Quiz time!  What causes more fatalities in Colorado?  Mountain lion attacks or lightning strikes?

If you live here in the mountains, I’m sure you realize the perils of lightning.  But judging by what I saw today, a lot of people don’t.

Ignorance is not Bliss

I ran into a group of women at Nederland’s Park and Ride this morning planning a hike out of the Hessie Trailhead.  There were part of a group called Women’s Quest Retreats.  Being a seasoned hiker and knowing how challenging summer weather is, I always check the forecast the morning of my hike.  Which is how I found out that thunderstorms were forecast to move in as early as 9 a.m. instead of the afternoon.

I had on my Forest Service volunteer uniform and some of the women started talking with me.

“So I gather you are part of a group?”

“Yes, we’re on a retreat through Women’s Quest.  And today we’re hiking out of the Hessie Trailhead.”

“You know, there are thunderstorms forecast to move in after 9 a.m. this morning.”

They seemed completely unfazed by this.  I soldiered on, trying to make my point.

“You know, every year in Colorado, people die from lightning strikes from hiking in the mountains.”

Now I had their attention.  One of the women looked worried.

“Are the leaders of your hike from Colorado?”

“No, they are from California, but I’m sure they know what they are doing.”

And they piled into their cars with fanny packs and a poncho.  I’m sure they thought I was being overly dramatic.

But just two hours later, unfortunately, I found out how right I was.

Weather Can Change Quickly

Because of the forecast, I changed the hike for myself and fellow volunteer to go out of East Portal.  I knew it would be more wooded there, presenting less of a risk.  We decided one rumble of thunder and we would head back to the trail head.

Hiking in, things didn’t look too bad — a few puffy clouds, but also a peek of blue sky.  Maybe I was wrong after all.  When we reached our destination, three miles in, we sat on a log to have a snack.  As I munched on my Luna Bar, something dropped on my head and then hit the ground.

A small pellet of ice.  Hail.

“Anna, I think we should head back, it’s starting to hail.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right, let’s pack up and go.”

As we headed down the trail, we heard faint rumbles of thunder.  I picked up the pace.

After we hit the main trail, the hail and rain picked up and the thunder boomed ever closer.  This was not good.

The next flash of light, I counted.  One thousand one, one thousand tow, one thousand three.  Twelve seconds went by before CRACK!!  The lightning was only about 2 1/2 miles away.

“Anna, we need to move quickly, it’s getting closer.”

Unbelievably, we continued to encounter hikers who were climbing up the trail.  Trying to be a good volunteer, I briefly talked with them.  Not that it wasn’t obvious what was going on as piles of hail lined the trail.

“You know, the weather is really getting bad and it’s probably better to head back to the parking lot.”

People just smiled and nodded.  The worst was a couple with no packs, holding umbrellas, with two small children following them.

A Close Call

At this point, the storm seemed to be stationed right over our heads.  We were moving at a half run, half walk, desperate to get to the safety of the car.

Despite urban myths, you are not safe anywhere outside in a thunderstorm.  While it’s infinitely better to be in the forest than on an exposed peak, even being in the forest is no insurance.  And that old adage about squatting to avoid the strike?

Several years ago, NOAA issued new safety guidelines that don’t include the squat.  It doesn’t make you safer, and in fact gives hikers a false sense of security, as well as delaying their moving towards safety.

We were moving quickly through the meadow areas, and were within a half-mile of the parking lot, when a flash of light and simultaneous boom shook the ground.  I let loose with a curse word, feeling completely freaked out.  That strike had easily been with a 1/4 mile of where we were standing.

Finally, the parking lot appeared and I sprinted for the car, pushing on the remote unlock button.  Throwing our packs in, we climbed in and breathed a sigh of relief.  That was the closest call I’ve ever had since living here.

As we drove back towards Nederland, I wondered about that woman’s group.  I hoped they had survived the storm.  But I felt sure they had also learned a valuable lesson about hiking in the high country of Colorado.

Lightning is a serious and scary threat to people recreating outside.  The most important thing is not reaching your destination, but living to see another day.