Three years after getting struck by lighting more than six times during a weekend climbing trip in Wyoming, one woman continues to reach new heights
We all have bad mornings. But at 10:30 a.m. on July 21, 2010, Betsy Smith was about to have her worst yet as it began to snow 100 feet below the snow-capped summit of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, WY.
As a buzzing sound that came from nowhere grew louder and her hair started to stand straight up as if someone had rubbed a balloon against her, she had to fight the urge to swat at a nonexistent swarm of bees. But logic told her that the unnerving noise and her body's reaction was from the buildup of static energy in the cold alpine air.
While the sound continued for about 10 minutes, Smith and her group, which included her boyfriend Alan Kline and friends Matt “Junior” Walker and Andrew Larson, watched the snow come down harder, giving way to whiteout conditions that draped around them like curtains, restricting their sight to a few feet ahead of them. With such limited visibility and the threat of a lightning strike, though unlikely, clearly in the charged air, they decided to hock all of their metal equipment some 20 feet, hunker down, and wait for it to pass.
As Smith huddled with Walker and Larson in a shallow rocky alcove and Kline hunched over the opening, the buzzing suddenly stopped. It was replaced with a moment of silence and a bolt, then harrowing screams.
Calm Before the Storm
A day earlier, when the group from Bozeman, MT, had started their two-day climb up the impressively jagged Grand Teton, the weather was near perfect as usual for the national park that time of year. It was hardly an out-of-the-ordinary outing for the skilled group. Smith, then 26, had spent her life scaling anything and everything from backyard trees to her home's rooftop to high rock walls in her native Texas, plus Yosemite and outside of Yellowstone.
When Kline, a pro climbing guide, entered her life in 2007, the frequency of her technical climbing escalated. They spent most weekends bagging peaks locally and across the country. The Grand Teton had long been on their to-do list.
An impossibly steep and strenuous 6-mile, 5,000-foot ascent to 11,600 feet led them to base camp at the mountain's Lower Saddle, a ridge between two peaks. The altitude was a cardiovascular challenge for Smith, who had done less alpine climbing than Kline and Larson, but she felt pretty pumped about keeping up. She even spared some precious oxygen to sing “Hakuna Matata” throughout the day while carrying her 50-pound pack.
On the way up, they stopped by a ranger station to check in and obtain the free permit required to camp overnight in the backcountry. The ranger warned them of a 20-percent chance of rain in the late afternoon (thunderstorms are common in July and August), but then quickly dismissed his own heed, saying that this had been the daily forecast all month, and it had only been sunny and clear every day. Kline still kept a keen eye on the bright blue sky.
“It doesn't matter what the ranger tells you; you need to be making decisions while you're up there. You watch the weather, see what's going on and what's coming, and then you make the call,” says Kline, who is well versed in mountain storm systems. With this in mind, he had thoroughly studied all possible retreat options along their planned route before and during their trip in case they ever needed to make an emergency getaway.
The First Strike
From the alcove, Smith watched in horror as Kline's limp body hit the ground. “We knew there was static, but we didn't know there was lightning,” she says. It wasn't clear until she felt a zap herself and saw her boyfriend collapse unconscious to the ground. “When he opened his eyes seconds later and started screaming, we wondered, 'What is wrong with him?' We had all felt minor shocks in the alcove and it hurt, but it wasn't anything like the way he was acting. He was screaming, 'Look at my back, it's on fire!' I had to roll his body over, lift his shirt, pat him down, and assure him he wasn't on fire.”
Feeling the presence of static so high up, when you're literally in the clouds, isn't uncommon. Smith and Kline had both felt it before on Electric Peak, which is filled with iron, right outside of Yellowstone National Park. But to actually feel a surge of current run through you was rare. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of the estimated 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes that occur in the U.S. yearly, only some 400 people are struck and of those, about 60 are killed. Wyoming, as luck would have it, has the country's highest lighting-caused death rate per capita with 29 fatalities in the last 50 years. The reason for its ranking is simple: Lightening happens most frequently in the summer, which is exactly when outdoor enthusiasts tend to venture high up to exposed areas above the tree line. This is why it's seriously recommended to be off mountaintops by 2 p.m. before most storms roll in.
