Thinking back, I remember the tingling feeling of hair rising on the back of my neck, like when you are really scared. Yes, that was it – then the brightest flash ever.
On a one-week solo section hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), I hopped on near Fontana Dam in North Carolina. It was mid-August and the weather forecast for the week was for scattered thunderstorms with highs in the 80’s. Most of my experience has been hiking the PCT and in the mountains of southern California. While we do get thunderstorms, they are infrequent and not as intense as the ones I remember while living back east.
My ride dropped me off on Hwy 28 near Fontana Village where I picked up some last minute supplies. I walked to the trailhead and stopped to take in the view at the dam. It brought back memories from my honeymoon 33 years ago. That was a glorious week spent exploring the Smokies and hanging out on Fontana Lake.
Today would be a short day and I would only knock out about 7 miles. Hoping to make Mollies Ridge shelter, I extended my hiking poles, took a deep breath and started walking. Fontana Lake was to my right and had plenty of water in it. Man, I was jealous because California has been in an awful drought and our lakes and reservoirs were almost empty.
Making good time, I thought about going for Double Spring Gap. It is a couple of miles west of Klingman’s Dome, the highest peak in NC/TN. At 6,643 ft. it provides awesome views of the surrounding landscape. It was no Mt. Whitney, but the trail wasn’t any easier. The SUDS (senseless-ups-downs) were just as tough as the switchbacks in the Sierras.
As I passed over a ridge, I took a snack break and noticed the cumulus clouds gathering to the west/northwest. A cool breeze picked up and it felt like the swamp-coolers we have in the desert. The pine trees started waving their spindly branches as the wind made a waterfall like sound. I caught the first whiff of rain, a refreshing smell. About 10 minutes later, I heard the first rumblings of thunder. Passing a fellow hiker who was getting out his rain gear, I thought to do the same and stopped a few minutes later. The hiker walked past me and I asked where he was stopping for the day. He mentioned that he was trying to make the Mount Collins shelter about 7 miles away.
Decent waterproof hat: Columbia Men’s Eminent Storm Bucket Hat
I dug out the rain cover for my pack and rain jacket. Back west, I used the jacket more as a windbreaker and only remember using my pack cover one other time on the AT up in the Maine wilderness. Back on the trail, the thunder became more frequent and I saw the first flashes of lightning. Hmm, those clouds became fully developed thunderheads now, nice and dark with flat tops. I started looking for a place where I could ride out the storm when a lightning strike hit too close for comfort. A flash and almost immediate boom made me speed up my search for shelter. Of course, this part of the trail had no shelter, just plenty of pine and oak trees. The rain came next, almost immediately a downpour. Well, this sucks. I know, if you hike the AT long enough, this is fairly common. For this California acclimated dude, this was going to be interesting.
What followed happened quickly. I remember feeling the hair rise on the back of my neck, a tingly feeling- like when you are really scared. My training kicked in and I dropped my pack on the side of the trail and began to sit on it. The flash came and occurred at the same time as the crack.
I woke up with the rain pelting me, the sound of it bouncing off my jacket. My vision was blurred and I was looking at a tree trunk sideways. Disoriented and dizzy, my ears were ringing. I laid there on the ground for a bit and got on my hands and knees and moved over to my pack. I had one hiking pole still strapped to my hand. My fingers were a bit numb, but no other damage. The storm continued as I sat on my pack to minimize contact with the ground. I looked around and saw an oak tree that was smoking about 30-40 ft away. The lightning had struck it about halfway up and split a large part of the trunk. Hoping that lightning wouldn’t strike twice in the same place, I sat for another 10-15 minutes and made sure I was ok.
As the thunderstorm passed to the east, I put my pack on and got back on the trail, thanking the Lord that it wasn’t a direct hit. My ears were still ringing when I strolled into the Double Spring Gap shelter. I met about three other hikers there and shared my tale of woe. They stared at me with wide eyes and said they were pelted with hail about an hour ago. I rested well that night but remember waking once to the sound of distant thunder.
Well folks, for the 10 or so people that follow my blog, you knew this was another one of my tall tales. I have hiked around thunderstorms and know about precautions to take. If there is a chance of lightning where you hike, consider the following:
– If you are with people, spread out. One lightning strike can take out an entire group if they are close to each other.
– If you ever do feel the hair rising on your neck or arms, immediately drop to the ground into a crouching position. Try not to touch the ground and drop those poles.
– If you have time, sit on your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
– Don’t seek shelter under a tall tree. If you can, seek a medium sized grove of trees, head there.
– Don’t go into caves or sit on rocks. They conduct electricity very well.
– If someone does get struck, they will quite possibly go into shock. Check for pulse and treat for shock by keeping them warm and covered. Seek immediate help.
Bottom line, there is no sure way to prevent lightning strikes. A strike can occur 30 miles or so from a thunderstorm. Tents provide little protection from lightning but may get you out of that pelting rain. If you do go into your tent, sit on a pad or your pack to minimize contact with the ground.
