DON'T Take My Wife, Please

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 16, 2001
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering

A Terrifying Day

All I wanted was to go a little higher and see a little more.

How many of us discovered our love for the mountaintops not because we planned to or because it was something shown or taught to us but rather because curiosity compelled us to see what things looked like “that way,” that way being hidden by the slopes or cliffs flanking our surroundings?

So it was for me, and that urge has rewarded me numerous times and given me more joy and inspiration than has any planned climb or outing, but it has occasionally led to fear and danger, too, as it did this day.

Most SP members have at least one thunderstorm story, a frightening tale of a close call resulting either from our own bad judgment or our own bad luck. I have a handful of such tales. They involved bad judgment and bad luck, but someone or something smiled on me and sprinkled a little good luck over me, too.

The second tale involves only myself, but the first one, this one, involves my wife and the danger into which I unintentionally but foolishly placed her. It is a story about selfishness, guilt, and shame as well. In the end, though, it is about gratitude and relief.

Should’ve Known Better

To get a taste of the Bighorns and get a bit beyond the reach of most day hikers, my wife (Katie) and I decided to set up camp at Mirror Lake in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Mirror Lake is an easy hike from the West Tensleep Trailhead, and it makes a good base from which to explore the area around the cliff-bound Lost Twin Lakes. Neither of us is much into extended backpacking trips, so we just stayed two nights, enough time to get a feel for the Bighorns, a high granitic range that soars above the plains of north-central Wyoming.

Lost Twin Lakes
Lower Lost Twin Lake

We had already spent three nights in the tiny town of Tensleep and had done some day trips into the canyons and lower peaks of the Bighorns. Each day, there had been thunderstorms, and sometimes the clouding up and the rain had begun before 10 A.M. The day we hiked to Mirror Lake to set up camp, we first sat out a rainstorm before getting out of the car and hitting the trail.

So when Thursday dawned clear for the first time in almost two weeks (we had spent a week in the Absarokas before heading for the Bighorns) and I told myself that the stormy pattern was breaking at last, I should have known better. When we got to Lost Twin Lakes and some small clouds were forming over the ridges and I told myself that it was probably no big deal, I should have known better.

Bighorn Mountains
Near the start of the off-trail journey-- still early, but I should have listened to what these clouds were whispering.

Actually, I did know better, but that bug to explore and go higher had infected me already. Dramatic as the setting of Lost Twin Lakes was, I felt confined by the cliffs, and I just had to see what lay on the other side. North of the lake basin, a drainage led up above treeline and to the high country beyond, and it was there I wanted to go.

When that bug seizes me, I can rarely resist it. Usually, I am alone when this occurs, but even when Katie is with me, she usually stays back and waits for me to return. This time, though, I succeeded in convincing her to go up. All my raving about the wonders of the off-trail, mountaintop world sparked her sense of adventure, and up she went.

The problem, and this is a problem I made for myself and which I made worse by ignoring, was that I was ascending much faster than Katie was, and, instead of doing the right thing and waiting for her or at least slowing down enough for us to keep visual contact at all times, I kept moving at my own pace.

Clouds began moving in as I climbed higher, and it was obvious that a storm was coming. But I was close to what seemed to be the crest of a ridge, and, knowing I could easily make it there before the storm could, I determined to reach it.

I found my views far across that other side and deep into the Cloud Peak Wilderness, but I also found that the ridge led to a nearby peak, little more than a huge rubble pile but a peak nonetheless. By this time, winds were picking up and the skies were mostly dark, but I still figured I had time to make the summit.

What followed was both beautiful and amazing, though I admit it was stupid of me to have been there to behold it. As I followed the ridgeline to the summit of what I now call “Storm Shelter Mountain” even though its name is Peak Angeline, the valleys on either side of me filled with rain, thunder, and lightning. I was actually looking down on a storm (or, in this case, storms) while a sliver of open sky clung above me and led me to the top of the mountain. It was no longer a quest for solitude or better views; instead, it was an ego-driven battle with Nature-- was I faster than the storm?

