My goal was to hike up the two highest mountains in the state of Colorado in one day. I knew that it would be a long grueling day with 10,000+ feet of net elevation gain, but I was in good shape from a long summer of training for the San Juan Solstice 50 mile run and the 2008 Vineman Ironman-distance Triathlon that I had just finished a little over a month earlier. I had already had a few days that were equally as long or longer, such as the 42 mile "day hike" of the Chicago Basin 14ers that I had done with Eric Lee on August 22nd.
My wife had come along with me and we were staying in Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn from Thursday night through Sunday morning as a bit of a mini-vacation. Well, at least it was for her. On Friday morning, she slept in, did some running around Buena Vista and soaked in the hot springs whereas I rose well before sunrise to head out to the Mount Massive Trailhead. I arrived at the trailhead just before sunrise. It was a cool, crisp and clear autumn morning. A perfect day for a long day in the mountains. At least it appeared so in the morning.
I hopped out of the car, grabbed my trusty Camelbak Hawg (which I took to the top of nearly every Colorado 14er) and hit the trail! I made good time on the climb up to the summit of Massive. I stopped to snap a few photos along the way of Elbert and the climb in front of me.
I reached the summit in 2.5 hours from the trailhead and had the mountain to myself. Here's a snapshot of my Garmin 205 on the summit and a self-portrait:
It was now 9am and unfortunately, as you can see in the self-portrait photo, clouds were already starting to build. Being so late in the season, I had thought that afternoon thunderstorms were unlikely, so I was still in fairly high spirits as I began my descent off of Massive to be able to get Elbert the same day. I made good time getting back to the Massive Trailhead and took a few minutes to eat a bit and then headed over to the North Mount Elbert trailhead, which was a short half-mile drive in the car.
As I got out of my car to begin the hike up Elbert, it was already after 11am (if I recall correctly). I noticed several other people beginning their hike up the Elbert trailhead around the same time. None of them would make the summit that day.
I was fairly worn out from my assault on Massive, so I wasn't moving as quickly as I had during the morning. I was able to maintain about a 2.5 mile per hour pace for most of the hike, passing several groups of people along the way.
Around 1pm, I reached the summit of Elbert. Here's a snapshot of my Garmin:
There were storms all around and I could see that Massive was getting some precipitation, but I didn't think that there were any thunderheads that were close enough to cause problems. There were nearly a dozen people on the summit and one man asked me to snap a photo of him. I obliged and asked him to do the same for me.
As we traded cameras back, I began to hear a buzzing sound. As a child, I lived about a half mile from a very large power line. On occasion I had walked that power line and could hear buzzing coming from the wires. What I heard on the summit of Elbert sounded almost exactly like that. I asked the man who had taken my photo if he heard it and initially he didn't know what I was talking about. After a few seconds he too heard it and realized what it was. The air was alive with electricity! He then exclaimed to his hiking partner "Let's get the hell off this thing!"
I believe that's the point at which I started running down the trail. Looking back now I probably should have stayed with the group of people on the summit, but I felt very uncomfortable being on the highest point in the entire state of Colorado just as a lightning storm passed over. I ran down the trail perhaps a quarter of a mile to where I found a low spot not far off the right side of the trail. The entire time I was running I could hear the buzzing sound. When I got to the low spot, I got down in a crouched position with my hands over my ears and elbows to my knees and balancing on the balls of my feet, like I had read to do in several places before. When crouched, I couldn't hear the buzzing, but if I stood up, I could again hear it. It seemed like an eternity that I was crouched there, but it couldn't have been more than 2 or 3 minutes. Then the strike came! It was close enough that I could see it hit down the ridge a little distance and it appeared to not be too far off the trail. After the strike, I began running again.
It wasn't too long before I came across a group that I had passed on the way up. They were hiking with trekking poles and had also experience the buzzing sound. Their technique to avoid the lightning was to lay flat on the ground, which I've read before is a bad idea due to the fact that lightning can travel along the ground after it strikes. They were close enough to the lightning strike that several of them had gotten shocked and one of them got shocked so badly that it blew the trekking poles out of his hand. Why he was still holding a metal rod in his hand during a lightning storm is beyond me.
After the storm had mostly moved through, I stopped to snap a couple of photos. And then continue my jog down the hill back to the parking lot. It started raining as I neared treeline and continued to rain on me all the way back to the car. I passed a few groups of people that I had passed on the way up and some groups that had started around the same time I did but turned around when the lightning started.
I reached the parking lot about 8 hours after I started the day on Massive. I think that the experience with the lightning on Elbert stayed with me more than any of the experiences I had on the rest of the Colorado fourteeners, including climbing up the hourglass on Little Bear Peak the weekend before when it was coated in ice. Lightning in the mountains is one of the scariest things in my mind because it is completely out of my control. Even if it's not true, I feel like I have control (at least some control) over situations involving animals, difficult terrain, etc. But the fact that there isn't any way to predict when or where lightning will strike is extremely frightening to me. I now avoid being on mountains, particularly above treeline, when there is any chance of lightning storms.
Arriving back at Cottonwood Hot Springs, I climbed into the pools and relaxed and recovered in the warm, cozy water. The next day I climbed Antero. Fortunately there wasn't any lightning, but I did have the worst weather of any of my 14er climbs with a complete whiteout and bitter cold wind on the summit.