22 July 2008

Carter Lake Hike

A flash of lightning dances along the mountain ridge. One one-thousand, Two one-thou-KABOOM! The thunder was so loud that I involuntarily sat down as did the Parental Dog (PDog). The problem was though, that we were at approximately 11,000 feet above sea level (~3,400m) and slightly above treeline - a bad place to be when the lightning is so close which is was. The rule of thumb is that if you can count to 15 after seeing the lightning before you hear the thunder then the lightning is 5 miles away, anything less then that is considered dangerous as lightning not infrequently travels 5 miles between strikes. We started to run, crouched low like crabs against the ground, going from krumholz (the twisted stunted trees at treeline) clump to krumholz clump.

My dad and his dog (PDog)

My father and the PDog were out for an over nighter, I was out for a day hike. We had reached their campsite earlier and had dropped his pack (with his rain jacket) at the site he had selected and then had hiked up beyond the lake to the pass. Hail and rain were coming down hard and the lightning zapped around us the thunder cracking so loudly in the air it was hard not jump. I stopped briefly under a clump of krumholz to dig out a wool shirt and my rain jacket. The PDog stops with me, relieved we are taking shelter, as my father dashes across a boulder field. As soon as I have my jacket on I am urging the PDog across the boulder field as my dad yells "stay low" at us - crabbing as quickly and lowly as possible across wet rock while trying not to do something stupid that might injure me. We quickly descend into the forest where we take refuge under a stand of spruce in a relatively dry space. My father is drenched. We wait no less then 20 minutes before the electric show slows down enough for us to resume hiking. And then we wait one more minute just to be sure. While there we snack, I put my long johns on, my dad puts on my wool hat, we count the distance between each strike and the thunder.

Owl's Clover

Finally we resume hiking and the ground is covered with hail that crunches under our feet. We still move rather fast and we reach the campsite to find everything drenched and my father decides to hike out with me. The final deciding point is that the PDog is absolutely drenched, wetter then I have ever seen her (despite her water-dog roots she does not like to get wet above the ankles) and would have to share a very tight space under a tarp. It turns out to be a very good decision as the roads are all washed out on our way back and there are mudslides turning the river red with silt. I am glad for the immediacy of the storm, it has pushed out of my mind all of the contemplations and worries about the Disreputable Dog's health, my mother's health, and jobs and put me square in the here and now - delighting even in the torrents of water pouring onto the trail, over my boots, and onto the road below.


  1. wow, sounds like a great storm - glad you did the right thing! years in the lightning poor upper northwest has softened my instincts and i'm having to revise my counting strategy, but i trust your way.

  2. Sounds intense! Glad you didn't get zapped!

  3. The lightning story sounds scary but exciting. I'm the kind of idiot who would have found that incredibly cool.

  4. How nice to be able to live in the moment, even when it comes by force! Glad you're safe.

  5. Lightning makes us realise what a small part of the natural world we are. We humans are as scared as any other animal in a storm like that, aren't we?

    I was interested to hear the 'rule of thumb'. All this time I've been feeling safe if I thought the lightning was a few miles away. No more safe thoughts now.

    We had a sad thing happen here a couple of years ago. In a lightning storm a big group of people were gathered at a picnic area under an open-sided wooden structure. One flash of lightning struck two people out of the crowd. I know one died but I don't remember whether the other person survived.

  6. Wayfarer, that was a very close encounter, indeed!

    The rule of thumb for lightning strikes until time of hearing the thunder has to do with the speed of sound, which is a little over 1000 ft/sec or about 1 mile in 5 seconds.

    That means that if you could count to 15 seconds (one one thousand, two one thousand...), you were really only 3 miles away! Very close!

    5 seconds - 1 mile. It's a good rule to know.

  7. Well told and exciting story, glad you were all okay. Interesting what it takes to keep us in the *now* ;-0

  8. Ok - I had no idea of the lightening strike/thunder formula. I am glad you are ok, and I hope you get to go back under drier conditions!

  9. I've only ever used the gap between the lightning and thunder to determine whether the storm is approaching or leaving, I didn't know how to convert the gap to miles. Good to know and glad all three of you were OK!

  10. What an adventure! Glad everyone is safe and sound!

  11. Now I'd be the last person to question your outdoor expertise, but in a safety class I took not four weeks ago, they were advocating that one should move *away* from trees and crouch to the ground (making oneself as small as possible). Thoughts?

  12. A wonderful post ! Yes, thunder and lightning and torrential rain and danger does put us in the here+now. Like a good bee sting.

    I have to read it again.


  13. "square in the here and now"

    I have also been finding relief in this haven.

    I am sending lots of prayers winging their way through stormlight and sunlight towards the Disreputable Dog, your mother and you*

  14. Thoughts on trees in lightnin: if you are very exposed like on a bunch of rocks or on a cliff, moving into trees bunched together all about the same height can be an okay thing, although getting very low is best - except you will get very wet.

    Do stay away from singularly tall trees, and trees spaced apart as any one of them can draw lightning.

    Sometimes getting out of trees is not possible. I think going downhill is usually best if up high, and finding low spots amongst the trees.

    Don't know what the experts recommend in the varieties of outdoor experiences a person can get into. Being inside a vehicle is one of the best things possible.

  15. There's something waiting for you over on my blog.

  16. matte, it's been a long time since hiking in lightning areas for me too - but some things you don't forget!

    ecogeofemme, thanks!

    blackendboy, welcome! I htought it was pretty cool too - nothing like a little bit of adrenaline.

    sally forth, on some occasions it takes force, doesn't it?

    parlance, I'm sorry to hear about that. My sister once dated a guy whose family had lightning as their number one cause of death.

    silver fox, indeed! The speed of light is what the rule of thumb is based on. It's more convenient to have a rule of thumb then to convert. I did think about mentioning it on the blog but for some reason didn't.

    doris rose, thanks! Sometimes it takes more then others -it's been a stressful week.

    qt, it's a very useful formula in this neck of the woods.

    cae, now you can use the formula on your net camping trip!

    dancingfish, me too.

    froghair, i meant to get to this earlier but I see silver fox ansered it pretty well. Once we got under trees we were in the middle of the forest and we were also under a rock overhang. The most important part was getting to a lower elevation. Staying near trees in the krumholz would have been a very bad idea indeed.

    yourfireant, thanks! Wow - and you read it twice???

    hel, thank you. And I your way.

    mad hatter, :) will get to it - promise...just a little behind.

    silver fox, very well articulated - my thoughts exactly.

    brigindo, awww!! Thank you so much. I am very honored!

  17. I'm glad that everything worked out ok. This post was beautifully written and I felt like I was there with you.


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