Bighorn Mountains
What I was racing

I won that battle, I suppose, but time and reflection have told me that my victory was more like the “victory” one achieves when an agitated bear knocks him down, paws at him, and ultimately walks away without inflicting lethal harm-- maybe you won that hand, but you wouldn’t want to play it again, and you can’t escape the notion that your adversary let you win.

Yes, I made the summit, and I even had a few minutes to sit there and relish it, but the mountain didn’t let me go so easily. Just minutes after I left the top, the storm raged in, and I had to make a decision.

Conventional wisdom dictates the following when one is caught in a lightning storm in the wilderness: 1) seek shelter in a stand of trees of uniform height or 2) if the first option is unavailable, crouch as low as possible, head bent down, with only the rubber soles of your shoes contacting the ground. Well, that first option was unavailable, and I frankly did not and do not have the nerve to endure the second. I suppose a third option is to run like hell, but that’s not supposed to be such a smart move, either.

Instead, I sought shelter in a pseudo-cave formed by the boulders characteristic of the ridges and summits of this area of the range. I have read that what I did is not a good course of action, either, but tell that to someone who is caught at around 12,000’ with lightning crashing around him so close by that there is almost no pause between the flash and the boom. No, I think most people would do what I did.

I sat out the storm, which lasted almost an hour and dumped hail and snow pellets across the mountains, shivering as the cold seeped through my gloves, jacket, and pants (fortunately, I at least knew how to dress and pack for the mountains). My shelter kept me mostly dry, but some of the snow pellets found a way through the rock piles and settled on me as a final resting place as I hoped that this spot wouldn’t become mine. Still, I couldn't help but admire the power of the storm and its beautiful sounds.

When the lightning was gone, the thunder distant, and the snow pellets just an amusing sight for an August day in Wyoming, I emerged from my den. Throughout the ordeal, I had been wondering and worrying about Katie, but now, with the immediate danger to myself past, I felt a deep dread-- Where was she when the storm hit? Where had she gone? All I knew were the following: she had been above timberline when I last saw her, she had little experience with mountain storms, and, because she had been so far behind and below me, she would have had no idea about what was coming until it was upon her.

Absolute Loss

Who among those who have been married hasn’t made a gratuitous joke at his or her spouse’s expense? Who hasn’t offered some wry comment about how grand life would be if those days of freedom were to return?

Who hasn’t heard the old idiom about being careful what you wish for?

As quickly as I could, I descended the now-slippery slopes back to the trees around Lost Twin Lakes, hoping and praying I would find Katie there huddled in a nice stand of uniformly high trees. I searched and called.

No Katie.

I went back up, all the way back to the summit ridge, calling Katie’s name.


Back to the trees, calling and searching again, back up, this time looking for a crumpled pile the same color as Katie’s jacket.

Still nothing.

Somewhere among the cold rocks of a remote area of the Bighorns, my wife had been struck and killed by lightning, I believed, and it was all my fault.

Reason to Believe

Weidemeyer s Admiral
A sign of hope-- life in the wake of destruction

Back near the lakes, I saw a butterfly-- a Weidemeyer’s Admiral-- resting on a rock, wings spread, drying out in the returning afternoon sun. Taking this as a sign of hope (and taking a picture, too-- sorry, but tragedy can’t kill beauty), I decided I had to head for camp, pack up a few necessities, and then hike back to the trailhead, hopefully in time to get help before night could fall.

On the trail, I arranged some rocks to form a B and an arrow pointing back to camp just in case Katie was still out there and behind me, and I took off. Leaving that area when I believed that my dead or dying wife was out there was perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever done, but I tried to remember the symbolism of that butterfly-- that beauty and hope can survive despite the overwhelming power of the forces bent on destroying it.