This is an awesome rain jacket and has never leaked: Marmot Mens Precip Jacket
We actually do get nasty thunderstorms in the Sierras and hikers have died from lightning on Half-Dome in Yosemite. Thunderstorms in the Sierra Nevada are generally mild compared to the ones on the Appalachian Trail. Enjoy the trail, you will be talking about that hail and stinging rain for years to come. 🙂
Inexpensive pack cover for occasional hiking: KLOUD City ® Black nylon backpack rain cover for hiking / camping / traveling (Size: L)
It’s been over a year since the Mountain Fire consumed over 27,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in Riverside County. As a result, some of the trails in the San Jacinto range and some of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed indefinitely. The cause of the fire was attributed to electrical equipment failure on private property. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Since last fall’s hike on Fuller Ridge, we haven’t been back in the San Jacinto area. We love to hike up here in the summer because you can usually escape the hotter temps in the valleys below.
Today, we would venture out on Devil’s Slide and hit Saddle Junction From there, we would see which trails were open. On the weekends, this is a popular trail so the recommendation is to come early or start late (around noon). Humber Park is a popular area to picnic and the Earnie Maxwell trail is a 2.6 mile one way shuttle hike for a nicer walk in the park. Parking in Humber Park requires an adventure pass. For the Devil’s Slide trail, you will need to pick up a permit at the ranger’s station in Idyllwild.
I usually check the weather forecast when we hike. Now, a tropical storm off the Baja Peninsula was pumping in moisture to the desert regions east with subsequent scattered thunderstorms in the mountains. One thing about hiking, the longer you do it, the better you get at understanding the weather. The cumulus clouds were definitely about, but were spread out and not building into thunder-cells.
The trail up Devil’s Slide is well maintained, wide – with a mix of dirt, granite and some sand and scree. It gains a steady 500 ft. or so for the first mile and then you get switchbacks that are around 700 ft. per mile. It’s a steady climb with nice views of Suicide Rock and Lily Rock, both favorites for local climbers. You can hear them calling out to each other as you head up.
Unfortunately, this has been a low snow year so the trail is totally dry. If you want to find water sources in the wilderness, watch for bees. They seek out moisture and will actually pull water out of moist dirt that usually has a water source underneath. They often will take the water back to the queen to cool her down. I love nature.
After 2.5 miles, we reached Saddle Junction and most of the trails were roped off by the USFS. The Mountain Fire did impact a large area, but many mature trees survived because the fire was not as intense. Some species of pines in this area have bark that is 3-5 inches thick. It’s like armor and protects the conifers from the heat.
We took one of two available trails toward Tahquitz Valley, hoping that we could work our way toward Law’s Camp a few miles away which has decent views of the desert. After a half mile or so, we would run into some volunteer ranger’s and I automatically gave them my permit. The people who volunteer are usually locals that love this area and are a big asset to the Forest Service. They check permits, clean up trash and seek out illegal campsites or fire rings. Often, they assist with search and rescue. We had a nice conversation with them and were on our way again. We came to another junction and unfortunately, the trails to the north were closed so we went into Tahquitz Valley toward Tahquitz Peak.
We were rewarded with a display of colorful ferns. Some were orange and yellow, probably due to the lack of rain, but it seemed like fall foliage to us. We had the trail to ourselves for the next few hours as most people stopped at the junction or went straight to the peak. The trail meandered through the forest passing a couple of remote campsites. These would be nice if there was water around. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring it in like a camel.
One of the volunteer rangers mentioned that thunderstorms were due in around 3 p.m. We pushed up the last 500 ft. just past the Tahquitz Peak junction and wandered out to an outcropping for views of Lily Rock and the valley where we would take a late lunch break. Good thing too, because I hit the classic wall where I was out of energy. Many long distance hikers experience this frequently where they just run out of steam. For them, trying to stay ahead of the calorie deficit is the key. For us occasional day hikers, it’s a matter of eating a decent breakfast and snacking along the way.
We heard one group pass on their way to the peak and then the first rumbles of thunder. I looked around to see the source and the cumulus clouds were gathering to our south and moving north towards us. We finished up and began a fairly quick retreat down the mountain. Unfortunately, the first mile or so was parallel to the storm so we didn’t make much headway, but ended up getting out of harms way fairly quickly. I found out later that the storm dumped several inches of rain with hundreds of lightning strikes to our south and east. Did you know lightning can strike 20+ miles away from a storm? We took the opportunity to talk about lightning safety and what actions we would take. Feel a tingling on the back of your neck or arms? Drop those poles and squat near the ground ASAP. Don’t touch the ground though.
Anyhow, hike long enough and you are bound to get wet and/or experience lightning. Be prepared and have a plan. Pack a rain-pancho or raincoat – you can get hypothermia even in the summer. Avoid peaks and summits in thunderstorm conditions around the noon to early afternoon hours.
In summary, the Devil’s Slide trail to Saddle Junction is fairly limited for the time being due to the fire, but take the loop to Tahquitz Peak as it is a worthwhile trek. The views from the peak and the Lily Rock canyon are stellar. You’ll log around 9.5-9.7 miles on this walkabout. Take at least 2-3 liters of water with you, there’s none to be found this time of year. Hike on……