It was a warm and humid summer morning. You know the type – where, groggy from a night of uncomfortable sleep, you head to the kitchen for coffee, and you feel your bare feet sticking to the linoleum like it’s covered in molasses. The air is thick, fragrant and sweet, and you would trade in your house keys for just a puff of dry air on a breeze. Proverb (and common sense) both concur that such days are likely to feature the rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning.
The thing about proverbs though is that they’re typically right only a little more often than they are wrong. They represent an empirical and rough sort of understanding, and thus, they permit enough uncertainty for all manner of counter predictions to enter discussion and debate. And in the interest of keeping the peace, debates are often settled by a showing of hands. So, on this particular day, by these very mechanisms, three friends and I resolved to keep our plans to hike to the stony summit of New England’s highest peak, Mount Washington.
Of course, we checked the weather forecast. Mostly sunny with a 30 percent chance for an afternoon shower or thunderstorm – in other words, a 70 percent chance of remaining dry during our hike. The sun cut sharply through the azure skies during the drive to the mountain, instilling confidence in our decision. The heat was building though, and the temperature was in the 80s by the time we set off. From near the base of the mountain’s famous Cog Railway, we ascended the beautiful Jewell Trail. The thick woods seemed to add to the humidity surrounding us, and we were all sweating heavily before long.
Except in rare circumstances, the lower atmosphere cools with increasing elevation, which is a consequence of the decreasing atmospheric pressure that occurs with height. So eventually, the air cooled and sweating slowed, and the hike became much more enjoyable. At around 5,000 feet, the trees began to get noticeably smaller and more shrub-like – a result of the very short growing season at that elevation and the very high winds that often lash the mountain. Eventually, even these trees disappeared altogether, leaving just tufts of grass, rare alpine flowers, and rocks peppered with lichen. In clear weather, the views offered upon crossing this “tree line” are incredible, and one feels as if they’ve stepped through a wormhole and emerged across the Atlantic in the Scottish Highlands.
The hike from the tree line to the summit was rather lengthy, and without the protection of the forest, one is highly exposed to the elements. When bad weather approaches, there are few places to hide atop Mount Washington. After about 20 minutes of clambering over the bare rock, we noticed a tall and billowy cumulus cloud to our west, which was visibly swelling. My background in meteorology told me that this was a bad sign. A thunderstorm was beginning to form. Worse, the increasingly agitated cloud appeared to be heading our way. While thunder and lightning were yet to menace, I was convinced it only a matter of time as the thunderhead continued to blossom. It was tempting to make a dart for the summit, where we would find the protection of the observatory buildings. But the angry clouds were closing in fast, and it was clear we wouldn’t make it in time. With some trepidation, we decided to weather the storm amongst the protection of the stunted trees below.
During the swift hike down, we encountered several people still heading up the mountain, seemingly oblivious to the impending danger. Despite our warnings of a developing thunderstorm, we were ignored, and each person stubbornly continued to climb upward. We wondered aloud if we’d later hear sharp cracks of thunder, followed by word of their sad demise on the evening news.
The storm hit just as we were entering the dense woods. Incredibly, the base of the storm could be seen well below our elevation, which is a perspective seen by few eyes. As the turbulent cloud enveloped the mountain, a wall of incredibly thick fog raced over us, dropping visibility from miles to near zero in seconds. What followed was a soaking, heavy downpour, small hail and explosive cracks of thunder. Thankfully, the storm eventually passed, and we were able to complete our hike, albeit in a wet and cold fashion.
Most people know that lightning tends to strike the tallest objects around. But of course, it is not exclusively true, for if it were, we would have had little to fear that day, as the radio towers atop the mountain would have attracted all the deadly attention. Instead, several bolts came crashing down nearby, a good 1,000 feet below the summit. The bottom line is that lightning is unpredictable, and given that it occurs in the blink of an eye, it is always best to take cover. But what exactly does one do when stuck outdoors?
The best way to avoid a strike is to find a relatively low place to shelter. A valley, hollow, or ditch will do nicely, so long as you’re not standing in water, which can carry electrical current. Stay away from large objects such as tall trees and radio towers, instead opting to face the storm in denser patches of evenly sized small trees or bushes. This way, you get some protection from the elements, but there are few isolated objects around to attract lightning. As a final precaution, crouch down with your weight on the balls of your feet. The idea here is you lower your profile, while minimizing your contact with the ground, thus decreasing the static buildup in your body.
The reality is that a mountain is a very unsafe place to be during a thunderstorm. It’s always best to quickly head for the lowlands at the first indication of lightning. If however, you do find yourself caught on mountain during a thunderstorm, following the steps above will increase your odds of making it out alive.
Chris Bouchard is a meteorologist and an avid outdoorsman.