An Unwelcome Birthday Present
On my wife’s 27th birthday we went for a backpacking trip that did not turn out to be just another backpacking trip, or just another birthday. It was July 21, 1979 and we were backpacking in the Rawah Wilderness, part of the Medicine Bow Mountains that runs from northern Colorado into southern Wyoming. There were three of us: my wife Jude, my friend Perry, and myself. Perry and I attended college together in New York City during the ‘60’s. In the summer of 1972 we rode our bicycles from New York to San Francisco, the first outdoor adventure for either of us. We were inexperienced city boys and didn’t fully realize the implication of the prevailing westerly wind until we set out.
On this backpack, on her birthday, Jude was struck by lightning.
Our planned destination was Twin Crater Lakes located about 7 miles from the trailhead near South Rawah Peak. When we arrived the best camping sites were occupied by a group of horse packers. Later, we would be glad to have them there. For now, we decided to seek more solitude. A look at the map
showed Rockhole Lake, sitting on a shelf 200 feet above Twin Crater. There was a flat area to the northeast that appeared to provide good camping. We climbed the steep talus to Rockhole. This was our first mistake.
We found a great campsite on the flat bench we saw on the map, maybe 200 feet from the lake. It was not far from where the talus dropped steeply down to the North Fork trail, and so we had a spectacular view into the meadows below and out to the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. About 100 feet to the west of our camp was the stream outlet of Rockhole Lake. It dropped over the slope in a series of lovely cascades. We couldn't see the stream from our camp, as it was down a slope and behind a nearby boulder. Choosing this site was our second, and biggest mistake.
We spent the afternoon lounging around
, soaking up the beauty, and waging war on a cloud of mosquitoes. Shortly before 6:00 PM we noticed storm clouds forming to the west. They were still miles away, behind South Rawah Peak and the 12,000’ ridge to its south. Perry and I started to set up the tent. Jude went down to the stream to get water for cooking dinner. This was the third mistake and the stage was now set.
The tent I had back then was an A-frame, bought in the North Face store in Berkeley in 1974 when I was first getting into backpacking. Of course, an A-frame means there are a pair of metal poles coming together and pointing to the sky. That is not where the lightning struck.
Perry and I finished staking the rain fly when a brilliant flash of light was instantly followed by a piercing crack of thunder. We stared at each other wide-eyed. “Man, that was close”. We started putting gear into the tent when an uneasy feeling came over me. That flash of lightning should have brought Jude running back to the tent. She was out of sight, down by the stream. I walked towards the stream but didn't see her. There was her wool shirt lying on the ground. Why did she take her shirt off? Suddenly I understood and ran to the spot. The smell of burnt flesh and wool filled the air. Her feet were lying in a smoldering hole two feet deep that had been blasted into the tundra. Her skin was gray and her eyes were lifeless. I screamed.
Just two months before I had taken a CPR class offered through the Colorado Mountain Club. At home I had practiced on Jude to show her the technique. This time it was not practice. Fighting desperately to control the growing panic I began to administer CPR. In less than 30 seconds I heard a gasp of breath and I felt her pulse. Perry had heard my scream and was now beside us. Rain started to fall as we watched normal skin color slowly return to Jude’s face. She was badly burned and unconscious, but alive.
We carried Jude back to the tent, eased her inside and into a sleeping bag. Rain was falling and lightning was crashing all around, though I have little recollection of that. (Coincidentally, unknown to me, some friends were camping at nearby Bench Lake. They later said they had never been so scared in their lives.) As the rain ended we realized that our two-person tent was going to be cramped while trying to keep Jude comfortable. Perry moved to sleep outside, at the edge of the tent. I didn’t sleep all night, but kept my ear next to Jude’s face listening for every breath, fearful that perhaps her heart would stop again.
About three hours into the night she went into violent convulsions, moaning incomprehensible sounds, then she passed out again. Sometime after midnight she suddenly sat up and thrashed her arms around wildly and clearly said “I can’t see, I can’t see!” then collapsed into sleep. Now I thought she would live through the night, but worried about the after effects. Just as a most beautiful dawn was breaking she had to throw up and knew that she had to get her head outside the tent. Her sight was back, that was good! She saw Perry was outside and that confused her. It was cold and very windy. This was the first time she realized something bad had happened, but she didn’t know what.
At first light Perry set off for the camp of the horse packers at Twin Crater Lakes. Along the way he passed another camp of two guys who offered to descend the trail for help. The horse packers said they would put Jude on a horse if we could get her to a place the horses could reach. Jude could not walk on her own and descending the steep talus below Rockhole that we climbed yesterday was impossible. However, by doing a lateral, slightly descending traverse towards the northeast we could reach a clearing at the edge of the forest where we could meet the horses.
