The hair-raising experience of a gathering storm |

The hair-raising experience of a gathering storm

My first reaction was disbelief, even embarrassment. Was I mistaken? Deluded? As tingling began in a strip of skin across the top of my forehead, I wondered if my bangs could be slapping my skin, and batted them aside.

The tingling grew to a buzzing and spread downward.

“I feel electricity,” I ventured to Stephanie. “Do you?”


Twenty bees buzzed in my skin.

She said, “Your hair is standing straight up.”

“We gotta get out of here!”

Stephanie and I had just risen, cutting our lunch short as tall slate-colored clouds rolled toward us on top of Mount Sopris.

Formerly of Aspen, now Las Vegas, Stephanie is a longtime friend and fellow climber. In recent years she has had a strange string of incidents, from a broken leg due to rockfall to two shoulder surgeries, the most recent causing nerve damage that incapacitated the thumb and first two fingers of her right hand. Once a top climber, she struggles to tie her shoes. Stephanie underwent corrective surgery three months ago by a nerve specialist in St. Louis and will visit a Boston surgeon this month. Meanwhile she is trying to divert to other sports, mainly big hikes. On the way up Sopris, we’d mourned and even laughed about her life as a continuum of appointments, PT and MRIs.

Eye on the weather, I told her of how my friend Ron’s son Alex and a friend had been hit by lightning on a beach near their boss’s house. Both youths lay unconscious, neither with a pulse, their lives saved because a physician nearby was having a barbecue for doctor friends, and all rushed to help. The boys were in comas for two days but recovered.

The buzzing stretched to my eyebrows, slid down my temples to the tops of my ears. We hastened along the ridge.

Then, in the right corner of my forehead, a crackling materialized. I shouted, “I can hear it!” and, madly beckoning Stephanie, began running, sometimes stumbling. I felt as if a great gathering was occurring in the sky, the first strike imminent. The bees bored into my forehead.

We approached the false summit, the trail dipped, and the tingling receded. I paused, waited for Stephanie. “It’s better,” I said.

She said, “Your hair’s calmed down.”

“Why aren’t you feeling it?”

“Maybe because I’m short!” she said cheerfully. Stephanie is 5 feet 1 inch tall to my 5 feet 7 inches.

As we contoured up around the false summit, the bees returned, but quieted as we gained the lower ridge, though my bangs still waved upward, and strands of Stephanie’s hair lifted, too.

We heard the first thunder then, about 40 minutes after leaving the top, and in intermittent drizzle hiked down.

Later I found plenty of similar tales. On, someone wrote about Mount Democrat: “[I]t started to hail/rain. … As we approached the summit, we noticed a buzzing sound coming from our own clothes.

“We booked it off the summit, along with about 30 others who were hiking near us. Most people reported hearing that same sound. Scared the crap out of us. Does that buzzing happen often, and were we in imminent danger of lightning?”

The first reply was clear and concise: “Yes and yes.”

The next one was clearer: “Buzzing on a mountain during a storm is the sound of your imminent death.”

Electricity in the air creates discharges that jump toward the ground in a “negatively charged” channel, causing the buzzing and flying hair.

From “Almost all people who have been struck by lightning and survived said that a few seconds before they were hit, or an object near them was hit, their hair … prickled and stood on end.”

Now, why would one person buzz but not the other? Was it my necklace, hair clips, height? Or does electricity aim for some people more than others? In 1998, in Dotsero, a former NFL linebacker was struck by one bolt, and then, as a friend was performing CPR, a second one that killed him. Both strikes missed the friend. In the tragic storm-torn attempt of the Central Pillar of Freney on France’s Mont Blanc, in 1961, one man was purportedly hit in the face, a blue spark shooting out of his ear. Was it because he wore a hearing aid? He was hit again and went deaf and mad, attacking his friends.

I don’t know why I buzzed and Stephanie didn’t. But I’d like to think it was her turn for good luck.

“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at


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