You are on the Whitney summit and notice, late in the game, that a storm is moving in rapidly. You could make a run to try to get well below Trail Crest, but chances are that you will end up somewhere in the middle of a 14,000' ridge. Then there's the Hut. But you know that people have died in there -- of lightning strikes!
Then you start thinking. The safest place to be in a lightning storm is a Faraday cage. Most have used cars as a crude approximation. Yes, you want to be in a metal box. Why? Because it is made from a good conductor. It cannot sustain an electric field inside. That means there is no way for current to flow through you. That's what you want! Now, the Hut looks attractive. It has a metal roof and has numerous lightning rods and grounding straps. It has been fixed up a lot since that accident. Maybe it is not the worst place to be after all.
We had a great discussion on the WPS Board on this subject back in the summer of 2007. It got removed for reasons that are rather murky (to me). We took the subject up on Richard Piotrowski's message board in September of that year. The problem is that the board died. I have a lot of the posts and may resurrect them.
Meanwhile, here is a post of mine on Richard's board from September 25, 2007.
WARNING: The chances of being struck by lightning are small but the chances of dying of old age while reading this post are greater than they should be. :oops:
DISCLAIMER: I am not a lightning safety expert. I will cite facts, express opinions, and quote the opinions of others, including experts. But no one should make a life or death decision based on posts by a stranger on an Internet Message Board. I hope that the information presented here, my sources, and the reasoning behind my opinions are helpful. Ultimately, however, people must make their own decisions.
The danger posed by lightning is a familiar topic on hiking and mountaineering-related message boards. In the case of Mt. Whitney, being both the highest peak in the Lower 48 and accessible to large numbers of people guarantees that discussions of lightning danger occur regularly. Indeed, there have been several such discussions on the Whitney Portal Store Message Board over its few years of existence. One of these threads began on or around September 9 of this year. A vigorous discussion sprang up rapidly. Unfortunately, the thread was deleted entirely on September 11. I managed to recover most of it over the next few days, thanks to cached copies of portions on Google. I will not reproduce it in its entirety, but I found it useful to proceed in the spirit of that discussion and I will quote from it in places. I also thank Bob K for our conversations, both in that deleted thread and later on in private. I will not reproduce our discussion either, but it helped my thinking immensely.
The thread in question was started by Icystair, who posted:
I have a question which will probably be very easy for the veterans of this message board to answer. Why is the Whitney Shelter on the summit not a very good place to wait out a lightning storm? There are lightning rods and grounding wire wrapped around the whole structure. I believe it even said inside the room that the wooden floor is an integral part of the design to insulate from lightning.
Ah, yes! The question of what to do if caught on the summit of Whitney in a thunderstorm is complicated by the presence of the Smithsonian Hut. On the one hand, it looks for all the world like a secure refuge. Even a casual inspection reveals an impressive grounding system. On the other hand, in 1990 a person was killed by lightning while in the hut and there is a dire warning on the hut. As quoted in Icystair's post:
Extreme Danger from Lightning
To Avoid Being Struck by Lightning. Immediately Leave The Summit Ridge If Any of The Following Conditions Exist: Dark Clouds Nearby, Thunder, Hail or Rain, Hissing in the Air, Static Electricity in the Hair or Finger Tips.
The Whitney Shelter Will Not Offer Protection
So there we have it. Right there on the Whitney summit is an attractive refuge from the elements, yet we are told not to use it in a common emergency situation. No wonder discussions of the subject are never-ending!
I replied to Icystair's initial post with this:
People have died in the hut when lightning struck. The proper grounding was added later. But, in this litigious society, no one wants to assure safety. Plus, "foolproof" does not go well with "lightning." So, they tell you to get the hell out.
I think that is a sensible answer. Assuming that the grounding system is not just there for show, the Hut is obviously a much better refuge than it was prior to 1990. Nevertheless, given that a death in the Hut resulted in a $1.7M legal judgment against the USFS, it is hardly surprising that people are not encouraged to use the Hut. But that sheds no light on the question of whether or not the Hut is the safest refuge in the event of lightning.
Ken made a very reasonable reply to the posts quoted above. Ken, by the way, is a retired physician and the source of much wisdom on these boards.
