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Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney

#WomenInTheWild

08.01.18

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Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney

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  • Keen boots, Peoplesocks, and peace signs for the win.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
  • The thunder from the switchbacks.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
  • The beautiful sights of the Whitney Trail.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
  • Thick smoke and ash after reaching the Outpost Camp.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
  • The Garmin inReach Explorer is a lifesaver.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
  • Sunrise at 11,500 feet.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
  • Whitney trail views.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
  • Marmots gone mad at Trail Crest.- Lightning, wildfires, and fickle friends: Lessons from Mount Whitney
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Mount Whitney towers 14,494 feet above sea level and is known as the tallest peak in the Lower 48. I was invited on a friend’s permit to summit this peak, and although I wanted to backpack it overnight, the permit was for a day hike. This would be my second experience summiting Whitney in a day and my sixth 14er overall. Thunderstorms were in the forecast, and we were constantly checking the weather leading up to our coveted permit date. I was a bit unsettled about the weather forecast even though the weather is always erratic on 14ers, especially in the Eastern Sierras, and I even contemplated backing out of this adventure because something was just not sitting well with me. Unlike my previous summit three years ago, the trail was clear of snow, so I did not need to lug my spikes and ice axe and assess whether I should go up the chute or the switchbacks; we would enter through Whitney Portal, hike up to Trail Camp where we would filter enough water for the summit, endure the 99 grueling switchbacks to Trail Crest, and hike along the ridge to the summit, where I would take a topless photo. The 21-mile round-trip route was straightforward, with the exception of possible thunderstorms.

The hike leading up to Trail Camp was pretty uneventful except for the stunning sunrise at 11,500 feet. We left Trail Camp at around 8:30 a.m. to make our way up the switchbacks, and about halfway through I began to feel totally exhausted. I was tired starting out because I had not had much sleep over the previous three days. I knew I needed to sit down for a solid 20 minutes and rest my eyes; in fact, I actually caught myself hiking with my eyes closed at times. I explained how exhausted I was to my friends, who seemed to always be about six or seven switchbacks in front of me. I was fully aware I was hiking slowly, but I also knew there was no way I could go any faster. Upon catching up to my hiking crew, one of the gals told me that I need to either keep her pace or hike down to Trail Camp and wait for them to summit. I could not believe what I was hearing: Hike down to Trail Camp alone, to wait at Trail Camp for four to six hours with impending thunderstorms lurking in the sky? I did not feel comfortable with that, and I immediately felt the hot tears rolling down my face. My friends were going to summit with or without me. I had a decision to make: Stay together as a group and summit, or hike down alone and wait in impending weather by myself. I was the only one in the group carrying an emergency device; what if my friends became sick or injured?

I have three rules when I hike: Try to have fun, always be prepared, and NEVER leave anyone by himself or herself on the trail. When I lead group hikes and backpacking trips, I always tell my fellow hikers that we hike as fast as the slowest hiker. But I was not leading this hike; I was invited on my friend’s permit. When I lead hikes and events, I always have a game plan, a backup plan, and I constantly reassess situations whenever I lead a group hike or a group trip. We had no game plan, no group turn around time, and the person taking the lead was the least experienced hiker. I sat there on the switchbacks exhausted, in tears, totally alone. I decided to do my best and try to summit with them as a group. I felt this was the safest option at the time. After hiking the 99 switchbacks, I rested at Trail Crest, ate lunch, took some photos, and began to feel a bit better. I was even joking around with some fellow hikers, warning them that I would be taking a naked photo on the summit because this would be my last Whitney summit. 

I vomited twice over the next 3 miles, and I knew I needed to turn back, but I was not in the right frame of mind to hike out alone. On the last half-mile push to the summit, I sat down on the trail, puked 14,000 feet over the ledge, and noticed my friends were nowhere in sight. I thought to myself, “This is pathetic and something I will always remember.” I was sad, and I felt like garbage. About 20 minutes later, at 12:46 p.m., I finally summited to find my friends on top of the peak eating lunch as the sky was threatening us with heavy dark rain clouds. I spent 12 minutes on the summit taking photos, as I knew we had to get down before that thunder rolled in. I told my friends that I was going to take one last photo, and as I finished I turned around to realize that my friends, without saying a word to me, were no longer in sight. They had hiked down from the summit without me.