That morning the group had been monitoring a nonthreatening, almost beautiful wispy gray cloud streaked with sunrays (their much-anticipated, nearly 3,000-foot summit began in the dark around 4 a.m.). The same cloud gave way to rain and snow, which also wasn't atypical for thousands of feet above the treeline, even in the summer months. For every 1,000 feet in elevation gain, temperatures drop 4 degrees in the mountains. The heavy snow, however, made it hard to notice that the cloud had grown in size.
In the storm, Smith and her peers had carefully continued on the Owen-Spalding route across a slippery knife-edge ridge to a small, safer platform about 20 feet squared. There they knew that in the off chance that lightning were to strike, they were less likely to tumble off the side of the mountain and plummet to their deaths. Though it would leave them totally exposed, it was their best bet since retreating in these conditions was not an option.
Good thing they had gotten off the ridge before Kline's brief blackout. But what to do next was another issue. “Even as an EMT, I didn't know what to do,” says Smith, who was planning to start nursing school that fall. “There were no visible signs that he had been hurt, but he wouldn't stop screaming and his body was completely incapacitated.” They later would learn that lightning, like water, can splash, so even if it strikes 20 feet way, it could still ricochet and hit you. In fact, a single spark could stretch out as far as five miles and raise temps to hotter than five times the sun’s heat.
Here We Go Again
“Lightning doesn't strike twice, right?” Kline meekly joked once he regained some strength and stopped screaming. Though he was still in incredible pain, he was in guide mode on this trip, so he felt responsible for his group. He needed to alleviate some tension and keep them from panicking. It worked. Seeing Kline move again kept Smith from losing it. The minute he could stand up, he had everyone chuck their metal equipment even farther and then crouch together under a Mylar blanket away from the charged alcove.
Lightning does, however, strike twice. In fact, it can strike many more times, as they found out. Minutes after throwing Kline off his feet, the buzzing returned. The uncertainty of it made it feel like a form of torture, Smiths says. “Oh God, is it going to hit our gear? Is it going to hit us? Or maybe the summit?” she recalls worrying. When the sound finally broke, lightning hit in several places at once, sending splashes everywhere.
“You'd watch someone fall in slow motion without realizing that you're falling too until you hit the ground and you can't move for a little while,” Smith explains, dispelling the movie myth of a blinding flash of light and God-like beam from the sky. They each responded to the shock and pain differently. “I remember hearing a lot of screaming. It took me a long time to realize that it was me. I literally thought, 'There's another girl screaming?'” While Smith reacted by bellowing, Kline went into triage mode checking in on everyone, Walker asked questions, and Larson just stood there in stunned silence.
For the next few hours, the group tried everything to minimize getting struck, from spreading out on the tiny platform to assuming the “lightning position,” or squatting down on their tiptoes with hands over their ears. When it occurred to Smith that the Mylar blanket might be a shiny bull's eye, she screamed, “Get it off me, get it off me!” Kline's eyes widened and he yanked it off, sending it into the wind. But nothing helped. They continued to be electrocuted, fall backward, and stand back up again. After four or so strikes, Smith decided she wanted to be next to Kline. “I'd rather be touching him, holding him during all of this than be way over there and still getting struck by lightning,” she says.
Mayhem on the Mountain
The last two bolts were the worst for Smith. “I didn't even feel it when I hit the ground. I just felt like mush. Everything inside me was just mush, like my bones were soft and I had been boiled into soup,” she says. When Kline rushed over to her aid as soon as he himself could move, he found Smith twitching and twisting from the shock. After one more strike at 12:30 p.m., Smith became completely paralyzed from the neck down. Though she lost control of her body, she hurt everywhere. Kline picked her up, laid her on top of their ropes, and leaned over, putting his face intimately in front of hers.
