Lightning Lesson

Posted by: Whitney Zone

Lightning Lesson - 07/28/03 12:02 PM

Posted by Richard, 07-28-03

This story was in today's L.A. Times:


Mountain Climbers Hit by Lightning; One Killed

From Times Wire Reports

Lightning struck and killed an Idaho woman and injured five others as the group climbed the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, a national park spokeswoman said.

Park spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said the dead woman, Erica Summers, 25, and her 27-year-old husband, Clinton, and four others were among 13 climbers who had divided themselves into four groups for the climb on Grand Teton's Exum Ridge on Saturday.

Each group had at least one experienced climber.

"They all felt rain sprinkles and they didn't sense a big storm," Anzelmo said


Posted by sherry, 07-28-03
I saved another newspaper article. This is about the hiker killed on July 14, 1990, a rebuttal from a read re a $700,000 award to the victim's family:

Re: "Judge Awards $700,00 in Hiker's Death:
Stupidity pays. This came to mind when I learned of the damaged awarded to the victims of the July 14, 1990 lightning storm on Mt. Whitney. Rather than receiving government compensation, they should instead assume the full cost of their rescue.
I was on the summit that day; the impending storm was evident at least two hours prior to the lightning. As I quickly descended from the mountain, I passed these individuals and others blithely hiking up to the summit area and into the building storm. Is it sensible to be on the high point of the continental U.S. during a violent thunderstorm? These hikers should not profit from poor judgement that placed themselves and their rescuers at risk.

written by Erik Siering, Los Angeles


Posted by Hiiker, 07-28-03
Sherry,

You must be kidding? You mean to tell me a judge awarded $700,000 to someone for a person getting killed by lightning while on the Whitney Trail? I'd assume the award went to a family member. I can't believe the judgement went against the Govt.

Give us more details on this unbelievable story.

Hiiker


Posted by Richard, 07-28-03
Here is the story from the L.A. Times archives:

Kin of Hiking Fatality Awarded $700,000 Courts: Judge also orders $1 million total to be paid to three other victims of lightning that struck a metal-roofed hut atop Mt. Whitney. He scores the federal government for disregarding hiker safety.:[Orange County Edition]
GREG HERNANDEZ. The Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext). Los Angeles, Calif.: Jul 14, 1994. pg. 4
Full Text (545 words)
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1994all Rights reserved)

A judge has ordered the federal government to pay $700,000 to the family of a Huntington Beach hiker who died during a lightning storm at the summit of Mt. Whitney in 1990.

Matthew E. Nordbrock, who was 26, was one of 13 hikers who had sought shelter from the downpour by ducking inside of an old stone hut at the summit of the mountain. The hut's corrugated-metal roof acted as a lightning rod and Nordbrock was electrocuted.

U.S. District Judge William J. Rea also awarded a total of $1 million in damages to three surviving hikers who suffered injuries from the lightning bolt, which left everyone in the hut with first- and second-degree burns.

"We have fought for several years to prove that the government was guilty of willful misconduct," attorney Larry R. Feldman said Wednesday. "It is almost impossible to believe that the government could have a hut with a metal tin roof and a metal stovepipe on the highest mountain in the continental United States.

"It was a trap to these hikers who were all very reasonable and intelligent people and thought they would be safe inside," added Feldman, who represented Nordbrock's family and the three others.

In a scathing opinion handed down on July 7, Rea wrote that the government had displayed "wanton and reckless disregard" for hikers, some of whom had been injured in the hut during storms in 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989.

"Despite repeated incidents and despite the knowledge that a dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition existed, (the government) failed to erect any signs or other warnings concerning the hut and its dangers during the five years preceding this accident," the judge wrote.

The hut, known as the Smithsonian Hut, was built in 1909 by the Smithsonian Institution to shelter scientists conducting astronomical research at the summit. Hikers have used the hut since the completion of modern trails to the top of Mt. Whitney in 1930.

The hut, constructed of granite blocks, has a metal stovepipe that attaches to the side of the building and leads into the interior. The stovepipe extends about five feet above the roof. There was no lightning protection system in place, court records state.

By late afternoon on July 14, 1990, Nordbrock and three friends had reached the top of the mountain when an electrically charged storm suddenly rolled in. The group made a run for the hut, where nine other hikers already had sought refuge.

Less than a minute later, lightning struck the hut, and a surging electrical charge threw Nordbrock several feet. He was removed from the mountain by helicopter and died a short time later.

"All they needed to do was spend $50 and put a sign out there which warns hikers to avoid the hut in the event of rain," Feldman said.

A warning sign was erected on July 15, 1990, the day after the accident.

