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#102678 - 07/12/18 01:43 PM Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney?
Kurt Wedberg Offline


Member

Registered: 06/21/05
Posts: 994
Loc: Bishop, CA
Lightning: What should you do on Mt. Whitney?

We're in a thunderstorm cycle right now and we've seen plenty of lightning strikes. The fire that closed the Whitney Portal Road was started by lightning. Last night we had a down strike in the fields next to the Bishop Airport. The question is coming up what you should do if you find yourself caught in an electrical storm. I’ve guided on Mt. Whitney since 1996 and have been visiting the area since the mid 70s. Here are a few things to keep in mind that I’ve learned about the Sierra, mountain weather, and our beloved Mt. Whitney. Feel free to post questions and I, along with others on this board, will do our best to answer them.

(1) There is no safe place outdoors during an electrical storm. What follows are a few things to consider to help lower your risk. The only way to eliminate the risk is to not go on your trip.

(2) Constantly watch the weather. Some say that storms take a “long time to develop” or they “develop slowly”. This is an arbitrary term that can be interpreted many ways. I would say storms actually develop quickly. See the pictures below for an illustration. I’ve seen a cloudless sky turn into thunderstorm conditions in under 2 hours.

(3) Your view of storms is often times obscured. One problem with climbing Mt. Whitney via the Main Trail, Mountaineers Route, East Face, or East Buttress is you’re approaching it from the east. Many time storms develop in the west and you won’t see the impending storm until you reach Trail Crest and get a view looking west.

(4) You’re exposed for a long time. The distance from Trail Crest (13600’) to the summit of Mt. Whitney (14508’) is 2.5 miles. It’s a long way on open exposed terrain. Because of the high elevation people normally take longer to hike 2.5 miles than they would at sea level. The timing is different for everybody but I suggest allowing at least 2-3 hours from Trail Crest to the summit and back to Trail Crest. It takes some folks much longer.

(5) Take note of the signs of electricity around you. Buzzing in the air, your mouth going dry, your hair standing up, the aluminum frame of your pack stinging your back, and trekking poles buzzing are blatant signs that electricity is in the air. These are called Positive Streamers. Your body has sent a “streamer” to the electrons pooling in a storm cloud. A lightning strike hitting you or close to you (within 100’) is probable to certain.

(6) What to do if signs are pointing towards an imminent strike. Make yourself the smallest target possible for electricity. Crouch down, heels on the ground, and head between your knees. Look for a low lying area if it’s available. This won’t be available above Trail Crest though. For those of you around Crabtree Meadow if you’re in a grove of trees try to position yourself around smaller trees versus the tallest ones around.

(7) Things that aren’t shelter: Tents, open meadows, rocky outcrops, any pool or stream of water, and lone trees offer no shelter. Stay away from all of these.

(8) Is the summit hut shelter? Phrased another way “is a hut with a big metal roof on the highest point in the contiguous US a safe place to be”? Well, it has a wood floor and several lightning rods all around the roof that are grounded. It should be safe but I’m not for a second suggesting you should hurry up to get to the summit and dive into the hut before a down strike. Don’t get to that point in the first place.

(9) Lightning can travel sideways. If it’s clear over the summit but storm clouds are near neighboring peaks you’re still at high risk. Lightning can travel 10+ miles sideways.

(10) Ball lightning is real. Spherical balls of lightning from the size of pebbles to an oversized beachball can accompany an electrical storm in the Sierra. They last much longer than the quick flash of a lightning bolt and dart across the landscape at alarming speeds. The consequences of being hit are every bit as serious as being struck by a lightning bolt and offer a good reason to stay away from the summit of Whitney during an electrical storm.


8am: Mt. Whitney from below Mt. Russell on a day in July. Note the lone small white puffy cloud starting to form.


9:30am: The Whitney Crest on the same day as the previous picture. This is from Lower Boy Scout Lake. This illustrates how quickly clouds develop.


10:30am: ready to enjoy the best bacon cheeseburger on the planet at the Whitney Portal Store. It started pouring rain shortly after we got our order smile
_________________________
Kurt Wedberg
info@sierramountaineering.com
http://www.sierramountaineering.com

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#102679 - 07/12/18 04:17 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Kurt Wedberg]
thorn Offline
Member

