Hiking, lightning and the balance of terror
With Memorial Day weekend and the high country hiking season swiftly approaching, I'm beginning to lust for the alpine breeze. Grand Teton National Park is on my mind, and so is a climb up a fourteener or two. (Will this be my year to finally scale Blanca? Longs? San Luis Peak?)
Hiking season in the Rockies perfectly coincides with thunderstorm and monsoon season, which means the millions who populate Colorado's backcountry each summer subject themselves to one of nature's greatest light shows on nearly a daily basis.
And that brings me to a confession: Lightning terrifies me.
Few things really scare the shit out of me. I'm cool with heights, bears, packing out my poop, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and NRA members. I'm not crazy about rock climbing, but only because I don't like it, not because I'm afraid of it.
But ever since I spent an hour shaking the numbness from my arms after I got a little too cozy with a lightning bolt on the shores of Bohicket Creek at the Boy Scout camp I was working at in South Carolina 15 years ago, the potential for an electrifying experience in the wilderness has almost always informed my decisions and motivated more than one quick descent off a high peak or exposed meadow or ridge.
All of us wilderness lovers have been there: Hiking through an alpine cirque above treeline, pummeled by a shower of hail and delighted by the simultaneous flash-boom of lightning clanging off high crags just above. Or starting a peak ascent late in the morning, only to be caught within a cloud riddled with forking lightning bolts.
The disposition toward these experiences of my many backcountry companions has ranged from sheer indifference to abject terror. In my experience, it's rare for anyone to seriously plan to be off the top of a high exposed ridge before the storms start rolling in or retreat from a climb if the cumulonimbus begin to loom over the mountains. Sure, some people do, but most don't, thinking they won't get struck or their sense of manhood and pride would be assaulted by running from a mountainside because of a few lightning bolts.
Real men, of course, aren't afraid of a thunderstorm at 13,000 feet.
Naturally, there's an element to the wilderness experience that is more about exhilaration than avoidance of risk: You witness nature at its most powerful and unpredictable when caught within the clutches of an electrical storm. With the pungence of the freshly-doused alpine tundra, the crispness of the cool electrified air, the majesty of the towering thunderheads and the tangible, awesome power of an electrical storm's furious climax, a thunderstorm is a truly sensual experience inspiring a feeling of aliveness at the moment of, perhaps, highest risk.
But terror and high risk are often exhilarating, and risk is part of the fun when venturing into the wild. Still, my sense of self-preservation keeps me planning well ahead of afternoon thunderstorms and more often than not, keeps me off the high peaks upon which I'd rather linger.
After a dubious peak climb during a rather hellacious thunderstorm in Wyoming more than a decade ago, my National Outdoor Leadership School instructor told our group: "We could have died up there, but that's why we call this experiential education."
Here's what NOLS has to say about how to play in the mountains while playing with lightning, too.