The judge also awarded $400,000 to James MacLeod; $300,000 to Glen MacLeod, and $300,000 to Calif Tervo. All three suffered serious injuries in the hut.

"I think all of my clients were very traumatically and emotionally injured as a result of this event," Feldman said. "They will be very happy if the government does not let this happen to anyone else under similar circumstances."


Posted by Bob R, 07-28-03
I know a little bit about this.

My group (The China Lake Mountain Rescue Group) was called when the word first came out about the fatality. The further word was that they expected about 20 more injuries - many likely fatal - strung out along the trail from Mirror Lake all the way to the summit. We split into several teams and started up from the Portal at 11:25 PM, calling out as we hiked. My team was to get to Trail Camp and treat the injured, who had gotten down from the summit, and it was one of my quickest trips with a heavy pack: 2:55, laden down with probably 60 lb of O2, back immobilization splints, and other first aid gear.

Other teams went on to the summit to treat injuries of those still in the hut.

Needless to say, there were no other injuries strung out along the trail, for which we were very grateful.

There is much, much more to the story, of course, and I have not told it on the "Whitney Follies" thread, saving it for when I can share it in person with whoever happens to be nearby on a subsequent climb. But there are several very interesting twists.

The Whitney episode was the featured event on an A & E series called "The Unexplained," back about eight years ago. This particular show in the series was on various lightning strikes that have occurred, curiously sparing some but not others.


Posted by Hike of your Life, 07-28-03
So, the builders of the stone hut are at fault? Never mind the signs saying "If there is lightning, leave the mountain" or something pretty simple as that.

Metal roofing conducts electricity, as does granite...this is my biggest worry when I go up next week, that's why I'm leaving the trailhead at 2 a.m. regardless of what my nephew wants to do. I want to go up and down as fast as is reasonable and beat the +++'s and ----'s


Posted by AlanK, 07-29-03
I hate frivolous lawsuits as much as the next guy, but the Government was liable in the Whitney case. If the hut was properly grounded, the occupants would have been protected. Lightning rods on houses have existed for a long, long time. There is no excuse for that hut being a death trap.

There is nothing wrong with a metal roof. Your car will protect you because it is basically an equipotential surface. The problem with the hut, as I understand the story, was that the roof had to discharge to somewhere and the occupants were that somewhere.

Personally, I would get the hell off the top before a storm moved in. In fact, I did that a couple of weeks ago. I am not going to stand around on top and count on going into the hut, which is ok these days. But the hut should offer protection from lightning.


Posted by Paige, 07-29-03
Is the hut grounded now? I have heard of so many people sleeping in it, can't imagine that they all did it disregarding the lightening factor.


Posted by Sierra Sam, 07-29-03
you are assuming that grounding is a perfect safety measure, which it often is not. When you have several million (billion???) volts running through a structure, bad things can and do happen even when it is well grounded.


Posted by Paige, 07-29-03
So, I assume, it's still not recommended to shelter in the hut? Not that I ever was considering it, it's hard enough sleeping at 12,000 feet., I was just curious after what Alan had posted about the hut offering protection from lightning. What if you were caught up there in a pelting hail storm? Is there still a sign posted that you shouldn't enter during a storm?


Posted by AlanK, 07-29-03
I am not an atmospheric scientist and no one should use the hut in a storm based on my advice. Note that I said that I'd rather hurry down from the peak in the rain than hang out in the hut for protection from lightning. As Sierra Sam put it, bad things can happen.

I was told by a knowledgeable person several years ago that the hut was fixed up after the tragedy in 1990. I find it hard to believe otherwise. I do not intend to test it myself.

FWIW, the first time I hiked up Mt. Whitney was in 1971. It was the second time in my life I had been backpacking. A friend and I hiked to the top on Labor Day weekend (no advance planning, no permits required, only a few other hikers). We spent the night in the hut with a few other hikers. A good time was had by all. No lightning.


Posted by Bob R, 07-29-03
The hut is much different now than before the tragedy. It has massive lightning rods galore, anchored to the ground in several places away from the hut itself. I haven't looked closely, but my impression is that they are of copper cable, almost a half inch in diameter. The floor is now wooden and raised, to offer a somewhat insulated pad for people to stand/sit/lay on. There is no doubt that it is much safer than before.

The other thing they have done is erect prominent signs, warning people that the hut is not safe and you should descend in the event of a lightning storm.

I have joked to people that the NPS engineers have made the hut the safest spot on the mountain, and the NPS lawyers have erected the signs. But I'm not sure I'm joking.

