I can remember it vividly. On a hot July day last year, me and two friends went hiking in the Wichitas. Clouds began to roll in, giving us a nice respite from the blistering heat. But then those clouds began to darken.
I was still pretty high on Elk Mountain, on an exposed bare granite face. Distant rumbles carried a simple message.
Get down. Now.
I’ve had plenty of similar warnings. On Mount Elbert in Colorado three years ago, dark clouds to the east began spitting bolts of lightning 10 miles away as I began my descent from the summit. Despite leaving early enough to avoid normal weather patterns for that time of year, we got a little surprised by this early storm.
A year before that, storms raked a group of us winding our way up Mount Belford’s lower flanks. The instantaneous “FLASH-BANG!” of thunderbolts right overhead was a harrowing ordeal. Inspecting our campsite, my group could tell how brutal such storms could be. Many of the trees were stunted and blackened at their tops by similar events.
I bring this up just to emphasize the danger of lightning this time of year. On Friday, USA Today reported that five young people died this week from lightning strikes. According to the National Weather Service, 62 people die each year in the U.S. from lightning strikes. Forty-five died last year, and hundreds were injured. Sixteen have died so far this year.
When hitting the rocks or heading to the high country, it’s always wise to watch the weather. Here’s some tips from the National Weather Service:
Watch for Developing Thunderstorms: Thunderstorms are most likely to develop on spring or summer days but can occur year round. As the sun heats the air, pockets of warmer air start to rise and cumulus clouds form. Continued heating can cause these clouds to grow vertically into towering cumulus clouds, often the first sign of a developing thunderstorm.
An Approaching Thunderstorm: When to Seek Safe Shelter: Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from area where it is raining. That’s about the distance you can hear thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance. Seek safe shelter immediately.
Outdoor Activities: Minimize the Risk of Being Struck: Most lightning deaths and injuries occur in the summer. Where organized outdoor sports activities take place, coaches, camp counselors and other adults must stop activities at the first roar of thunder to ensure everyone time to get a large building or enclosed vehicle. Leaders of outdoors events should have a written plan that all staff are aware of and enforce.
So there you go. Let’s be safe out there. Get that mountaintop experience (Elk Mountain or otherwise!) and live to tell about it.