Thunder & Lightning - In Memory of An Old Friend

Thunder & Lightning - In Memory of An Old Friend

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing, Bouldering, Scrambling, Canyoneering

Why Did I Write This Article ?

Tooele TRANSCRIPT-BULLETIN: (September 19, 1994)

The medical examiner explained that Verl's heart had not failed him.
In fact, he added, the man's heart and the rest of his organs were in better shape than those he's seen in most teenagers.

But Verl was not a teenager; he was 86 years old.

If Verl had NOT been hit by a searing bolt of lightning, he might have
lived another decade or more, according to the medical examiner.

"Whatever it was he did, I want to start living like him!" the examiner reportedly remarked.

I'm writing this article in memory of our beloved friend, who fell victim to a lightning strike on August 19, 1994 in southern Utah.

Have you ever wondered why lightning strikes mountains?
Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the three dominant
factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike.

<i>A Forever Kind of Peace</i>
Verl fishing in Utah's Dixie Nat'l Forest (1990)

What are YOUR chances of being hit?

The U.S. National Weather Service calculates a ONE-in-THREE hundred
chance that you or a family member will be struck by lighting sometime
during your lifetime.

Lightning bolts are extremely hot, with temperatures of 30,000 to 50,000
degrees (F). That's HOTTER than the surface of the sun! When the bolt suddenly heats the air around it to such an extreme, the air instantly expands, sending out a vibration or shock wave we hear as an explosion of sound. If you are near the stroke of lightning you'll hear thunder as one sharp crack. When lightning is far away, thunder sounds more like a low rumble as the sound waves reflect off hillsides, buildings and trees. Depending on wind direction and temperature, you may hear thunder for up to twenty miles away.

THE "30-30 RULE:"

If the TIME between seeing the lightning and hearing thunder is less
than thirty seconds, you're in danger of being struck!

FACT: If you are caught OUTSIDE in a thunderstorm far away from
structures and cars, find shelter in dense woods or a thick grove
of small trees. If you are trapped in an open space such as an alpine
area, get as LOW as you can in a gully or ravine and CROUCH down.
Put your feet together, squat low, tuck your head and cover your ears!

FACT: While lying FLAT on the ground gets you as low as possible, it
increases your chance of being hit by ground current.

FACT: Most cars are reasonably safe from lightning, but it's the metal
roof and metal sides that protect you, not the rubber tires!

After the storm is over, WAIT thirty minutes after the last flash of lightning or boom of thunder before going on your way. But be careful!
Ever the "30-30 Rule" cannot protect against the first lightning strike,
so ALWAYS know the weather forecast, and WATCH for possible
developing thunderstorms.

Monsoon Storm Watch
Developing summer thunderstorm in AZ (2008)

Further Facts about Lightning:

Flood in the Desert
Flash flooding in AZ! (1993)

The human body doesn't store electricity. It's perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid.

The diameter of a lightning bolt is about a half-inch to an inch wide, but can be up to five inches wide. The average length of a lighting bolt from a cloud to the ground is three to four MILES long.

An estimated 2,000 thunderstorms are going on in the world at any one time.

A flash of lighting appears to flicker because there are usually several
bolts of lightning striking at almost the same time.

The longest bolt of lightning seen (to date) was 118 miles long. It was
seen in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas area.

Lightning strikes 30 million points on the ground in a given year in the
United States.

Lightning can occur not ONLY in thunderstorms, but also in snowstorms,
sand storms, above erupting volcanoes and from nuclear explosions.

The deadliest U.S. fire started by lightning in recent years was the
January 2006 West Virginia coal mine explosion that claimed 12 lives.
The incident occurred approximately two miles from the mine entrance,
when methane gas was ignited by a lightning strike that occurred a distance
from the mine and followed a steel cable into the mine.

If LIGHTNING is about to strike near you, it might give a brief warning.
Your hair may stand on end, your skin may tingle, you might hear a
cracking sound, and keys or other metal objects may vibrate.

Bering seacoast, AK
Storm over the Bering sea (1996)

Lightening over Alturs Lake
Lightning over Alturs Lake (2008)-Skunk Ape

WHERE does lightning injure people the MOST?