Personally, if I am caught up there in a lightning storm and have a choice between (1) descending (all the while being a 6-footer in a summit-field of 2-foot boulders) and (2) going into the hut, I know what I'd do.

You may have noticed that I almost never recommend what others should do, and I do not do it here. However, I have no problem telling what I would do, and I have no problem explaining what my decisions are based upon. This is absolutely, definitely, one of those situations.

Some day there will be a lightning storm up there, and someone will flee the summit - as directed by the signs. And that someone will be struck by lightning and killed, and his family will sue. An investigation will follow, with the main question being: Did he get good advice from the signs, or bad? The outcome? Who knows?

Government agencies have a lot of information they can share with us. Unfortunately - and I do not say this without some experience - what they end up sharing with us is colored by fear of litigation. You can guess who the losers are.


Posted by AlanK, 07-29-03
Bob, you have a point. If I was on top in a lightning storm, I would be in the hut rather quickly. I was referring to heading down in advance of said storm. On paper, that's easy to do! :-)

I agree that the hut looks pretty ligntning-secure. I saw it in 2001 and had not seen it prior to that since 1973, so I was not going to make any detailed comparisons, but it's obvious that folks went to some trouble to fix it up after the 1990 tragedy.

One complication to the using the hut in a storm discussion. If everyone who was on top when we were last there went for the hut in a storm, it would been a fraternity in a phone booth situation. Lightning might be relegated to second place on the danger list.


Posted by HikedThat 1-2, 07-30-03
Bob R, a group of us are going at the end of August. Can I ask you a hypothetical question?

If you were on the back side of the mountain and a storm came up from the south, southwest and cut off your avenue of escape, Trail Crest and it was a hot storm (lots of lightning) and you could feel the buzz in the air, would you go into the hut or would you double over on your backpack out in the open? I have been seeing on Tv that people conduct electricity better than telephone poles and being in a group is even worse (like everyone huddling in the hut.) We are, what, 98% water? You are the resident expert here so I was just curious.


Posted by AlanK, 07-30-03
Bob can speak for himself, but he made it quite clear that he thinks the hut is the safest place in the summit area. I agree with Bob. Caught on the summit with lightning striking, I'd sure try to get a space in the hut. The hut is very different than it was in 1990, as Bob described in detail.

My original pont was that that there was no excuse for the state of the hut in 1990. We've learned a lot over the years about protecting structures and their inhabitants from lightning. Think Ben Franklin.

There were two reasons why I emphasized getting down off the mountain before a storm. First, that hut has a limited capacity. Second, at some point, you're going to have to leave the hut. I imagine deciding all is clear, getting a mile down the trail and seeing lightning strike nearby. Waiting out a storm would be my second choice.


Posted by Hike of your Life, 07-30-03
Knowing from experience and having sued the feds for incompetence, you are in for at least eight years of trials and appeals before you can collect from the USA, save yourself the agony (unless you are a gold digger) and leave the mountain before you get hurt.

If I have a choice between being crippled by a lightning strike and suing the government, or heeding the advice and still being able to walk, I'll choose walking every single time.

BTW we filed suit against the Farm Services in 1998 for breach of contract and we won't be heard in front of the federal court panel until early 2004. From there who knows.

Have fun!


Posted by Bob R, 07-30-03
AlanK has a good point: If the hut is full I would avoid it. The danger is if people have to touch or lean up against the inside walls. Safest is if there were only a few people, huddled in the middle on the (insulated) floor.

This is a strange weather system currently. We have typical July and August afternoon storms, but they are around-the-clock monsoonal systems, not just afternoons. It has been going on for over 2 weeks. I have to believe that soon things will return to normal.

But back to your question and the circumstances you propose, assuming normal conditions. I think that if there were too many in the hut I would head for one of the rock campsite shelters nearby that are so numerous around the summit. Hunker down as low as I could, on an insulated pad, and wait for it to pass. Or consider descending over the edge a ways, such as where the Mountaineer's Route finishes. If the storm was approaching from the S or SW I don't think I would head down into it.

July/August storms typically threaten for several hours in the afternoon, but if they start dumping, it usually doesn't last long. So the waiting game makes some sense.

Overriding all of the above: If electrical activity starts building, prudence dictates abandoning the summit and making survival paramount. We all have our temptations, though, and everything is a judgement call. What would I do? I can't answer that precisely until I am put into the situation and see the conditions. Personally, though, I don't "need" the summit all that much. It will be there for another day.

But this isn't like jumping into a pool full of hungry great whites. It isn't even like the Rockies, where 3 - 4 people die by lightning every year. Matt Norbrock's death that afternoon is the only one I can recall, either on Mt. Whitney or elsewhere in the southern Sierra, in my 50 years attention to the area. There are probably others, but it's clearly not common.