Registered: 08/15/15
Posts: 51
Loc: berkeley, CA
Tons of Great Advice there thanks, and those photos paint an Insane picture (with a tasty ending) i will note that the Hut is Absolutely Not a safe place to shelter. It was supposedly designed for protection but it doesn't work. Perhaps the builders only intended for it to be shelter from snow storms or rain and not lightning, or they just didn't know well enough what they were doing. Also, appears metal rimmed glasses are a Bad idea. Here's an article about a Terrible strike in 1990...
http://articles.latimes.com/1990-07-16/news/mn-100_1_whitney-portal
Curious if you have any suggestions for the following..
if one was at Trail Crest.. let's say the storm is raining on both sides of the Crest, would you go down the switchbacks, or the other side towards the summit?
If you were setting up camp at Trail Camp and storm begins, any suggestions for best place to sit down and be small?
so far ive been lucky/ usually go later in season, Sept this year lower chance of storms but doing overnight and can never be too prepared especially since we move pretty slowly


Edited by thorn (07/12/18 04:19 PM)

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#102680 - 07/12/18 06:53 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: thorn]
Akichow Offline
Member

Registered: 04/07/10
Posts: 705
Loc: Confluence of the Sac and Am R...
The hut reportedly was retrofitted after the 1990s to operate effectively as a Faraday cage. But who wants to test that? Not I.

There is a third option from Trail Crest -- to go down to Guitar Lake (and another option from the summit ... the Mountaineers route ... but that's beyond my skill set). If I approached Trail Crest and saw lightning forming, I'd go down whichever way looked fastest depending where I was, or go down whichever way my gear was. I've been on the 99 switchbacks when a thunderstorm was forming, and was able to set up my tent in a lower area at Trail Camp and dive in as the hail started. When the storm was over, it made for great photos as there was still a lot of drama on the Crest.

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#102681 - 07/12/18 07:49 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Kurt Wedberg]
Alan Offline
Member

Registered: 01/06/03
Posts: 548
Loc: St. Louis
I've lost count of the times I've been on my way down from a peak (with or without summitting) and tried to talk people out of continuing uphill into obvious or developing storms. Do they make it? Mostly, but I wouldn't take the risk.

One rule of thumb, since you can't always see the lightning is that if you are close enough to hear the thunder, you're close enough to be struck by lightning and you need to find shelter.

The other thing to keep in mind is that lighting can travel quite a distance along the surface of the rocks, so even being a quarter-mile or more away from the actual strike is no guarantee.

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#102682 - 07/13/18 09:12 AM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Kurt Wedberg]
bobpickering Offline
Member

Registered: 03/30/09
Posts: 281
Loc: Reno, NV
Tomorrow will be the 28-year anniversary of my first climb on Cathedral Peak’s Southeast Buttress. I was with a guide, and he warned me that we might have to abort the climb if we weren’t done when the expected thunderstorm materialized. We hurried up the route and back down. The lightning began just as we gathered our stuff at the base of the route and headed for the cars. Other climbers were all over Cathedral Peak. Most of them bailed, all of them got soaked, but nobody got electrocuted.

A thunderstorm also hit Mt. Whitney that day. People on the way down warned slower climbers not to continue. Many continued up anyway. When the doo-doo hit the fan, everybody huddled together in the summit hut. The hut took a direct lightning strike. If I remember right, one person was killed, two suffered serious injuries, and several others had minor injuries and holes burned in their sox.

Relatives and victims decided that it was the government’s fault that idiots continued up the highest peak in the 48 states, despite the obvious storm clouds, despite the forecast for a lightning storm, and despite the warnings from other climbers. The courts agreed, and we taxpayers coughed up millions of dollars.

The government posted warning signs, installed a wood floor in the hut, and installed a Faraday Cage around it. You are probably safer inside the hut than you are scurrying down the exposed trail, but you really don’t want to be either place in a thunderstorm.

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#102683 - 07/13/18 12:23 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Kurt Wedberg]
Ridgeline Offline
Member

Registered: 12/08/03
Posts: 397
Loc: Granada Hills Ca
I have run from the summit twice when a storm appeared from the west, adrenaline really wakes the body. We moved at a crazy pace not feeling safe until through Trail Camp dropping into Mirror lake,
We were not about to stay in the hut, I think the so called Faraday Cage was just a knee jerk reaction to the heavy settlement paid, and doesn't a Faraday cage have to be a "cage" out of mesh ?

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#102684 - 07/13/18 03:26 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Ridgeline]
Akichow Offline
Member

Registered: 04/07/10
Posts: 705
Loc: Confluence of the Sac and Am R...
The roof and smokestack are metal, and there are metal rods every couple of feet on the side of the hut from the roof to the ground, which in theory should operate as a Faraday cage. I’d prefer not to test it, but I believe that is the theory. Now if too many people crowd into the hut and/or if someone is touching something conductive (hint: leave your poles and ice axes outside), my understanding is you’d probably defeat the design. So yeah, my strategy is stay off the summit and get down if thunder/lightning is coming.

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#102685 - 07/13/18 06:33 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Akichow]
Richard P. Offline
Member

Registered: 06/26/03
Posts: 4865
Loc: Ridgecrest, CA
Dallas Raines just said 7 people a year get struck by lightning in CA each year... mostly in Kings Canyon National Park (think Guitar Lake).

