Peak(s):  Mt. Bierstadt  -  14,060 feet
Date Posted:  05/08/2021
Date Climbed:   05/08/2021
Author:  MattAdkins204
 Surviving a lightning storm at 14,000 feet   

Surviving a lightning storm at 14,000 feet

-Mt Bierstadt, 5/8/2021

I’m admittedly still processing the events of the past few hours but most importantly everyone is safe and that is good enough for me to take a deep breath. I consider myself a student of the mountains (spending much of my free time climbing and hiking in them) and fairly conservative in terms of risk management. I’m typically the first in a group or crowd to acknowledge and avoid objective hazards, specifically weather.

Two days ago my good friend and frequent climbing partner approached me about accompanying him, his girlfriend, possibly a few friends, and his father up Mt. Bierstadt for his father’s first fourteener summit. They wanted to go Saturday; I appreciated the offer and decided a casual jaunt up Bierstadt on a beautiful Spring day would make for a perfect training opportunity to haul some extra weight up to 14k.

We hashed out details and after reviewing various weather charts (NOAA, Mountain-Forecast, etc) decided that with the optimistic weather window we had, a later start would be “OK” so long as we kept an eye on daylight and the sky. I’ll admit that my first mistake in the chain of events was being so cavalier about the thought of a late summit. In my head, we weren’t quite in the true thunderstorm season and I figured we’d have plenty of time; this assumption was supported by the weather forecast as of that morning. We wanted to move at a comfortable pace for a 70 year old physically active East coast native on his first high altitude hike, but the group was also somewhat uninterested in an alpine start; I can’t say I blamed them, after all it was “just” Mt. Bierstadt.

We left the lower parking lot at around 8:30am under Bluebird skies. After fiddling with some gear we were moving steadily up the snow closure road towards the route proper with minimal breaks. Morale was high and everyone felt good as we crossed through the willows and began the long switchbacking slog up the side of Mt. Bierstadt.

Sometime in late morning I noticed some clouds growing over the top of Grays and Torreys. We paused for a break and assessed the movement of the clouds which were moving NE and appearing to stay far away from us. Regardless, we kept an eye on them. This was my second and most regrettable mistake; despite the clouds not appearing to threaten our route or even the same swath of mountains, this should have been the trigger to turn around as it was indicating some potential for bad weather. The ridge was breezy as is common this time of year but the cloud cover was light with no indications of imminent threat on the horizon. As we ascended the final summit ridge, my friend Trevor got my attention about some more clouds forming behind G&T. They appeared to be following the North-easterly trajectory of the previous clouds. We decided to keep an eye on them but were a couple hundred vertical feet from the summit and so decided to press on. Had we turned around at this point, we may have been off the ridge by the time the storm hit but would’ve still been high on the mountain.

As we approached the summit, there was a recognizable shift in wind direction. As we snapped some celebratory summit photos for Dave’s first fourteener (congrats), we caught our first glance of darkening clouds now looming much closer than expected. We quickly packed up shop and another party on the summit decided to do the same. I realized at this point there was high likelihood we would get rolled by this storm high on the ridge, not a good place to be. I had two Rocky Talkies in my pack as the original plan was to have a larger group of varying speeds and I wanted the groups to stay in touch. I gave Trevor one and we set our channels. At this time Trevor’s girlfriend Cari got a phone call from another friend of ours, also on the mountain but initially hiking separately, warning of the fast approaching storm.

We hurried off the summit but not before high wind gusts and sideways freezing rain hit us from the North-west. Visibility immediately deteriorated into white out conditions and I was concerned about people getting too close to the corniced ridge in the high wind gusts. At one point we all had to crouch behind a large Boulder as the wind was too strong to stand in. I knew we needed off that ridge immediately.

Just as we reached the ridge saddle, my worst fears materialized with a crack of thunder. We reached another group of hikers who had hunkered down behind a rock, as well as my friend Eric who had stayed with the stranded party in the storm to ensure our and their safety. We made sure everyone ditched their trekking poles to a remote location as we all crouched behind a large Boulder and formulated a plan. Several members of the other groups were less prepared for severe weather. We frantically tore through our packs to find any layers, gloves, anything we could give them. We were now a party of 10. High wind, thunder, hail, whiteout conditions, on a ridge at 13,800 feet. At 12:55 PM I hit the SOS on my InReach.

As a rescue professional I completely understood that no SAR teams would be coming for us in this storm. My thought was to put it on the local emergency response radar that there were 10 individuals currently stuck high on the mountain in the storm.

12:57 PM: “This is the IERCC, we have received your SOS activation. What is the nature of your emergency.”