“We're going to be okay. You know I love you. Everything is fine. We're going to get off this mountain,” he whispered over and over again. Despite the reassuring words, Smith was convinced she was going to die. She begged Kline to leave her, but he refused and kept repeating how much he loved her and how they were going to get off that mountain. “I don't think I had realized at that point in our relationship how much he cared for me. That really, really got to me,” says Smith with eyes welling up. “I wanted them all to be safe. It was so hard for me to just lay there.”
It had been 45 minutes since that last big blow. The lightening storm had finally passed. Larson, who miraculously was the least hurt, saw that Smith was in serious trouble. With everyone's okay, he began a brave solo-descent down the mountain to get help while Kline stayed lying next to Smith and Walker, who suffered severe foot burns, sat close by.
Flashes of Hope
By 1:30 p.m., Smith could stand up again but had no use of her arms. Walker was also able to get on his feet, but one was numb so he hobbled around while holding onto Smith for balance. Nobody knew if a search-and-rescue team would make it in time before another storm rolled in, so as they coordinated their movements, Kline gathered all their gear to start a self-rescue. He wasn't any less hurt, though his injuries were less apparent. Having the most experience in the group, he was the only one qualified to save them at this point.
Considering everyone's conditions, they couldn't simply hike down: They need to be rappelled. Kline looped ropes around Smith and Walker and lowered each down to a flat platform. Once they were safe, he then lowered himself. They did this four times for about 500 feet until they reached the upper saddle at 13,160 feet around 2:30 p.m. There they met with a rescue crew who immediately started providing medical support to both Smith and Walker. An hour later, Smith and Walker were airlifted off the mountain to safety and taken in an ambulance to the hospital where Kline and Larson, who were also flown down, joined them later.
In the ER, doctors got to work right away, making a long incision in Smith's left wrist to relieve the pressure. Her plastic watch with a metal back had melted into her skin, cutting off some circulation to her fingers. She also had to make a quick, life-changing decision whether to try to save or amputate her right index finger that had been blow out during one strike. To keep it would have just been for aesthetic reasons, doctors explained, as the finger itself was already dead. Hearing that it would have no function, she opted to have it cut off. Her other injuries—third-degrees burns all over her body, especially her shoulder and elbow—were surgically repaired, whlie her left wrist required a skin graft.
But none of it, not even the nightmare experience, kept her and Kline, who had lots of small burns himself and a punctured lung that filled his chest with almost-fatal compressed air, from returning to climbing.
Soon after the horrific incident, Smith and Kline moved from Montana to Connecticut to be closer to his family and work on their recovery. Sitting around and waiting to heal was something this active couple couldn't do, so they signed up to help Kline's sister and husband open an ice cream shop. At the same time, Smith continued to go to physical therapy, where she practiced everyday movements such as picking up small items and moving them from one place to the other.
“It's funny to think back at how hard simple tasks, like opening a hair clip, were for me in the beginning,” says Smith, who remembers doctors telling her that they had no idea how much flexion she'd get back considering her nerve damage and all of her skin grafts. The first two or three months were the hardest. “I was in a lot of pain and had to go to doctor appointments often. I was on pain and anxiety meds. I couldn't sleep and became depressed,” she recalls. “Keeping myself busy and focusing on the major goal of getting our life back and having fun again was the only way I got through it.”
By October, Smith was feeling better and growing antsy to go out and play. Tired of waiting for the doctor's okay, she went out to New York's Shawangunk Mountains with a friend. Her patched up elbow wasn't quite ready for a rock climb, so it kept breaking open and bleeding. But Smith didn't care. She was so happy to be back, reaching new heights in the great outdoors. Kline, who continues to work as a climbing guide in the northeast, shared this sentiment. He was out climbing two weeks after the Grand Teton event (though Smith found out after the fact).
“I think we came out of it closer, which I like,” says Smith, who married Kline in Manhattan's City Hall on July 19, almost three years to the day of the lightning storm. “And I wouldn't change for the world, the insight I got about patient care and nursing,” adds the newly certified registered nurse of her experience in the Wyoming hospital. “I never look back and think, 'Oh man, I wish that hadn't happened to me.'”