I watched in amazement as one of the specialists, Sam, displayed incredible courage and helped the girl down the scramble. His positivity, encouragement, and relaxed attitude was exactly what this little girl needed! Props to you Sam it was inspiring to watch!
We made it to below tree line as the storm let up. Nobody in the group suffered any type of injury. The only damage done was my camera was lost from the soaking rain. The entire experience was exhilarating, frightening, and fascinating. The specialists executed a perfect evacuation of 40 kids, off an extremely exposed mountain peak, and during a highly electrified lightning storm. My appreciation for what these specialists do went to an entire new level. I wish my radar analysis was a bit better, but I offered the best advice I could based on what I was seeing in the field. Next time, on a highly convective day like this, I would most definitely advise against such a late start.
Much respect and love for the crew who got us safely down the mountain! Here’s to you Sam, Eugene, Greg, and Kelsey. And a shout out to my fellow cabin counselors who also played a critical role in getting everyone off the mountain safely that day: Maggie, Griff, Rachel, Colleen, and Cody!
Although rare, a fatal lightning threat does exist in recreational hiking and backpacking. Please read and be knowledgeable about lightning safety if your headed out on a hot, humid, summer day!