The only problem with this was that we had to cross a snowfield that was steep enough to be a concern. However there seemed to be no other way. Jude would be unable to climb above it. At 9:00 AM we set out, Jude able to walk with Perry and I supporting her on either side. We arrived at the snowfield, which was maybe 50 feet wide. I had just completed the CMC Basic Mountaineering School. I was without ice axe, but could kick steps into the firm snow. I moved out about 10 feet then kicked and stamped out a small platform. We got Jude to the platform and then repeated the exhausting procedure. When we were at the last ten feet from the edge of the snowfield Jude suddenly crawled across my steps under her own power, then collapsed on the tundra.
The horses were waiting. Jude was put on one, and a woman sat behind her. They started down the trail. Perry and I returned to camp, divided Jude’s load between us, then began our own trek down. An hour later we heard a helicopter, which met the horses at the trailhead and carried Jude to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. Jude now likes to say that she got to go on a horseback ride and a helicopter ride on her birthday.
Jude spent 6 days in the hospital, mostly treatment for burn injuries. She had a strange checkerboard pattern of burns across her chest and abdomen. The lightning had struck her neck, melting the gold chain of her necklace (she still has a small scar) and exited through her right leg and small toe, where there were exit wounds. Her heart had an inverted T-wave, which corrected itself within a few days. She had hearing loss. Over the years she has suffered a variety of ailments, most notably severe vertigo and a weakened immune system, that we attribute to the lightning because no other explanation makes sense. In the summer of 2001 the Denver weekly newspaper Westword did an article about us
as part of the National Weather Service Lightning Awareness Week. The article focuses on some of the long-term effects. The bottom line is that surviving a lightning strike is not a recommended activity.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, what were the mistakes we made? Here is what I see, you can add your own to the list. First we decided to climb above Crater Lakes to the exposed Rockhole Lake bench. I considered lightning in making this decision, but our camp at 11,200’ was ringed on three sides by 12,000’ peaks. The lightning, if any came, would strike up there I thought. Furthermore, a few weeks before this we were camped at Lake of Glass, below Taylor Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park. There used to be a backcountry campsite there. In many ways this location is quite similar to the Rockhole bench. I figured we were safe if the Park Service had put a camp at a similar place.
Once we got to the shelf our biggest mistake was camping close to where the slope dropped steeply down to Crater Lakes. One of the commonly held lightning rules is “get off ridges”. Where we were camped did not appear to be a ridge. After all, it was a large flat bench. But imagine the entire site tilted upwards by a 45 degree angle. Now we were most definitely on a ridge. If we had set our camp a couple hundred feet back from the edge of the brink, maybe I would not be writing this now.
Another lightning rule is “stay away from water”. As the storm was approaching Jude went to the stream to collect our cooking water. The lightning struck at the stream site, not where Perry and I were standing on higher ground next to an A-frame tent with metal poles pointed to the sky.
I was later criticized for leaving the campsite and taking Jude to the horses. We should have waited for the chopper, I was told. Maybe this is valid, but it was cold and windy that morning, we had been sitting there for 15 hours after the strike, and the urge to do something was overwhelming. Besides, I never really considered a rescue deep in the backcountry. This was 1979, we were new to Colorado and I was operating on the assumption that we had got ourselves back in there, so we had to get ourselves out. Knowing what I know today, maybe we should have stayed put. It’s interesting to speculate on what we might have done if the horses weren’t there.
I feel certain that Jude was struck by the first bolt of lightning to hit the ground from that storm. It was still a couple of miles away. We have since taken a weather class and learned about outliers, which can strike miles from the storm. That is a good thing to know when gauging the danger.
Mountaineering accidents are often grouped under the objective “acts of nature”, which usually includes lightning, and the subjective “acts of stupidity”, which might include crossing an avalanche slope and triggering a slide. To this I like to add a third: “acts of ignorance”. What if you had no idea what an avalanche slope looked like and the conditions required to produce a slide when you triggered it? Is that stupid or ignorant? If we had known about some of the finer points of lightning behavior, maybe we could have avoided this. Or maybe we were just unlucky.
Did we do anything right? If I hadn’t taken the CPR class two months before then this story would also have a different ending. Taking that class turned ignorance into knowledge. It was this knowledge and skill that saved a life.
Since this event Jude and I have enjoyed many hikes and backpacking trips throughout Colorado and the West. We have also trekked in Nepal and Thailand, backpacked the Inca Trail in Peru, hiked across the wild Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, and climbed Kilimanjaro. But in Colorado we have never again camped above treeline, and we are quick to turn back at the sight of towering cumulus clouds. I have planned high alpine bivouacs during climbing trips, in perfect weather. But if I am leading a mountain club trip, or hiking with new people then I make it clear at the trailhead that the summit does not matter if there is a storm in the area.
Jude and I have occasionally talked about returning to Rockhole Lake to visit the site. Maybe we could find the rest of the necklace that fell off when the chain melted into her neck. We wouldn’t camp there, of course. But we haven’t been back yet.