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