I hiked down as fast as I could to try to catch them, but they were nowhere in sight, and it started to rain. I quickly put on my rain gear (rain pants, rain jacket, and pack cover) and carefully but quickly made it to Trail Crest without any signs of my friends. As I began to descend the 99 switchbacks, it started to hail and thunder. As time passed, the hail became relentless, pelting me at rapid speeds. The thunder was loud, and the lightning lit up the sky around me. I was completely by myself on the switchbacks; there was not one soul in sight in the middle of a lightning storm at 13,400 feet in the air. I was not sure where the people went that were still on the summit behind me. I noticed the switchbacks were littered with at least 20 pairs of expensive brand-named trekking poles, and I realized the people in front of me must have sprinted down the switchbacks and abandoned their hiking poles out of fear that the lightning could strike the metal on their poles. I chose to keep my poles because I needed them for my balance and I could use them to make a shelter from the storm with my tarp if needed. I also was above the tree line, so I figured I was safe since these hiking poles were below me.  I thought about running down the switchbacks in the lightning and hail storm at 13, 500 feet elevation; however, the risk of falling and injuring myself was greater than the risk of a lightening strike. If I fell and needed a rescue, I knew a helicopter could not land in this storm, and nobody was going to hike me out until this storm ended. I knew these hikers must have allowed sheer panic to overtake their senses right before they abandoned their hiking poles to run down the switchbacks. I quickly threw my emergency rain poncho over my rain gear and knew I had to hike smart to get down safely. This meant no panicking, no running, and no crying. I prayed A LOT. I kept praying for God to keep me safe and get me off this mountain. I took deliberate steps and was careful not to slip on the hail-covered ground as I counted each roll of thunder to be four minutes apart from the next roll. As the lightning continued, I saw a bolt strike the mountain, and a hot orange cloud arose in the air. Within minutes I smelled smoke, and I made a mental note to consider using my SOS option on my Garmin inReach to assess if there was a fire on the trail and whether it was safe to hike out. I also made a mental note to change out of my wet socks to prevent blisters (I always carry an extra pair of socks in my pack).

The storm subsided once I arrived back at Trail Camp, but I knew I had to still get below the tree line to be safe. I took a few minutes to look for my friends; surely, I thought, they would wait for me at Trail Camp. But when they were nowhere to be seen. I began to worry if they were okay: Were they injured? Did they also just go through that lightning storm? I continued hiking and noticed how flooded the trail was from the rain, and once I got below the tree line, I was relieved to be out of harm’s way (for now). I couldn't believe I had been stuck in a lightning storm on a mountain at 13,000 feet above sea level…by myself.

I had about 5 miles left until I reached Whitney Portal, and I began to realize that my friends actually hiked out without me…it finally sank in that they were not waiting on the trail for me. I continued my solo hike through Trailside Meadow and could not help but notice how gorgeous this trail was (I have always hiked the part from Outpost Camp to Trailside Meadow in the dark). The waterfalls, giant granite walls, rivers and alpine lakes were just breathtaking, and they were set against huge pine trees and gaping bright green meadows. I knew I had three hours until sunset and 5 miles to go, so I turned on some Justin Bieber to keep my spirits high and kept trekking through this magical beauty. As I reached Outpost Camp, I stopped dead in my tracks and turned off my music. There were four giant eyes staring at me from two black bears about 30 feet away. I had so much adrenaline from hiking alone in the lightning storm, and I was so angry that my friends left me. I knew I could get past two bears, and I did. I walked right past them without a care in the world; after all, bears in California are generally pretty mellow. I am not too fazed by them unless I see a baby bear, because if there is a baby bear, there is a mama bear close by, and that scares me. 