These are the top U.S. states for lightning-related injuries:

  1. Florida
    Storm Clouds outside Denver August 8, 2008 Storm clouds near Denver (2008)-silversummit
  3. Michigan
  4. Pennsylvania
  5. North Carolina
  6. New York
  7. Wyoming
  8. New Mexico
  9. Arkansas
  10. Colorado
  11. Georgia
  12. Utah
I don't give much credence to LISTS. The reason why some of the northern states are high on this list may partly be due to people not taking adequate precautions. Utah, where my friend was killed, is ranked 11th on this particular list. The Fort Benning Incident of 1989: Several thousand lightning-related injuries occur each year in the US, resulting in nearly 600 deaths. Most incidents involve individual victims; GROUP lightning strikes are rare. Ten soldiers were simultaneously injured in a group lighting strike while on training maneuvers at Fort Benning, GA. NO deaths or loss of consciousness occurred, although two of the soldiers had amnesia for the event. All of the soldiers were hospitalized and observed for potential complications. Ninety percent of the soldiers had first-degree skin burns, and ALL had focal muscular tenderness. Transient hypertension and tinnitus were noted in 40% and 20% respectively. ALL 10 soldiers recovered uneventfully and returned to full active duty.
<B><font color=black>Approaching storm</font></B> Larry runs from a storm in Alaska! (1996)
[If YOU had a lightning-related experience in the mountains or backcountry, please attach your photos and feel free to comment.] For example, has anybody witnessed a unique meteorological phenomena, such as St. Elmo's Fire ??? ???

Trees & Lightning

TREES are frequent conductors of lightning to the ground. Since sap is a poor conductor, its electrical resistance causes it to be heated explosively into steam, which BLOWS off the bark outside the lightning's path. In following seasons trees overgrow the damaged area and may cover it completely, leaving only a vertical scar. If the damage is severe, the tree may not be able to recover, and decay sets in, killing the tree. It's commonly thought that a tree standing ALONE is more frequently struck, though in some forested areas, lightning scars can be seen on almost every tree. After the two most frequently struck tree types, the Oak and the Elm, the Pine tree is also quite often hit. Unlike the Oak, which has a shallow root structure, pine trees have a deep central root system that goes down into the water table. Pine trees usually stand taller than other species, which also makes them a target. Factors which lead to its being targeted are a high resin content, loftiness, and its needles which lend themselves to a HIGH electrical discharge during a T-storm.
GHOST of a CHANCE? Tall pine in Arizona

UNDERSTANDING Lightning Bolt Behavior:

Even though lightning discharges occur most frequently near the freezing level within thunderclouds, a 'cloud-to-ground' discharge can occur ANYWHERE within the vicinity of a mature 'thunderhead cloud.' THE CLOUD-TO-GROUND STRIKING PROCESS: A stroke of lightning only takes 1/2 of a second to occur. There are two key ideas associated with the process of lightning strokes. They are termed as stepped leaders and return stokes. There is also a dart leader. With these three components, the path of a lightning bolt can be 'traced' from the place where it leaves the cloud to its connection with Earth. A stepped leader is a very faint discharge of lightning INSIDE a cloud. These discharges move toward the ground in series of steps; each step down is about 50 yards long. When the leader steps down to Earth and connects to the ground or a tree (for example) the circuit is complete and the lightning strikes. A return stroke is a lightning stroke that originates from the ground. The stroke travels back to the cloud. A dart leader happens when electrons are discharged, taking the initial path of the lightning stroke to the ground. This means that lightning can strike the same place more than once. Lightning has favorite sites to strike and is capable of following the same path twice, contrary to what some people believe. [Recent statistics show lightning strikes cause 10 to 20 injuries and at least one death in the state of Arizona each year.]


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 75

nscampbell - Jul 27, 2008 3:23 pm - Hasn't voted


This might seem like a stupid question, but typically what kind of injuries does a lightning victim suffer from - I'd expect burns at the very least, but to what degree? is there any chance of heart attack? or is that dependant on the condition of the victim before the strike? Thanks for the 30/30 rule I hadn't heard that one.


lcarreau - Jul 27, 2008 4:20 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Injuries

NOPE, no such thing as a stupid question. Thanks for your interest! Naturally, there's going to be electrical shock and burns. Because of the initial surprise, a person can suffer from heart attacks. (Yes, the TWO factors are prior health and condition of the victim, and the closeness of the victim to the bolt or charge.)

Didn't mean to sound morbid. My friend Verl would have wanted
this information to be shared with others.

I will add something that occurred in Fort Benning, Georgia in
1989, describing the effects of lightning injury. Thanks.

Rob Ricks

Rob Ricks - Jul 27, 2008 4:00 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Article

Especially in light of my Cooper Spur incident. There are lots of dangers mountaineers face, but lightning strike usually causes the most hardy souls to blanch. Thanks for sharing. Rob


lcarreau - Jul 27, 2008 4:39 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Article

Thank you, Rob! The thing with those PAC NW volcanoes is:
they often create their own weather. I am former-military, and
everything I learned THEN cannot prepare me for a sudden crack of
lightning NOW. I am completely humbled by Nature's fury!!


MoapaPk - Jul 28, 2008 11:25 am - Voted 10/10


The car acts as a Faraday cage -- and one doesn't want to touch any metal in the car while waiting out the storm.

I once compared the deaths on Long's Peak, from different causes. Surprisingly, lightning was rather low on the list.