Two other men were hit by lightning near the summit that day (one of them twice!), but their injuries were minor. So nonfatal strikes occur, and probably most go unreported.

In Paul Richins' Whitney guide he provides some statistics on the number of people signing the summit register, from 2658 in 1957 to 10,240 in 2000. Looking at his numbers, you can estimate that over 300,000 people have summited Whitney in the last 50 years. Add those who have gotten close, say above Trail Crest, and those climbing other southern Sierra peaks, and the total number of people exposed at high elevations is of the order of half a million. With one fatality - or at most only a handful - and the nonfatal injuries - probably in the dozens - I think the attention paid to lightning danger on Whitney is overblown. Be mindful of it, and do the right things if a storm is heading your way, but I wouldn't lose any sleep over it.


Posted by ClamberAbout, 07-30-03
Can I ask a dumb question?

I'm curious why they haven't just knocked the hut down (or blown it up)? I mean, I know it was built at the turn of the century, but does it have historical significance or something? Is it still being used for some useful purpose (other than just looking neat up there on top)?

I'm not trying to be outrageous or anything, but wouldn't it / won't it cost us taxpayers a lot less in the long run just to get rid of the potential liability than provide an endless excuse for people to either (a) hurt themselves by being in the hut, (b) hurt themselves by not being in the hut, ad infinitum.

Yeah, I'd miss seeing it there. But, at least no newbies would be confronted with the decision: go or don't go. There'd only be the one answer. And if anything happened, the government would have nothing to do with it.

BTW, I knew from the very first day I ever set foot on Whitney ('80's) that the top of the mountain wasn't a place to be in a lightening storm, and that people had died in the hut due to it being hit. Maybe I was just lucky to be with folks who had more of a clue... Anyway, just wondering!


Posted by cessna7391, 07-31-03
I am no lawyer, but if I was burned because I was hiking in a national forest, can I sue the government because there was no sign saying the forest is flammable?


Posted by Bob R, 07-31-03
Because of its scientific significance in the early 1900s, the Smithsonian Institution Shelter on Mt. Whitney's summit is now in the National Register of Historic Places. See hut info


Posted by AlanK, 07-31-03
And it is one building that should be on the register. It's a thing of beauty. I don't normally like huts on mountain tops, but you can't get rid of that one!


Posted by Martin J, 07-31-03
First of all, kudos to Bob R. Your wisdom and experience, and the great willingness to share them, is much appreciated. Also, your rescue efforts are noteworthy as well. I'm sure such accolades embarrass you, but it needs to be said.
I've been hiking these mountains for over four decades and I hope someday to share a trail with you and hear some of those first-hand tales.
Next, I remember arriving at the ranger station the day pr two after the accident in 1990 and there was a 24 hour loop tape being played outside, warning people about the dangers of lightning and seeking refuge in the hut.
Speaking with backcountry rangers over the years, it is breathtaking what people will do in storm conditions. I'm in awe of the degree of reckless abandon that is displayed.
And then, Bob and his fellow heroes have to come and try to save them.


Posted by AlanK, 07-31-03
FWIW, my last post was in reply to Rob's. I don't know how mine got positioned earlier. But who cares?

Cessna, I know it's dangerous to go too far in applying reason to legal questions, but it seems obvious to me that a hut on a mountaintop should provide protection from lightning and equally obvious that forests burn. (IMHO) The hut *in the past* was irresponsibly maintained but no one can fireproof a forest. So, you should be able to sue for one and not the other.


Posted by Sierra Sam, 07-31-03
AlanK-

what ever happened to taking personal responsibility for your actions. If you have the poor judgment to stay on top of a big mountain in a lightning storm, you are resposible for what heppens to you, not the people who put up a hut as an emergency resource to be used at your own risk. If we apply your logic to the ultimate extreme, Whitney would be closed to climbing because the NPS can't maintain it in a way that it will be completely safe. People die on Whitney every year or two and it is them exercising their personal freedom and responsibility. Just because a lawyer finds a way to sue and win does not make it right.


Posted by AlanK, 07-31-03
Sam, I suspect that we'd generally be in agreement about personal responsibility. For example, if fall off of Whitney and break every bone in my body, I (or my survivors) should not be able to sue the government for failing to erect barriers.

In the case of the hut, I don't think that it would be unreasonable for a guy in 1990 to think he was safer in the hut than rushing down ahead of a storm. The hut should have provided protection because that is what such structures are generally expected to do. And that is what I think it would do today.

