Early-morning lightning storm on Quandary Peak prompts search and rescue response in Summit County

Summit County Rescue Group responded to Quandary Peak on Friday, June 30, after lightning struck the mountaintop before 9 a.m., according to member and spokesperson Anna DeBattiste.

The lightning strike, which didn’t injure or kill anyone but frightened two hikers, is an important reminder headed into the 4th of July weekend that backcountry users and those hiking Colorado’s 14ers should keep a close eye on the forecast, DeBattiste said.

“It was close enough that their hair stood up straight. They felt the electrification of the air,” DeBattiste said. “It sounds like it was very scary for them. Scary enough they called 911.”

This graph from the National Weather Service shows what outdoor activities have the greatest risk of lightning strikes.
National Weather Service/Courtesy image

Immediately after the lightning strike, a call went out to search and rescue group members, most of whom were quickly told to stand down, except for a small team that helped locate the two hikers out of “an abundance of caution,” she said. Other hikers reportedly showed up before rescue group members and helped the duo below the tree line.

The early-morning lightning strike bucked the typical pattern of storms in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, DeBattiste said. Since lightning storms tend to hit the mountains in the afternoon, hikers in the high Alpine are generally encouraged to travel in the morning hours to make it back below tree line before noon.

The ’10 Essentials’

Charles Pitman of Summit County Rescue Group suggests a simple list of 10 items to bring in your pack anytime — literally, anytime — you hit the trail.

“They’re simple, they cost virtually nothing and they can really help you if something happens in the backcountry,” he says. Of course it goes without saying that you need the knowledge to use all of these items. Here they are:

  • Navigation — map (for your area) and compass, GPS and extra batteries or charger
  • Signaling — whistle, mirror, cell phone, surveyor tape
  • Light source (two) — headlamp, flashlight, extra batteries for both
  • Nourishment — water and high-energy food for 24-48 hours
  • Shelter — waterproof tarp, bivvy sack, parachute cord
  • Fire building — waterproof matches or lighter, heat tabs, knife
  • Personal aid — First-aid kit with medications, sunscreen, dark glasses, bug repellant
  • Weather protection — extra socks, warm gloves, rain gear, hat, bug net
  • Winter extras — avalanche beacon, probe, shovel with metal blade
  • Rules to follow — never hike alone, always leave a schedule and trip plan with someone at home, stay on the trail, wait for search and rescue if you become lost

Source: SCRG.org. 

But this lightning strike is a “good, little wakeup call” to the fact that weather patterns can be unpredictable, DeBattiste said, noting that backcountry users should be checking the forecast up to the moment they leave and even while on the trail.

Knowing that weather forecasts are not always 100% accurate, backcountry users should also always be prepared with the 10 essentials and be ready to dip below tree line in the event that storm clouds appear to be gathering on the horizon, she said.

Lightning safety tips
  • If you are caught above the tree line when a storm approaches, descend quickly. Avoid isolated trees. It is better to run into a forest.
  • Electric storms can also develop in the middle of the night. To lower your odds, don’t pitch your tent near the tallest trees in the vicinity.
  • Hikers, golfers, and others should run into a forest if a shelter or car is not nearby.
  • Drop metal objects like golf clubs, tennis rackets, umbrellas, and packs with internal or external metal frames.
  • Get off bicycles, motorcycles, horses, and golf carts. Metal bleachers at sports events, metal fences, and utility poles are also to be avoided.
  • If you are caught in an open field, seek a low spot. Crouch with your feet together and head low.
  • If someone is struck, people who have been hit by lightning carry no electric charge and can be safely tended to. Also, victims who appear dead can often be revived. If the person is not breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But if a pulse is absent as well and you know cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), begin CPR. Stay with the victim until help arrives.
  • Don’t sit or lie down, because these positions provide much more contact with the ground, providing a wider path for lightning to follow. If you are with a group and the threat of lightning is high, spread out at least 15 feet apart to minimize the chance of everybody getting hit.
  • Don’t return to an open area too soon. People have been struck by lightning near the end of a storm, which is still a dangerous time.
  • Swimmers, anglers, and boaters should get off lakes or rivers and seek shelter when storms approach. Drop any fishing rods. Boaters who cannot get off the water before the storm hits should crouch low. Once on land, get at least 100 yards away from shore.

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