12:58 PM: “Party of 10 bierst I n storm”

12:59 PM: “Confirmed. Is anyone injured”

12:59 PM: “No”

At 1:00 PM I felt my cell phone buzz. Surprised I had service but unable to see the screen due to ice forming on every surface I answered. Clear Creek County 911 called wanting additional details. It was difficult to talk in the storm but I was relieved to know that local authorities at least knew our location.

As a group we knew we needed off the ridge as soon as the wind died down. Once we caught a break we decided that I would navigate down the ridge as I had the inReach. Trevor brought up the rear so we could maintain a headcount and we had solid communication between us (shameless plug, GO ROCKY TALKIES!!). We made sure the group stayed tight and moved at a pace that would get us off of the ridge ASAP without risking injury.

About the time that we got down the ridge, CC 911 called back for an update. We informed them we still had par 10 and no injuries and were moving via GPS navigation.

The skies began to clear enough that some blue sky poked through, but more thunder heads looked on the horizon and we were a long way from the vehicles. We continued to move downwards as a quick pace. After a few minutes of welcome sunshine the second thunderstorm blew in, with the same harsh winds and zero visibility. At least we weren’t on an exposed ridge anymore, but were hardly safe. Every couple of minutes we’d make sure our head count was par and check for injuries. Cold exposure was beginning to be a concern.

At 1:51 PM CC 911 called me to update me that they were being advised of severe weather moving to our location. It was unclear if this was more weather or what we were already in. I confirmed and said we would advise when back at vehicles in approx 4 miles.

After an hour of being beat down by severe weather, skies finally began to clear. As our gear and clothes slowly thawed we plodded downhill somewhat silently aside from the occasional nervous joke or the routine injury and status checks. At 2:55 PM we were able to notify CC 911 that we were back on the hardball road, par 10, no injuries, and we’re canceling the SOS call. We snapped a group picture of strangers now friends, a solemn memory of just how merciless Mother Nature can be. I have to sincerely thank every single person in all groups for not panicking and sticking with the plan. Everyone supported each other and I’m proud to have met you all. The folks in our climbing party showed some tremendous leadership, more than what should have been asked of them on “just another day up Bierstadt”.

Some big take aways here:

-Today was a “free lesson”. It could have ended much worse. Stay humble or the mountains will do it for you.

-Trust the turnaround time. I thought we had a solid weather window and never imagined it would deteriorate as quickly as it did.

-The Clear Creek County 911 dispatcher that worked with us was a godsend. She was constantly monitoring our situation. Outstanding job, thank you Ma’am.

-There is NO easy fourteener.




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Richardhayden

Jesus
05/08/2021 21:22
This is what the weather forecast is for, try being more mature. Glad you are all ok


MattAdkins204

Duh.
05/08/2021 21:25
We‘d monitored multiple reliable forecasts the previous day as well as throughout the day in the morning as cell service allowed. I also always monitor baro pressure continuously which did not drop until on summit. Thanks for your input.


Sbenfield

Thanks
05/08/2021 22:29
Thanks for sharing! I also was caught in a scary lightning storm early season several years ago on Bierstadt. Nasty stuff!!

I liked how open you were about your experience & I‘m glad it all worked out in the end


CaptainSuburbia

8:30
05/09/2021 09:09
Seems way late to start. Glad all are ok.


dsr80304
Thank you
05/09/2021 10:45
Thanks for sharing. We all make mistakes. Especially with larger parties. It's good to share these - learning lessons for some, reminders for others. And great work keeping 10 of you together and organized working down through white-out and that kind of weather.
We were skiing up on Torreys yesterday. Saw clouds forming around 1030 so switched from climbing to skiing, a couple hundred feet below summit. (Being exhausted also helped!) That let us transition comfortably and ski in good viz. Just wish we had more sun to soften the crust!
Thanks again


ornulu
Other party checking in
05/09/2021 11:27
Thank you Matt and Trevor for taking us under your wing up top. You made the descent in those harsh conditions easy for us. Some descent pictures


HikesInGeologicTime

Glad you're safe!
05/10/2021 09:31
I also dodged a lightning storm on Bierstadt my first time on it, though that was in July or August (2005, so too long ago to remember specifics :p ).

Ignore the negative comments. I got chased away from Harvard/Columbia my first time approaching either by a September snowstorm that was most decidedly not in the forecast. I've had successful bluebird summits on days when I started as late as 9 or even 10 am (though those times were usually in autumn...but not always). Reading the forecast is important, as is giving yourself plenty of time, but it's even more important to keep an eye on the skies once you're actually on the mountain and be willing to turn around if you don't like what you see.

