Posted by skipster, 07-30-05

I'm making the hike up Whitney on Sept. 1 and pretty much rely on my (metal) poles. Is this safe? Will I be a lightning rod? Am I an idiot?
- Skipster

Posted 07-31-05
I have also been thinking about this again . Two years ago I was in the midle of a major thunderstorm with lighting every where . The kind you see lighting and count to three and hear thunder . Very scary ..It was up at Red Reak Pass in Yosemite . At the time I ran down the pass as fast as possible . Hid in the first trees I found , there was major electricity in the air . I put my poles in my pack but still thought of them as lighting rods . So next month as I am hiking along the JMT I will be using my poles for my tarp tent . And thinking about my poles and flyrod being a lighting rod . But the poles are an intragal part of my hiking .
But in my mind it's no worst then people hiking with external frame backpacks . They have the lighting rod straped to your back .

Posted by kazz, 07-31-05
Nothing says you have to keep holding on to your gear in the middle of a storm. I've read that it's a good idea to stash any metal items (hiking poles, frame pack, ice axe, etc.) 30 to 50 yards away from yourself and take cover until the storm passes. If a storm looked particularly bad, I don't think I'd even hang on to my car keys or metal hair barrettes. I don't wear je-welry or a metal watch in the backcountry either, for precisely this reason.

I've also read (I think it was in "Mountain Weather") that if no cover (i.e., a densely wooded area) is available, you should go to the lowest available point and crouch so you're as small a target as possible, staying on the balls of your feet. If your pack does not contain any metal or graphite items, you can kneel on it to insulate yourself from ground current. You can also kneel on a sleeping pad. This is not, however, foolproof protection.

Posted by Candace, 07-31-05
Also never place your hands on the ground, because they will act as a conductor. You're supposed to kneel on a backpack and not place your hands on the ground. If you're in a group, spread out at least 50 yards from one another.

Posted by chache, 07-31-05
Are aluminum and carbon conducting? Most poles are made of them.

Posted by gregf, 07-31-05
Yes, aluminum is conducting (just ask anyone unfortunate enough to have aluminum wiring in their homes) and so is carbon (almost all spark plug wires conduct via a carbon core in order to minimize radio fequency interference, as mandated by the FCC)

Posted by Bob T, 08-01-05
Remember in crouching on the balls of your feet, keep your feet together. For the same reason that you don't want to lie down to keep as low as possible (being struck by lightning is bad, but more people die from lighthing striking elsewhere and then being conducted into their bodies, and lying down allows the lightning to pass everywhere), you want to avoid setting up a circuit for the electricity to pass through if it is going along the ground, so it is best to have the feet together. So, crouch low, on the balls of the feet, with the feet together so that the electricity doesn't go up one leg and down the other.

And spreading out at least 50 yards from each other is good, too. And don't worry too much about how wet you might be getting, or how wet your gear might be getting. It is better to get wet and to have wet gear than to stay dry under a tarp and end up dead.

Posted by tomcat_rc, 08-01-05
i thought that most storms do not "brew" up until after noon - usually between 1-2; if the forcasts are preddicting poss t-storms one solution may be to rethink your launch times. the best solution would be good prevention at the high risk zones.
so let's keep climbing.

Posted by DJG, 08-02-05
There are some good answers, info and other links on this site:

My favorite tip is to spread the group out so that the survivors can administer to the injured, very reassuring. After a close enough encounter awhile back I now give it all a bit more thought and much more respect.

Posted by Bob T, 08-02-05
Another good NOAA page on lightning safety outdoors is at and this page has a link to a more thorough discussion of the "lightning desperation position" which can be found more directly at My favorite caveat is this one: "This safety measure only helps for a lightning flash that strikes nearby, and not a flash that directly hits you - IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT IF YOU ARE IN THIS POSITION AND THE LIGHTNING STRIKES YOU DIRECTLY, THEN THERE IS A HIGH PROBABILITY THAT YOU WILL BE SERIOUSLY INJURED OR KILLED. It is good to know, however, that there has never been a documented case of somebody being injured or killed while in the lightning desperation postion."