Peak Angeline
"Storm Shelter Mountain" from Mirror Lake a few hours after the storm

Katie was at camp. When the storm struck, she had initially tried to find shelter among the trees. The cover had been thin, though, and she was getting soaked, so she decided to head back for the shelter of our tent. I felt mad at first-- I never would have done that and left my partner wondering about my whereabouts-- but then I remembered another old saying, this one about the pot calling the kettle black.

I kept my mouth shut, and we embraced. If I’ve ever experienced one more honest, I don’t remember it. And that is as much as you need to know about the rest of that day.

Mirror Lake, Dawn
Renewal-- sunrise the next day


You’d be excused if, after reading this and my Jackson Glacier TR, you think I might be the worst hiking and climbing partner in the world. All I can say is that I’ve learned from those experiences. I’ll put myself at risk, and you can fairly argue that that is a foolish and selfish thing for a husband and a father of three to do, but to the extent that it's within my ability to control, I won’t again knowingly or intentionally put someone else at risk in the wilderness.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 22

foxylady - Jan 24, 2007 3:50 am - Voted 10/10

Great account of a harrowing experience

You two be careful!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 24, 2007 9:53 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great account of a harrowing experience

Thank you! It's easier to be careful now since my wife doesn't want to follow me off the trail anymore!

MTN Trader

MTN Trader - Jan 28, 2007 3:33 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great account of a harrowing experience

Perhaps you two would benefit from those new GPS 2-way radios... Great tale/lesson combo!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 28, 2007 4:50 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great account of a harrowing experience

Not a bad idea-- thanks for the suggestion.


jfrishmanIII - Jan 24, 2007 6:40 pm - Voted 10/10


Thanks for another engaging, well written and thought provoking essay! I have definitely found that having a wife as part of my outdoor life changes the game. It hasn't always been easy for me to be honest with myself about her own abilities, to see through how much I want her to make it somewhere to the fact that she can't, and probably shouldn't try. I also have to be honest with her that there are certain outings where I don't want her along. I need a good epic, even a close call now and then; she doesn't at this point. I can certainly identify with your feeling of relief at getting her down safe and sound!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 24, 2007 9:55 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks!

Your comments are spot-on, but what they do most is soothe my guilt over feeling exactly what you've expressed. We pretty much stick to trails together now, and nothing in the range of taking several hours to do. For the epic stuff, the stuff that could get you killed but which is fun for exactly that reason, I go alone or find some sucker like one of my brothers to go along.

Dan the Jones

Dan the Jones - Jan 24, 2007 7:15 pm - Voted 10/10


however I do relish that someone else often has the same problem I do when exploring the frontiers of our mountains while with thier wife. I often tend to forget the same rules that I so harshly try to imply upon my less experienced wife. It is not only good to see the thought process of someone else but also effects of what would actually happen if I did the same thing. Great TR.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 24, 2007 9:59 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Awesome..

It always is good to know that others have the same situation, isn't it? In fairness, it's unreasonable of me to push people into doing what I suspect is beyond them and then get mad when they can't or won't keep up. So I usually go alone now, which carries a host of problems, too. But what else is one to do?

Thanks for commenting.


Nelson - Jan 27, 2007 9:05 pm - Voted 10/10

Two strike club

Hey bro, I also have two major bad judgement strikes, one involving my wife and lightning. We should go drinking together, our wives could come along and make sure we stay out of trouble.

Great report! Thanks.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 28, 2007 1:43 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Two strike club

Thank you! Sounds like a good idea, too. But can't the wives just show up at last call and take us home?


Saintgrizzly - Jan 27, 2007 11:39 pm - Voted 10/10

Great read, Bob!

Exceptional job on this one! What comes through more than anything is your honesty in dealing with this. And as for "...think I might be the worst hiking and climbing partner in the world...." I'll go with you anytime. And would like to do so.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 28, 2007 1:47 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great read, Bob!

Thank you, Vernon! It's a very personal story, and I'm glad to hear through commenters that it both strikes a chord and reassures people that there are others who do these things!