Speedy and I were doing the East Ridge of Russel years ago and when we came up to the top of the ridge from the north side, it was amazing that a storm had moved in so quickly! Mike's pole were buzzing (I heard them; he felt them.), so he tossed them. I picked them up, ran up and tagged the summit (Speedy skipped it.) and raced over to the South Face, Right Side route to drop altitude in a hurry.

We ran into a really cool Guide and his clients on our way down and had an interesting walk down to Iceberg Lake.

As I recall, the storm cleared as fast as it raced in...

I did give Speedy his poles back...

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#102686 - 07/13/18 08:55 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Richard P.]
Kurt Wedberg Offline


Member

Registered: 06/21/05
Posts: 994
Loc: Bishop, CA
Ha! I remember that day well Richard. I was guiding a couple clients on the classic East Ridge of Mt Russell, which is still one of my all time favorite 3rd class routes in the Sierra. After reaching the summit it seemed like the development of that storm had kicked into overdrive. You, Mike & I were at the top of the SW Chute. I lowered my clients down the steep 3rd class pitch as quickly as I safely could & afterward I never coiled a rope so fast in my life before down climbing off the ridge! Exciting times & great memories!
_________________________
Kurt Wedberg
info@sierramountaineering.com
http://www.sierramountaineering.com

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#102687 - 07/14/18 07:55 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Kurt Wedberg]
Ridgeline Offline
Member

Registered: 12/08/03
Posts: 397
Loc: Granada Hills Ca
I had hiked with one of your clients(JG)just after that adventure, he talked about that day, your expertise in exiting the mountain and running into the infamous RP and Mike. Excitement was the order of the day.

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#102692 - 07/19/18 07:52 PM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Ridgeline]
Kurt Wedberg Offline


Member

Registered: 06/21/05
Posts: 994
Loc: Bishop, CA
Originally Posted By: Ridgeline
I had hiked with one of your clients(JG)just after that adventure, he talked about that day, your expertise in exiting the mountain and running into the infamous RP and Mike. Excitement was the order of the day.

Yeah that was a very memorable climb. It's hard to believe that was Labor Day weekend 2009. My how time flies! The pix I took from that trip are here. Below are a couple highlights.

Summit photo on Mt. Russell


Our group descending with Giga Mike still heading up


My guys off the ridge with fresh hail falling. Wow how quickly the weather changed!


Dark clouds over Mt. Whitney as we started descending off Mt. Russell


Richard & Giga Mike following us off the ridge as the area was getting soaked
_________________________
Kurt Wedberg
info@sierramountaineering.com
http://www.sierramountaineering.com

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#102707 - 07/30/18 05:14 AM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Kurt Wedberg]
Richard P. Offline
Member

Registered: 06/26/03
Posts: 4865
Loc: Ridgecrest, CA
Unbelievable how time files...

Saw an email that Dr. Dirtbag is "flying" (on his feet) all over the Alps (mention of Grandes Jorasses drew my attention to his blog post...) which lead to...

...Steck died in a fall on Nuptse more than a year ago...

...which reminds me that I did Nepal was 5 years ago (the year of the Brawl in the Icefall - actually I think is might have been Camp 2.)

Last August would have been 45 years since my 1st Whitney (meaning 50 is only 4 years away...)

What else have I missed from the climbing world?

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#102743 - 08/15/18 01:20 AM Re: Lightning: What Should You Do On Mt. Whitney? [Re: Richard P.]
Kurt Wedberg Offline


Member

Registered: 06/21/05
Posts: 994
Loc: Bishop, CA
Originally Posted By: Richard P.
Saw an email that Dr. Dirtbag is "flying" (on his feet) all over the Alps (mention of Grandes Jorasses drew my attention to his blog post...)

Oh wow I'm sorry I didn't see him in the Alps. I just got back from a beautiful climb of Mont Blanc.



Mont Blanc summit August 11, 2018


Originally Posted By: Richard P.
...which reminds me that I did Nepal was 5 years ago (the year of the Brawl in the Icefall - actually I think is might have been Camp 2.)

That brawl was at Camp 2. A very unnecessary and avoidable event it was. The last time I was in Nepal was this past spring. I guided a climb of Island Peak. That's such a beautiful climb and a great way to add a fun mountaineering adventure to a trek in that beautiful region. You should check out my photo gallery from that trip especially the shots of Namche Bazar. That village has changed a lot in the last couple of years.

Crazy crevasse crossing

Climbing the glacier on summit day


Summit of Island Peak (6189m/20304’)
_________________________
Kurt Wedberg
info@sierramountaineering.com
http://www.sierramountaineering.com

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