Thanks for sharing this learning experience!


jibler
early season - letting your guard down
05/10/2021 10:32
yes I saw that same storm blast thru summit county on my little hike on Wichita

and I too was a little fast and loose regarding weather and was up higher than I shoulda been - luckily I have the good sense to descend once it was clear it wasn't looking so great


a caution to us all early on for the year - even if it is snowy and cold these are spring storms and can get nuts quick.

weather lately in particular seem very active and churning up in mtns - good to keep your guard up


TeocaliTripper
Scary Stuff
05/10/2021 13:07
Nothing like a storm above 12,000 ft. to put the fear of God in you! My buddy and I were attempting to summit Torrey's that day via the Tuning Fork and ski back down. Like dsr80304, we saw the writing on the wall at about 10:45 am and bailed. Glad everyone made it back ok, and I hope you all had cold beers about it!


rob runkle

Great Experience...
05/11/2021 08:51
Good on the team to keep everyone together. The worst thing that could happen would be for lesser prepared folks to be left behind.

Been there, done that many times... Keeping a clear head, and keep moving, as long as it is safe to move...

Good job!


Gandalf69

Spooky
05/11/2021 09:44
Everyone is gangsta until the first flash of lightning. I'm glad you and everybody was ok. "On the right day, just about any fool can get up Everest...and that's true. You just have to remember that not every day is the right day." Beck Weathers, The Dark Side of Everest


Trotter

lucky
05/11/2021 10:06
Glad you posted it, newbies need to know. The lesson is, regardless of forecast or time of day, use your eyes too. If bad weather is rolling in, descend immediately. Regardless of how close to the summit you are. Yes it will suck. Yes it will be disappointing.

This reminds me of the 15 people struck by lightning on Bierstadt several years ago. I happened to be hiking on square top, and turned around at like 13000 because of the storms. The people on Bierstadt kept hiking right up into the thunderstorm. The 15 people struck all gave comments to the news like "But it was before noon!" or "The weather forecast said no rain". I was there and saw the big thunderstorm they walked right into.


nyker

Good you're ok
05/15/2021 13:26
We had similar situation on the summit of Bierstadt at 8:00am where it went from blue skies and calm to low anvil clouds in 15min amazingly fast on a 20% precip day. But use this as a lesson; While "normal" monsoon season is June -Sept, that doesn't mean a T-storm can't hit in May or October. Start-pre sunrise on these types of peaks, even so called "easy" ones. Larger parties move slower in general, more so if an unacclimatized flatlander is involved, take that into consideration so an even earlier start would be warranted there. Check multiple sources for weather, if precip is forecast to be >30% do it another day, even then sometimes Mother Nature doesn't listen to our weather reports.


dubsho3000

unsolicited advice
05/17/2021 01:20
I've heard that in a lightning storm a good strategy is to split up to some extent. That way if someone is struck, the others can help administer first aid or a rescue. If you are all together, the ground current could injure or kill everyone in the party. Maybe in this case two groups of five, 25-50 feet apart. Especially since you had the radios, I think this would have been safer than all huddling together (which it sounds like you did). Here is some info from NOAA: https://www.weather.gov/safety/lightning-science-ground-currents

Glad all ended well! Scary to be up there in a storm. I remember running down Quandary on one of my first 14er ascents and having lightning strike behind me, then to the left, then the right, and finally right in front of me. Terrifying! I start earlier now


delaneylynn
Thank you
05/24/2021 19:36
Thank you for sharing your experience! It's humbling to read your report and reminds me not to let my guard down which I have a tendency to do when I'm comfortable with a mountain like Bierstadt. You're saving lives here!


BillMiddlebrook

CO Weather
06/02/2021 17:49
1) Research the weather
2) Start early
3) Know when to turn back
4) If you end up in a thunderstorm, turn back and hustle down to the trees or hunker down.
5) Learn lessons


Wildernessjane

Lots of great lessons here
06/03/2021 09:32
Thanks for sharing, Matt. I thought it was very well written, forthright and humble and I‘m glad things turned out okay. Hopefully others on here will learn from your experience. I saw your post on the FB page on this topic and we had skied The Citadel that same morning but were back home before the weather had turned. I was surprised by your comments on how unprepared people were. To this day, I‘m still carrying a warm puffy jacket (fit to spend the night) and multiple pairs of gloves/mitts of varying weights. Some people are giving you a hard time about the late start time and disregarding the ‘be off the summit by noon‘ rule. With a good weather forecast and outside of monsoon season, this is something I‘ve done many times. I don‘t remember what the forecast was like that day other than we got an early start to minimize potential for wet slides in the couloir and that it was warm and sunny that morning. However, I‘ve been in plenty of situations where the weather has turned quickly and unexpectedly. If possible, I always check the weather forecast again (using multiple sources as you said) right before we leave to see if anything has changed. NOAA is famous for changing at the last minute.


gakka
Wow
06/11/2021 07:32
Glad to hear you're OK!!



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