I do very much hope we can get out there together. I'm dragging my brother, he of the Jackson Glacier TR, out to Wyoming this summer. That's a bit out of your way, but if you want to explore some great wilderness peaks that are not on SP yet, let me know. And then it will be back to Montana for 2008, or maybe earlier if I can find a way to escape the wife and kids in August!


SawtoothSean - Jan 28, 2007 4:35 am - Voted 10/10


Very touching and honest trip report. I'm not sure I could have written something that personal. It was an enjoyable and suspenseful read. I always think that camp is the unspoken meeting place if something goes wrong. I've had partners wait for me at the base of mountains and we have a time cut-off where we'll meet at camp. As for the lightning on the ridge, I personally just like to keep moving (easier said than done) and as scary as it may seem, I still think the odds of getting struck are astronomical, particularly if you stay just to the side of the highest point of the ridge. Okay enough of me trying to over-simplify things. Great write-up!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 28, 2007 5:00 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Touching

Thanks for commenting. We had no established meeting system or cutoff time back then (owing to my own oversimplifying of things and misjudging the weather), but when we split now, I usually tell her or whoever else where I am going, how I plan to go, and how long I expect to take (always tacking on an extra hour or two). And we establish where we will meet.

My other bad lightning experience left me with no choice but to keep moving, which I find far preferable to crouching when there is no shelter. I was hiking to Mount Ida in Rocky Mountain N.P. one afternoon. Storm clouds had cleared and the sun was out, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. It was about a 4-mile trip to the summit and only about 2500' to climb. Halfway there, though, storm clouds returned. I tried to beat the storm to the summit, but about 15 minutes from the top, I realized I was going to lose and needed to turn back. The route was across gentle, rolling tundra with absolutely no places for shelter. Faced with my two choices, I chose to keep going, which was pretty scary at times, and difficult because of snow and hail falling, but better than crouching and praying.

The next time this happens, I'll try to remember what you said about staying to the side of the highest point of the ridge. I hadn't heard that before.


MoapaPk - Jan 28, 2007 10:51 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice report, but...

...we're gonna get suspicious soon, like imagine you are hiking along, then say, "Hey I bet this would be a really great trip report if I raced ahead, lost my partner and went through a gut-wrenching moral crisis..."

After waiting in the rain for two days in June 1983, my wife and I decided to try the east ridge of Pecos Baldy anyway, even though thunderheads were all about. What turned us around?

Bighorns! Literal bighorns. They came racing down the slope at us, scaring the crap out of me. Actually, they just wanted handouts. But as we were fending them off, we heard very loud thunder, and decided the sheep were an omen.

So the problem with your bighorns, is that you had no bighorns to warn you.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 29, 2007 1:00 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice report, but...

I guess my story about an aggressive chipmunk won't move you, considering your run-in with the bighorns, but at least I can now blame the bighorns that weren't there instead of blaming myself. What kind of good human would I be if I didn't refuse to accept responsibility for my mishaps?

And that TR idea-- hmm...don't tell my brother, who's going out to Wyoming with me in the summer, about that!

Rocky Alps

Rocky Alps - Jan 29, 2007 3:57 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice report

You did a great job of expressing what many of us struggle with when hiking. My wife's okay with me doing an epic climb or two on my own (with someone else, but not her) each summer, but for the most part we stick to easy trails that aren't too long. It makes me feel better knowing there are other hikers out there in the same situation.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 30, 2007 12:19 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice report

Thanks for commenting, and reinforcing that idea of not being the only one in that situation. What you two do is pretty much what we do now, especially since kids have entered the picture. I wonder how old a kid should be before you take him climbing...


gabr1 - Jan 12, 2011 5:42 pm - Hasn't voted

not an easy thing

Telling one's mistakes is never easy, well done.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 13, 2011 9:20 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: not an easy thing

Thank you-- it's important to be honest with yourself about mistakes.

Viewing: 1-20 of 22



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