BTW, if someone takes shelter in the hut and dies because he is touching the roof, holding on to the stove, or sticking his unbrella out the window, he should be judged at fault. Same thing at home. If your lightning rod fails, you can sue. If you get zapped because you are repairing your copper plumbing in a storm, it's your fault.

I hope that Whitney is never made completely safe, because the only way to do that would be to bulldoze it.


Posted by Bob R, 07-31-03
One last point and then I will shut up. I don't have the numbers, but I'm reasonably sure that the hut has saved more lives than it has killed.

I shivered through an uncomfortable night in there myself, on my very first trip as a dumb teenager. It was in May, with the top still in winter conditions, and I had arrived on the summit at 9 PM - clearly too late to descend. It was an intended day climb and I was wearing summer clothes and street shoes. (I told you I was dumb!)

I ended up with a little bit of frostbite on my toes, nose and ears. Don't know how I would have faired if I had spent the night in the open.


Posted by whhs, 07-31-03
July 14, 1990. I was unsuccessful in gaing a permit to hike Mt. Whitney that day so instead I was standing on top of Telescope Peak. I watched in amazement as the fierce, black, aggressive stormfront moved in on Whitney. It was a stunning sight. I was on a warm, bright peak and to see those storm clouds swirling toward Whitney was something I'll never forget. A couple of days later my hiking partner and I learned of the fate of those hikers who were successful in gaing permits that day.

By the way, I also heard that the brother of the lightning victim returned the following year to place a memorial to his brother. As he was driving back down from Whitney Portal he drove off the road on one of the hairpin turns and was injured. Does anyone know if this is true?


Posted by san onofre guy, 07-31-03
The most telling part of the story is that this was Judge Rea. I have been involved in a couple of civil cases in his court. In both cases which I remember, there may have been more, if we were in anyone elses court, we would have tried them. Judge Rea is very plaintiff oriented. Federal Judges have an incredible amount of control in what testimony and evidence will be allowed to be heard by the jury. He tends to present his opinions as to how he will control the testimony in his responses to motions pre-trial.

What is more troubling is that the California legislature is trying to erode the Doctrine of Assumption of Risk. The case Knight vs. Jewett in a nutshell says that if you participate in a particularly risky activity, you assume the risk of injury and, if injured, are barred from recovery.

This is an area of law under assault. Mammoth Mt. won a great case, I think in 2002 concerning an injury to a minor on a ski lift. The parent had signed a release for ski lessons. I forget the details, however the conclusion was that the parent was aware of the risk and released the ski area from liability. Snow Summit however lost a case in which I think a fellow lost control in an icy are and was badly injured. I think the problem the ski area had was they had notice of the ice and ignored it. Ice? No area in California has ice like some of the ice I skied on in Maine in the seventies. I skied some stuff back then which would have been good to practice front pointing on


Posted by MJJ, 08-03-03
There is a memorial plaque placed on the summit but I don't recall if the name matches the person killed by the lightning. Going from memory, I'd guesstimate the location of the plaque to be directly SE of the big Mt Whitney plaque, all the way to the edge of the plateau. It's just over what us trail bound people call the 'edge.'


Posted by AlanK, 08-04-03
I don't have anything to add to this sad story, but it's obviously relevant to this thread.

http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/2379641/detail.

Colorado Climber Dies In Fall On Peak
Springs Man Rushing Down To Avoid Lightning

POSTED: 11:21 a.m. MDT August 4, 2003
UPDATED: 1:43 p.m. MDT August 4, 2003
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A Colorado Springs man fell 500 feet to his death while scrambling to get down a 14,000-foot peak during a weekend thunderstorm, relatives said.

John Boyles, 52, was hurrying down Little Bear Peak near Alamosa, Colo., when he made a wrong turn down an avalanche chute and slipped on loose rocks, said his son, Aaron, who was hiking with him.

"Lightning struck about 100 feet from us," said Aaron, 20. "We were trying to get off the mountain as fast as we could."

...


Posted by Bob R, 08-16-05
A question in another thread tickled my memory, so I did a quick search and found this old topic. MJJ asked about the memorial plaque, two posts above. Well, I remembered I once photographed a plaque near the toilet, so looked again at the picture. It's for a Matthew James Monroe, not Matt Nordbrock. (But this may not be the plaque MJJ refers to.)

By the way, China Lake MRG was doing the Mt. Whitney SAR duties pretty exclusively back then, and our records do not show an operation for this person on or slightly after May 20, 1977. So he probably died elsewhere, but Mt. Whitney was special to him so his parents placed the plaque here. I have looked for it a number of times in the last dozen years or so, without success. I think it has been removed.

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