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Lightening Safety for Backpackers: Caught Out with Bubba and Dave.


Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 26 November 2011

Lightening Safety for Backpackers: Caught Out.

I have observed Summertime heat weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range for decades. The recipie is simple. Heatwaves in the Valley fill the atmosphere with hot evaporated moisture, a gentle onshore breeze pushes it up the Sierra Crest, and the cooling does the rest.

Strange Brew: Lightenting and Fording dangers at the same time.

Thunderheads forming as warm air is chilled rising to the Sierra crest.

Massive thunderheads rise as the hot moist air masses approache the Sierra Crest. I observe, analyize, run, stop, hide, and worry as the daily lightening situation evolves. No big deal.

Watching for blossoming clouds dealing out lightening bolts is an "automatic" observation, consideration, and calculation as I hike down the trail. Weather becomes part of my "personhood," and dealing with it is as natural as water rolling off the back of a duck. My daily hiking plan and planning is interactive with weather. This all changes when I hike with people.

What are they going to think when I suddenly stop, turn from crossing the trail across the open meadow, and make my way around across rough terrain in the surrounding forest?

Or I head into the forest and find a great place to sit between the lowest trees around, in the rain? Or I stop at the edge of the forest and wait for a big "sucker hole" to cross, and take the oppertunity to dash across the open space? (not recommended...)

The Social Dilemma

 Most backpackers that see me do these things think I'm weird. Until they look up, hear the boom of the thunder over their heads, or are blinded by a searing lightening bolt.

I've decided to make camp in safe locations many times rather than make unsafe crossings of open ground during thunderstorm activity. When hikers or hiking parties pass by to cross the open space, I always engage them with the classic, "How about this weather?," followed by "how about that lightening and thunder?"

If they still do not understand the danger they are hiking into, I just come out and tell them crossing open ground at the same time as a thunderstorm is crossing it is a bad idea.

When I'm hiking with people, I have to explain myself before I take action to protect myself against this hazard. That is just neighborly, but damn unsafe. Convincing idiots that the beauty of nature has a bite is best done over a coffee table at home, and not on a wet trail under active thunderheads.

I say, "we've got to head into the forest, or we can get killed by lightening," and people look at me like I'm an idiot or pussy. O.K., that's it. I'm not arguing the point, I'm taking the required actions to survive. Bye-Bye...

Dave and Bubba

Meeting Dave and Bubba created just such an occasion. I had done a nice Springtime Lake Tahoe Basin Spring snowshoe & hiking trip, then hitched over to Hwy 395 to head up the East Carson River to Sonora Pass. After that I would hitch down to Death Valley, which is only good during Fall, Winter, and Spring, where I had a killer route set-up.

I got a ride to Walker in Spring rains. I hung out at the Walker General Store with (?? damn, I forget her name-to the NOTES! But my uncle owned this place in the late 50's to the early '70s...) and then walked along 395 towards the old but nice motels dotting the mostly empty expanse of high desert that makes up the town of Walker.

I had a price that made the difference between a room or a tent... As I was walking along a Honda utility vehicle pulled up, and two crazy young local dudes said, "what the hell you doing?"

To make a long story short, we spent the night playing pool at Rhino's in Bridgeport, meeting the rest of the local kids, partying with Marines and Special Forces dudes, and ended up eventually sleeping in the Honda. I've got ten stories from that night partying with the boys along the base of the Eastern Sierra.

Turns out that Bubba's dad was going out with my buddy's roomate. I did not "know" Dave and Bubba, but we knew the same people, and they were related to good friends of my good friends. And these dudes just pulled over to check me out. Good people live along the Eastern base of the Sierra.

It Begins...

The next day the boys were going to accompany me on the first two days of my trip from the East Sierra near their town of Walker to Sonora Pass. Bubba and Dave are top notch dudes, and I was glad to have them come along.

Bubba and Dave before thick clouds breaking up and evolving into thunderheads.

Above: Bubba and Dave at the top of the ridge. Note the clouds breaking from stratus to cumulus...

Later that day, as we crossed the ridgcrest between the old sheepherder's massive carin and started heading down towards the Silver King River I noted that the Stratus Clouds were rising in a messy way.

Great sheepherder's carin from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Above: Old Sheepherder's massive carin.

 

The length of the trail from the crest to the creek was all exposed along the southern side of a descending ridge-arm.

At the crest of the ridge I noted the high stratus clowds lowering down and actively forming cells as the blanket of clouds broke up into climbing thunder cells. I've seen weird weather in the Sierra, but this was an unusual evolution.

I pointed it out to the boys on the way down to the Silver King Creek. Half-way down there is a great solitary junniper tree surrounded by soft soil and good seating. A great place to take a break, and we did.

Break junniper on Right of frame as we descend towards the Silver Kng Creek.

Above: Looking down at the Silver King Creek and its little tributairy. Break Junniper is visible on Right side of image.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

As we sat there the clouds made the transition from a blanket of Stratus into shabby rising thunderheads. A lightening bolt struck the high rock on the descending ridgeline to our North. I saw it strike and the thunder was virtually simultanous with the strike. When I see lightening I automatically start counting...  I call a second a thousand feet....Maybe 200 yards away, max. It was a simultanous strike/thunder. I did not even say "one thousand"  before the overhead thunder shook my kidneys.

We were in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. We were very lucky our break tree was not struck first. I freaked out. I immediately jumped up, put on my pack, and said "we're outta here." They both look at me like a freak.

The only other option was to depart the tree off-trail down towards the tiny trees along small drainage to our North, separate ourselves from our packs, and flatten out. Or we could run down the trail, leaving all these high spots behind. That was my instant selection from among these options, and it must be followed instantly for maximum safety in an unsafe location.

Al's a Jerk

Nobody moved. I said again, "we're outta here, we gotta go down right now, that shit can kill us here." Still, nobody moved. Then one of them said, "It ain't no big deal,..." and before he could say another word I started yelling, "get your shit on now, we're fucking out of here, or I leave you stupid fuckers behind." Another deafning crash of thunder broke over our heads, (I counted one second) and I turned to run. There was no safety here. Only fools would remain behind.

I saw that both dudes were saddling up immediately, so I paused for just a second, and they were ready to run down the mountain with me. I'm ready for action, but I won't leave you behind if you finally understand.

Rules of the Trail

I turned around and pointed at Dave: "wait till I get a couple of hundred feet down the trail, then you start jogging." Then I pointed at Bubba:  "when he gets a few hundred feet out, follow. Keep your frkn distance from me, and each other."

I wanted the team members who were not struck to assist those who were. I had to yell at them a couple of times to stay off my back and not clump up on each other. We ran down the mountain below the flashing lightshow that was plaguing the crest, listening to its thunderous sound track under pouring skies. We were leaving our naked exposure on high points behind as we submerged ourselves among many high points as we descended among folds in the ridge.

Powerful storms that can kill you in the afternoon fade into soft clear skies in the early evening. We spent an excellent evening at my fine camp within the protecting arms of the mini-canyon along the tributary feeding, and preceeding, the Silver King Creek.

Safe in camp near the Silver King with Dave and Bubba.

 Above: Dave and Bubba at the dinner table.

Fierce skies going soft at sunset.

Above: Fierce skies go placid at sunset. 

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