After passing Outpost Camp, I was quickly greeted once again by the smell of smoke. I knew campfires were illegal in this area, and as soon as I looked up to the sky I realized I forgot about the two mental notes I made while descending the switchbacks in the lightning storm (dry socks and looking into the smell of smoke). There was definitely a fire, and I was in close proximity. The sky was dark orange, and I could see thick dark smoke and ash sitting in the air. I quickly activated the SOS button on my Garmin inReach device to assess whether I could safely hike out, as I was 2 miles from Whitney Portal. This was my first time activating the SOS signal, and I was impressed with how fast emergency services were able to tell me that the fire was north of me and that I was safe to hike out. However, if the winds were to change, they said they would immediately contact me. They also told me to let them know when I arrived safely at the trailhead. With that said, I quickly hiked down to find my friends waiting for me in their car.

I texted my brother to let him know I was safe and that I ran into a couple of incidents on the trail and he replied: “I know, I have been on the phone with emergency services for the past couple of hours.” The emergency services I used on my Garmin inReach device contacted my brother (he is my emergency contact) and kept him informed of my current situation. I was thoroughly impressed with this SOS service and so relieved to be off the trail. Whitey Portal Road was closed to all inbound traffic due to the fire, and as we exited the road, I saw the flames and said a quick prayer of relief.  After arriving back to our hotel, I quickly packed up my bags and drove home that night, eyes full of tears and fully experiencing every human emotion from what I just endured. I was grateful, sad, angry, and confused. But most of all, I learned three very important lessons: 1) Make sure your friends will stay with you on the trail no matter what, and if they won’t, then do not hike with them. 2) Always trust your initial gut instinct. 3) Always have an agreed upon plan. 

I do not know if I made the correct decision to continue to summit. It is so easy to play devil’s advocate; at the time, I felt it was the best decision I could make, since abandoning my friends was not an option for me. I did not know I was going to be abandoned at the summit, get stuck in a lightning storm or worry about an imminent fire. I am honestly not sure if I will ever hike a 14er with someone again. I usually hike these peaks in solo fashion, and I think I will stick to that method. I also now fully understand why people are hesitant to hike in groups; trust is a huge factor when hiking a big peak. No summit is ever worth someone’s life, someone’s safety, someone’s trust, or someone's friendship. The mountain will always be there for another day, and I truly hope more people can come to realize this.

What to do if you are caught in a thunderstorm on the trails

Lightning casualties often occur:

  • On mountain summits
  • Under a lone tree
  • Standing alone in open areas
  • On large bodies of water

The first thing you need to understand is that lightning can strike more than 10 miles away from the center of a thunderstorm - well beyond the audible range of thunder. Therefore, if you hear thunder, you're already within striking range of a storm and should seek shelter immediately. To measure the distance between you and a lightning strike, count the number of seconds between the time you see a flash and the bang of thunder. Divide that number by five. This will give you the number of miles the lighting strike is away from you. If you do get caught by a storm, and you're below the tree line, here are a few things that you can do to improve your safety:

  • Avoid buildings with exposed openings such as backcountry camping shelters or picnic pavilions because these are not safe.
  • Avoid caves because they can channel electricity fairly well.
  • Avoid close contact with others. Spread out at least 50 feet apart in order to minimize the chance of everyone in a group being struck.
  • Get away from water and avoid any low spots that might accumulate rain run-off.
  • With no other options, take shelter under a group of shorter trees among larger trees. A thick forest is far better than a lone tree or a small group of trees.
  • Drop all metal objects during a storm, such as internal or external frame backpacks, trekking poles (including aluminum and carbon fiber), crampons, jewelry, etc., and move 100 feet away from them.

If you're out in the open or above treeline:

  • Avoid solitary trees because they're one of the most dangerous places to be during a storm. Also, avoid any other objects that are higher than the rest of the terrain around you.
  • If you can't immediately get below the tree line, find the lowest point of the open area and move there quickly.
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