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.