Uh, yeah, I guess it is good to know that, although I'm not sure the statistical significance of this. I did once read on a site pertaining to the Rockies (which site I can't remember right now) that more people are killed as a result of side flash than as a result of a direct strike, and this is one reason why the 'lightning desperation position' is better than lying flat on the ground, even though one is not quite as low in that position as one is lying flat on the ground. I also read that same place that another reason the "lightning desperation position" is better is that usually the person can avoid being the highest object around in that position, so that the risk of a direct strike is not nearly as high as the risk of side flash.

This stuff isn't hammered into Sierra hikers' heads nearly as much as it is hammered into the heads of hikers in the Rockies, and lightning is a bigger problem in the Rockies, but it is still good stuff for Sierra hikers to be well aware of -- it is no comfort to the friends and loved ones of those who die in the Sierra from lightning that lightning isn't as common in the Sierra as it is in the Rockies.

Posted by VersatileFred, 08-03-05
There also is some information on lightning at the lightning strikes thread.
Orientation Notes for Whitney First Timers

Posted by booger, 08-04-05
After just spending 14 days in the Upper Kern / Colby backcountry, it is my opinion that this is a unique Sierra weather year. On the day the Napa Valley scout troop was struck, I was with them at Wallace Creek at 11 AM as they debated whether to continue to Crabtree or remain at Wallace (I told them about the campsite I had used At Big Sandy Meadow in previous years - a discussion that will haunt me for the rest of my life. If I hadn't told them about Big Sandy Meadow they wouldn't have camped there and been struck). I had never experienced morning thunder in he Sierra, but at Wallace at 1100 the skies along the Sierra Crest were ***** (the west was clear) and we were in intermittent rain and distant thunder. Also unusual - instead of the gradual buildup over days, there were clouds of varying intensity every day. No cloudless days at all.

My unsupported theory: ALL the meadows are still totally wet and saturated (much to the supposed delight of the local mosquitos population - which seems to number in the zillions.). There is an extraordinary amount of moisture available to evaporate starting at sunrise and influence the daily weather patterns. All the weather rules of "normal" years are invalid this summer.

Posted by Fred98, 08-11-05
Just thought I would show the dramatic changes that can occur in about an hour or so at 14,000 or so feet.

I was just down in the eastern Sierra and finally decided to hike White Mt. The road itself was a challenge. Washboard, rutted and rocky and endless.

I made it to the top in mixed clouds and sun. The clouds were not all that dramatic as we ate a snack, took photos and headed on down. Not more than one or two switchbacks off the top, all h-ell broke loose.

I don't know how many folks decided to keep going up in the face of lightning and thunder and painful grauppel. This was on Sunday, August 7th. And it was before noon. As I commented to someone, I did not want to turn around in fear that the molten rock (from lightning strikes) would catch up with me. The mountain literally shook.

I had a hat on and then a hood and the grauppel was still painful. It also pounded my hands through a pair of wind mittens. Folks were hiking down with their packs over the otherwise bare heads. I was thinking of dumping my aluminum hiking poles but, probably foolishly, did not want to discard them on the mountain.

Oh, the Barcroft Research Lab was fortuitously holding an open house and the gate was open allowing us to drive an additional two miles, saving 4 miles of round trip hiking. It also provided a dry retreat for changing clothes and they were serving hot coffee and co****s!!! (G) Interesting place - nice folks.


Posted by sherry, 08-13-05
Fred98055, thanks for the pictures of White Mountain, mine are still being processed. One of those "dots" on the trail in the Before-The-Storm pix is probably me. My son in law said that indeed he saw a lady throw her nice hiking sticks far away after a close lightning strike. We wondered how much nice equipment got thrown away and if we should go back and recover it. Nah....

There was a motorcycle accident just down from Barcroft when a cyclist going too fast in the hail on the ground went into a ditch. We stopped, he said he was OK, but we only saw his partner heading for town. What a day!

