NOLS Lightning Safety Guidelines

Busting myths about bursting lightning clouds
NOLS instructor wrote the book about protecting yourself from electrocution in the backcountry.

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: August 11, 2010

First of two parts undefined Eds.

When Brandon Oldenkamp was knocked off the Grand Teton by an electrical storm July 21, rangers had no official registry where they could add his name to those of others whose deaths are caused by lightning.

Although flashes of lightning and claps of thunder have been scaring religion into humans for thousands of years, society hasn’t established a government catalog in which to list lightning-caused deaths. The group attempts a compilation, listing 34 dead and 253 injured by lightning in 2009.

Because reports of lightning deaths are not collected by official sources, and private collations are recent, myths about how to avoid the relatively rare cause of death, and even how rare it might be, swirl through the outdoors community. Mountaineers, backpackers, golfers, boaters and others who believe in these myths can increase the threats to themselves, experts say.

From “lightning never strikes ...” to theories about a “cone of safety” beneath trees, outdoorsmen and women venture out largely in ignorance when it comes to protecting themselves from the common thunderstorm. That there were few facts on which a rambler might tailor his or her reaction to lightning irked an instructor from the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander when he assembled a conference on wilderness risk more than a decade ago.

“One gap in information I identified was lightning safety,” said John Gookin, a 29-year NOLS instructor and school curriculum manager for more than two decades. “Scientists really couldn’t tell us much.”

After a year of research, followed by another decade of refinements, Gookin has a pamphlet, “Backcountry Lightning Risk Management,” that outlines the best strategies to avoid lightning and some of the science behind them. Key to taking action, he said, is to know what parts of lightning strikes cause the most injuries and deaths.

First, Gookin advocates avoidance.

Those outdoors can take four steps to stay away from lightning, he says in his publication. He references researcher Bill Roeder, who says each strategy is twice as important as the one that follows.

First, one should time visits to high-risk areas to synchronize with benign weather patterns. A practical application would be to summit the Grand Teton in the morning, before thunderstorms have a chance to develop.

Climbing guides adopt this practice as religion. Six Exum mountain guides ushered a dozen clients to the summit of the Grand and were out of danger by the time the July 21 storm hit.

“There is no such thing as a surprise storm,” Gookin writes.

The next piece of advice is to find safer terrain at the sound of thunder. In the case of mountaineers, this commonly means going down.

On a clear day, hikers and climbers can hear thunder from lightning 10 miles away. With wind, the distance might be five miles or less. In hard rain, the audible distance may be as short as a mile.

A measure called the 30/30 rule advises to find shelter in a building when the time between a lightning flash and a thunderclap is less than 30 seconds. Once in the building, remain there for 30 minutes.

Without a building to retreat to, more caution is necessary.

The day Oldenkamp was killed, one Exum guide and his client turned back from the 13,770-foot high Grand when they were just above 12,000 feet. A guide with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides was within a few hundred feet of the summit when he and his client retreated.

All three parties that were shocked by lightning July 21 undefined 17 persons in all undefined had mulled whether they should retreat or wait to see if storms would grow worse or disperse. All reported hearing thunder before conditions worsened and they decided to go down.

Safe terrain is generally lower, as lightning tends to hit peaks and ridges. Also, lightning tends to strike more frequently on the side of a peak that the storm is approaching, so the leeward slope of the mountain is safer.

If there is a choice, it is better to descend away from a storm, Gookin advises.

Tents need to be pitched with the threat of lightning in mind. If they are higher than the ground around they can serve as conduits for a charge.

Gookin recommends having a plan to abandon a tent at night in cases when the tent is the highest point during an electrical storm.

In gently rolling hills, lightning strikes are random and elevation does not play a key role. Nevertheless, in such locations it is best to seek a dry ravine in which to find shelter.

In wide-open country, avoid higher trees or even bushes. When a storm approaches, a group should spread out with 50 feet between members to reduce the chance that several persons will be struck at the same time.

During the July 21 storm, at least one party tried to regroup during the lightning. Two of the four were seriously injured by a strike, and one could not descend without help.

Wet ground is no more dangerous than dry ground, according to Gookin’s pamphlet. In fact, wet ground tends to dissipate ground charges faster. Standing in water, however, is very dangerous during a thunderstorm.

Cavers should avoid the mouth of caverns during a thunderstorm. Climbers who seek shelter under an overhang need to be aware that lightning might jump the gap between the lip of an overhang and the floor, possibly through the body of a person standing there.

On the Grand during the fatal storm last month, at least one party sought shelter under an overhang. A rescue ranger also was shocked during the storm at the 13,200-foot high Upper Saddle, site of a large overhang, when he put his hand against a dry rock wall.

Boaters should avoid thunderstorms. More are struck on lakes than on rivers in canyons, probably because canyon walls above rivers attract more strikes than the waterway itself. Again, shoreline trees can be dangerous.

The third of the four overall strategies is to avoid trees and long conductors if lightning gets close, Gookin advises. If you must move through a forest during a storm, he says, stay away from tree trunks. Lone trees are especially dangerous.

Also, hikers should avoid meadows that are 100 yards or more across.

Finally, if lightning is striking nearby, get in the lightning position undefined squating with feet together, arms wrapped around the legs and head tucked downward. Keeping feet together significantly reduces the effect of ground current, the cause of about half of lightning fatalities.

Crouching slightly reduces the potential of being struck by a side flash.

If one is outdoors and feels, hears or sees an electrostatic field, that is a sign that a discharge could be imminent. Clues are buzzing sounds, the raising of hair and a tingling sensation, or a glow at night from points like rocks or even fingertips.

An acrid “swimming-pool smell” of ozone is a by-product of a discharge, Gookin writes. Backcountry travelers who experience any of these signs should take action immediately, as seconds can count.

Gookin, a Lander resident, originally came to his conclusions after a year of research. Those above were refined in the subsequent decade and presented this spring at the 21st International Lightning Detection Conference in Orlando, Fla.

“The big shift is that we now realize that hardly anyone gets a direct strike by lightning any more,” Gookin said. “We use an epidemiology approach undefined who gets ill or injured, then why.

“Who dies from lightning has changed over the last decades,” Gookin said. “We don’t have farmers sitting on open tractors in fields any more.

“Kids don’t play outside as much as they used to." Gookin added. "Our play is more structured than it used to be. Now kids get shuttled by their soccer moms."

“What became more important was recent data rather than lots of data,” he said of today’s understanding of lightning. “There’s a team that works on this, that gives reports at this conference every two years.”

Still, information remains incomplete.

“There are no incident rates,” Gookin said. “We don’t know how many people die in the U.S. or outside the U.S. Also we have no rates of people who do these activities who don’t get struck.”

To get a complete understanding, “It would take some big projects by grad students and it would take years,” he said.

Dwelling on fears of backcountry electrocution is unnecessary, Gookin said. Those who are afraid of lightning need not shun the woods.

“If we need absolute safety, not only should we not go to the wilderness but we sure better not drive there,” he said. “If we want to stay reasonably safe, then we can do this [wilderness] stuff as long as we make fairly conservative decisions.”

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