There is still a lot of controversy about the best behavior when caught above timberline. Your stance reminds me of the old duck-and-cover -- "bend over and kiss your ass good-bye!"


lcarreau - Jul 28, 2008 12:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: interesting

Yeah, you can never have enough information when it comes to
lightning. BTW, the state of Colorado ranks 9th on the LIST of
US (states) with the most lightning-related injuries.

I tend to get 'religious' really fast when I hear a nearby crack.
I will post another photo showing why Lower Bowns Reservoir and
the Boulder Mountain area of southern Utah receive so many strikes. Meanwhile, please continue to DUCK-and-COVER !!

[I assume Nevada is in the top 15. Of course, most of it lies
within the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada, so you guys are
protected to a specific degree.]


MoapaPk - Jul 28, 2008 12:33 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: interesting

Nevada is actually fairly low on the list. In terms of number of strikes, New Mexico (where I used to live) is very high, expecially along the central corridor (Albuquerque, etc.); it just isn't a populous state. It was common to hear of a lightning death every 6 months to a year, for kids just standing out in a parking lot, often in the sun, while a storm brewed nearby.

Some years ago I found a Utah list of the activities people were engaged in when struck. Agriculure was high, as were flatland activities (at lakes, playing golf). Mountain stuff and hiking does register, but not that much, probably because of the much smaller numbers participating:
Utah lightning deaths

It would be nice to know where the tents were that were struck, and what sort of hiking was involved.


lcarreau - Jul 29, 2008 1:10 pm - Hasn't voted


I appreciate the response. What I'm looking for specifically are
comments regarding your personnel experiences with lightning, rather it be mountaineering activities, OR on the initial approach to your favorite peak.

Has anybody actually seen St. Elmo's Fire?? Nope, I'm not talking about the movie.

Ball lightning is often erroneously identified as St. Elmo's Fire.
(They are separate and distinct meteorological phenomena.)



RobSC - Aug 1, 2008 5:55 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Yes,

Personally, I've never seen St. Elmo's Fire but my dad has told me of the day that he climbed the Grand Teton back in the early 1960s. When they got to the summit there was a huge storm bearing down on them they left in a hurry and had just made the rappel back to the Upper Saddle when the storm hit. At some point in there he looked up and the upper reaches of the mountain were glowing with St. Elmo's Fire. My brother in law is an airline pilot and says that it is fairly common on the windshields of airplanes.

Lightning is scary. When I reached the top of Margherita Peak in the Rwenzori Mountains the sign at the summit saying it was the highest point in Uganda started humming and the hair on the back of my neck lifted. I took off down the slope but the strike never came. Later that same day my ice axe started buzzing with electricity until a bolt struck nearby. Both of these were from storms imbedded in a thick cloud cover so that we couldn't see the location of the storms.

One thing that I've noticed for developing storms is that when the bottom of the cloud gets a dark, rippled appearance there is almost always a lightning strick within a few minutes. For me the developing storm that is poised to strike but hasn't yet is the most dangerous. I've heard that they also generate most of the fatal lighning strikes since people have generally gone for cover on more active storms.


lcarreau - Aug 1, 2008 6:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Yes,

Thanks, Rob. Fascinating; the Tetons are the target for some
intense electrical storms. It would be nice if they came out with
a device that could DETECT when and where a lightning bolt WOULD
strike. "A GPS-related lightning bolt unit." Something like that.

Hey, perhaps somebody is already toying around with that idea??

I play it safe around electrical storms. Ever since the time I
saw a bolt actually strike the water, I said to myself:

"Self, I believe lightning can strike just about anywhere !!! !!"


ClimberMan420 - Aug 17, 2008 1:15 pm - Hasn't voted

Climbing The Andes in the rainy season

Your response reminds me of an instance I had in Northern Chile while hiking up to high camp on Volcan San Pedro. Weather was fine that day until a sudden snowstorm cloud blew in. An unusual tingling sensation began on the top of my head and began to burn me, confused I took of my hat and rubbed it away as if an insect was biting me. A buzzing noise began and my iceaxe(on the side of my pack) began to buzz and vibrate then shocked me powerfully. I grabbed my axe from my pack, threw it away and ran down hill under some rocks. immidiatelty here the buzzing and static electricity left me. The cloud quickly passed without ever firing any lightning and the sun came out. I continued to base camp, acclimatized for 3 days and then summitted. A rather frightning experiece.

exp 2.
I was climbing a 5000m scramble outside Potosi, Bolivia in the cordillera Kari Kari. I summited my peak and black clouds swireled around me. Upon reaching the very peak an intense amount of static electricity was present making my head tingle and hair stand straight, I quickly scrambled down below the top of ridge and it was gone, when I returned to the top of the ridge it was there again. i took a fast descent line into the valley. These were only the begginning of my experiences with lightning in Potosi as I summited most of the high peaks there in the rainy season when the fine morning turned into rough hail storms and lightning shows.