Posted by Fred98, 08-13-05
Sherry, it is quite amazing (or maybe not) that so many folks on this board were out there. It started peaceably enough although I will admit to my doubts when the night before squalls were evident. Even that morning, while it dawned nice, showed early clouds.

I must admit to greedily staying on top and enjoying the view for too long a period although the clouds did not initially look threatening. What finally moved us (I had met two women the day before at Bristlecone Pine) off the summit was it was getting chilly.

We were not down very far when we heard the first rather gentle rumble of thunder. It really did not take more than about five more minutes before it was a bit wild and then pretty damn scary. The graupel (I found it spelled with 1 "p") helped define an older road cut which cut off some of that uphill distance and a few of us took that.

What I found amusing amongst the seriousness was one guy who expressed surprise that the Lab did not send a shuttle up to help folks off the mountain. Hey, we went up voluntarily. They might have been willing to provide transporation for body bags AFTER the fact!!!

I think your son-in-law has a good idea. (g) But only when its clear, cloudless and NO chance of precipitation for a week or so (G)

I did get a few interesting photos but the weather kept them to a minimum.

In the other lightning discussion, I met the bike riding father/son team at the Bristlecone visitor center after they turned back on Sat due to lightning. And I had picked up the pace of my hike there because it did look a bit threatening and that was only 10,000 feet. I also slept in my car at the gate rather than setting up a tent on Sat night since the weather did look too unsettled.

Yup - "what a day."

Posted by skipster, 08-14-05
thanks to all the knowledgable folks who answered this post. Not only did my question get answered but I learned quite a bit about weather and lightning safety. One more hiker being a little safer is a good thing.

Posted by Goody2shz, 08-17-05
We got caught in a horrendous electrical storm on Boundary Peak on 8/14. It seemed to come out of no where! At one point I assumed the desperation position before bolting down the mountain, meantime being pelted with freezing wind and hail.

There's an interesting article in the 8/16/05 issue of the L.A. times on page F1, titled "A Killer Bolting out of the Blue." Here are some quotes: "...most people vastly underestimate the danger of lightning. Lightning kills 75 people a year on average in the United States and injures 500 to 700 more, making it more deadly than hurricanes or tornadoes and far more common than people imagine." Knowing that, it's amazing that they were still handing out wilderness permits at the Whitney Ranger Station the next day even though the entire mountainside and Owens Valley were socked in with storm clouds.

The article goes on to state: "'Assume the lightning position when at risk,' says the National Outdoor Leadership School's Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines. [P] 'This position includes squatting (or sitting) and balling up so you are as low as possible without getting prone. ... If you are concerned enough to assume the lightning position, you should have your group dispersed at least 50 feet apart to reduce the chances of multiple injuries.'"

And more: "About half of all lightning deaths and injuries occur when voltage comes up through a victim's feet. If you're lying down with the full length of your body touching the ground, it's even worse ... and if you're close to a tree, 'we're talking about serious voltage.'"

And here's some info on prevention: "Kurt Wedberg, who runs the guide service Sierra Mountaineering International, is aware of the odds. He teaches his clients to assume a lightning crouch on a foam sleeping pad in worst-case scenarios,..."

In a shorter story accompanying the article, it says, "The highest objects attract lightning. High, pointed terrain is the worst place to be. Standing on a ridgeline, you are the highest object." It also says, "You are hundreds of times safer in a forest than you are standing next to a tree in an open field." Further: "Do not lie on the ground. Stay away from so-called long conductors sch as metal fences, power lines, handrails, bridges and other metal objects. Wet ropes [!] are also excellent conductors and should be avoided." [P] Interestingly: Empty your pockets of metal and remove belt buckles and ***elry, which will not attract lightning but will, if you are hit, heat up and cause severe burns."

These are the most pertinent points. I found the article fascinating and it's worth reading if you happen to have a copy of Tuesday's Times hanging around.

Sorry for the typos & be safe in the mountains!

[Note the word with italics means rings, bracelets, etc. I guess it thinks I'm being anti-semetic!]

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