Striking a blow against lightning dangers
Enjoying the great outdoors this time of year has its rewards, but it also has its dangers. For me, lightning is my No. 1 concern. According to the experts, lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from the rain area in a thunderstorm. But what are the chances of being killed by lightning? The statistical odds for the United States are one in 56,439 over a lifetime. That means you have a much better chance of being taken out by lightning than winning the lottery. Put another way, lightning is the second most frequent killer in weather-related deaths in the United States. Living in Colorado increases the odds as we are third in the nation in lightning fatalities. What these figures and facts mean to me is minimizing the danger. This summer I’ve taken shelter from storms twice. First was on the Mason Fire near Florence when everyone was called off the fire line because of an incoming thundershower. Firefighters take lightning threats seriously. The next time was only a few days ago while working above 10,000 feet. Storms come in quickly at high elevations, so as soon as we heard the thunder we headed for the vehicle. We rolled the windows up and waited out the storm.But when you’re hiking in the backcountry you have no vehicle to take shelter in. That means taking different precautions. First, if hiking on an exposed ridge or other high point, get to a lower, less exposed low-lying area. Next, stay away from metal objects. Any pack I’ve ever owned has metal for a frame. Take your pack off and lay it down well away from you. Don’t take shelter under trees. Though I’ve never had to assume the lightning desperation position as a last resort, I would if I had to.The experts say to crouch down but do not lie down, with only the front part of your feet touching the ground. Bend your knees while keeping your feet together with your hands over your ears, elbows and arms drawn tight against your body.My healthy respect for lightning comes from a few close encounters.My first encounter came in the late 1960s while on a night climb of Wetterhorn Peak in the San Juan National Forest. We were about 100 yards from the summit when sheet lightning over the peak produced a smell of ozone I’ll never forget.We got off the mountain in record speed considering it was dark and we were shaking in our boots.Years ago while working along the Continental Divide in New Mexico, my partner John and I were heading out of a remote area during a storm. He got out, opened the gate, and I drove through.John closed the huge metal gate and took about three steps when lightning struck the fence near the gate. An intensely bright flash of light and a deafening clap of thunder occurred simultaneously.That’s as close as I ever want to be to lightning.Writing from 25 years of experience in federal land management agencies working and hiking in the back country, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares his stories and thoughts with readers every other week
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