These experiences I had were to be honest some of the most invigorating experiences of my life but indeed very frightning especially because I did not fully understand what was happening.
Thanks for sharing your article!


lcarreau - Aug 18, 2008 6:21 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Climbing The Andes in the rainy season

Thanks, ClimberMan! There's all the proof suggesting (proving)
a worldwide occurrence of lightning-related experiences. This
'Potosi' must be a fantastic place in Bolivia, I will definitely
do some research on that area.

I know the Canadians really have many (incredible) mountaineering beta/stories to share. Thank you again, CM !!!

How about Australia? Does anybody have lighting-related experiences from the Land Down Under ?? Please feel free to add!

Larry of AZ


madeintahoe - Jul 29, 2008 2:00 pm - Voted 10/10

Thanks Larry

Hi Larry...I am so very sorry about your friend Verl. Thank you for sharing this..great reading.

I am deeply afraid of lightning...maybe because hubby and I got caught in it twice really really bad..scared the heck out of us. So I tend to be probably way to cautious now when I am out hiking especially peak bagging..I watch the weather really close and if I feel not safe I have no problem turning around and saving the peak for another day.

Thank you it blazing hot there?


lcarreau - Jul 29, 2008 3:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks Anita

As always, thanks for your concern! The heat isn't so bad in the
Pinyon pine-Juniper Woodland at 4,900'. We have been dealing
with frequent monsoonal thunderstorms AND intense lightning.

Anita, I assume you are working indoors. Well, some of us have to
work OUTDOORS, and lightning can be a frightening event indeed.

Agreed that free choice and self-preservation are both WISE options. Accidents DO happen very swiftly, however.

Are you familiar with the bear cub that was rescued by the CA
firefighter, and is now being cared for in South Lake Tahoe???
Any WORD on its well-being? Please...keep me informed & THANKS!



FlatheadNative - Jul 29, 2008 10:45 pm - Voted 10/10

Informative article

very nice job Larry. I would like to add this to Compilation of health related articles. cheers


lcarreau - Jul 30, 2008 12:09 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Informative article

That would be great, Pastor! I just read your outstanding article
on 'sun-related protection.' That might come in handy for me here
in central Arizona. I need to protect my eyes more, because
they're the only eyes I have ... other than my wife! TAKE CARE!!!


lcarreau - Jul 30, 2008 8:55 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks

Not a problem. My intention was to put together something that
other people could relate to; while I remembered my friend.


Nelson - Jul 31, 2008 12:18 pm - Voted 10/10

Don't feel a thing

My wife can report than when you are directly struck by lightning you don't feel anything, and you never knew what hit you.

We thought she was more special than 1/300 odds. The NWS says 1/500 that you will be affected by someone struck (with ten people affected for each victim), and that anyone has a 1/5000 chance of being struck in an 80 year lifetime. Still, those are lower odds than most people would guess.

Thanks for posting.


lcarreau - Jul 31, 2008 1:13 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Don't feel a thing

Thanks for the important NWS link! I know that lightning is an
attractive phenomena; and hopefully my friend didn't feel anything when he died.

According to the NWS, a THIRD of all lightning-related injuries occur during recreational/sports-related activities. This is where mountaineering comes into play, so I'm assuming that lightning could possibly affect somebody on a mountain.

Sorry to hear about folks getting struck by lightning. The last
time my wife & I were in the Inner Basin of the San Francisco
Peaks in n. AZ, we were completely surrounded by lightning bolts.
Luckily, we were at treeline, and were able to duck and cover
beneath a Corkbark fir.

I have seen lightning strike a body of water here in central AZ.
I have seen people swimming/boating in that lake during a T-storm. That was their own choice to be there on that lake,
and the odds were "more-than-likely" in their favor.

The Ogre

The Ogre - Aug 3, 2008 3:32 am - Voted 10/10

I have been struck...

...but it wasn't bad. I was running across the street to my car, in the city of Rochester, NY. I knew full well that there was an electric storm, but I was not too worried because of the tall trees and utility poles in the area (which would likely spare me from a direct hit). Besides, I'm a risk taker. So I ran down the steps from my friends' house, toward the street and my car beyond, thinking that I was just going to get drenched by the rain...
In fact, one of those trees took a strike, and I was rewarded for my stupidity. I never saw it hit, but I got a nice, strong jolt right up the leg, from the ground current. It seems my sandaled foot was right in a puddle. I never skipped a beat; across the road and right into my car. I wasn't hurt, but I was sure shaken.
I am pretty sure that the bolt landed behind my friends' house. I'm just glad it didn't land in front of their house, where I was.

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