I get up at 5 in the morning, pull out a couple granola bars for breakfast, and organize my daypack for the hike. Sunrise is at 6:11 but at 6 it’s still pretty dark because of the clouds. It looks like it will be an overcast day – not so good for pictures, but at least it won’t be too hot. I drive for a couple minutes to reach the trailhead, lock up the car, and start the hike. Right away I’m climbing, first through poplar, then mixed, and finally alpine spruce forest. It is a very long and grueling climb before any meadows appear – I’m all about the meadows. The first meadow is the valley between Mt. Stearn and ridge I’m heading for. Mt. Stearn is the shorter and easier hike, so of course I’ll be taking the right branch to the ridge. Right away, I’m climbing through more trees, which is a bit of a disappointment. The trail continues to climb, alternating between thick trees and small meadows. I cross rocky creeks, muddy streams, and everything in between. None of my maps have the trail on them, so I assume I’ll be heading up the first slope to the ridge. Nope. The trail follows the ridge all the way to the far end, and then climbs that slope. Finally I leave all the trees behind me! Meadows, scree and amazing views await! (until I get into the cloud of course – the clouds are covering the very top of the ridge) I arrive at a beautiful little lake, surrounded on one side by the mountain, and the other by open meadows.
Then I hear it – rumbling. Is that thunder or a rockslide? It can’t be thunder, these are overcast clouds, not thunder clouds. KABOOM! The flash and sound instantly flatten me. Was that instinct or did the sound knock me over? The lightning hit a couple hundred yards away. I’m currently the highest object in the meadow. KABOOM! Another one. Now it’s starting to rain, and at 7000 feet it’s cold. There is no kind of cover for a long way. So I start to crawl on my hands and knees through a freezing marshy meadow. My hands are white with cold, my pants are totally soaked. At least I have my rain jacket and a couple layers underneath. Lightning is still flashing all around, and the thunder is shaking me. Or is that fear? Or cold? Finally I reach a gully, so I feel fairly safe walking again. Now it starts hailing – pea size now – hopefully it doesn’t get bigger. The gully is getting slippery and slushy with melting hailstones. My mind races ahead to all the places where the trail is exposed. Can I avoid them? Now I’m thankful that there aren’t too many meadows. The storm doesn’t seem to be letting up. I end up making some detours through spruce thickets, thoroughly soaking myself. My brain finally realizes that lightning isn’t the only problem here. I’m really cold. I’ve heard that staying dry is the best way to avoid hypothermia. So much for that. There’s nothing I could start a fire with here either – everything is far too wet. I decide that the best thing is to just keep moving and get down off the mountain as quickly as possible. It’s about 5 hours back to the car, I should be able to do that. I grab some trailmix and speed up, letting my body create its own heat. Eventually the hail stops, and the rain slows a little. The lightning is getting less frequent. I continue to hurry down, and as I do the air starts to get a little warmer. Now I’m just thinking of getting into the car and turning up the heater full blast.
I get to the car and unpack everything – peel apart papers from my wallet (silly me – I forgot to put it in a ziploc bag), dump out my camera bag (there was half an inch of water in the bottom), and wring out my socks. And I shakily write down a few notes about my hike. Oh yeah, the ridge I was heading to? – Lightning Ridge.
- Lightning is often avoidable, it’s not smart to hike in storms – but the forecast was for 30% chance of rain
- Lightning only kills about 20% of the time – but it causes various levels of disabilities over 70% of the time, and alone on a mountain that would often kill.