While the physics is complex, and beyond my ability to explain, I think it boils down to the issue of REDUCTION of risk, not the elimination of risk.
This somewhat complex article http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_lhm/magic.pdf
makes the point: "It is impractical to build most structures with absolute protection from lightning."
This site has comprehensive information, also: http://www.lightning.org/?page=faq
"Q. How effective are lightning rods? If I have a lightning rod system installed on my home can lightning still damage my home?
A. The NFPA 780 document includes the 150 ft. radius sphere model zone of protection for ordinary structures. This model provides a method to mount lightning rods or air terminals in a pattern to provide a strike point for 93% of all recorded lightning strikes including the most intense."
What are the odds in the average year, that the tallest mountain in the US gets hit by lightning more than 100 times? I'd say it is certain, so 7% of the time, lightning protection won't work. Better not be in there, then! If you don't like the idea of running down with lightning strikes around, DO NOT put yourself up there in that situation!
The last line is important. We should know that it is best to avoid being on the summit of Whitney in a thunderstorm. In other words, if a storm is moving in while you are ascending, head down rather than proceeding. That takes maturity and discipline, but it could save your life.
But what if...? Let's face it -- most of us are capable of making mistakes, and the weather on the Sierra Crest can change suddenly. Suppose we misjudge and find ourselves on the summit of the highest peak in the Continental US in the middle of a lightning storm? Ken's post can't help us. What to do?
The answer provided by several posters in the thread in question was to descend as fast and far as possible. The further below the summit you go, the less chance of getting hit by lightning. On reflection, I decided that I would not follow that advice. I don't like it any more now than I did when participating in a similar thread on the WPS Board back in 2003. (More on that thread below.) My comments led to a lively exchange with the posters favoring rapid descent. I tentatively favored taking refuge in the Hut. At one point, a poster said:
So far on this thread, aside from the personal theories of the hut's safety by people who don't have expertise in lightning protection, there is no authoritative claim that staying in the hut would be safer than moving to lower altitude.
To which I replied:
So far on this thread, aside from the personal theories of the hut's safety by people who don't have expertise in lightning protection, there is no authoritative claim that moving to lower altitude would be safer than staying in the hut.
My reply was quite serious. I have never seen a lightning safety expert advocate a long walk/run high on a ridge in order to escape nearby lightning. Why are non-experts ready to advocate that approach but not ready to consider possibility that the Hut is safe? The answer, of course, is the aforementioned warning posted on the Hut. I found myself wanting to know if the Hut is safe, but I started with the question of whether or not running is really better than sitting out a storm in even an "unsafe" Hut?
Here's the problem: Suppose that one descends from Whitney in the direction of Trail Crest. (The Mountaineer's Route offers a much more rapid descent, but is not a viable option for the vast majority of people who might be stuck on the summit in a thunderstorm.) Trail Crest is within a thousand feet of the summit in elevation. It is a couple of miles away along the Sierra Crest. Lightning does not strike only the Whitney summit or the very top of the ridge. Running towards Trail Crest and down the 97 switchbacks, or down the JMT, involves exposure to a potential lightning strike for an awfully long time. To me, it represents Russian Roulette. Admittedly, this version has better odds than the game played with a 6 shot revolver -- the odds of being hit by lightning while scurrying along the trail in a thunderstorm are still not very high. But one must still acknowledge a very dangerous situation. How do those odds compare to ones odds in the Hut?
I did offer another alternative. Suppose that there was no Hut. I think we all agree that staying in the open on the summit is suicidal. But one could descend and look for protection ASAP. There is much information and advice out there from experts on what constitutes protection, what position to assume (no, it's not the "kiss your ass goodbye" position), etc. (You don't want to be in a shallow cave or right up against a rock, you don't want to be lying down, and so on.) I will not try to cover this option here in detail, as it is too large a subject for this post. Suffice it to way that it might make a lot more sense (it does to me!) than a long walk/run in the open trying to reach lower elevations.
In the end, I concluded that I liked the Hut option the best, the "seek protection below the summit" option next, and the "run long and hard" option the least. And I've been a distance runner for over 40 years!
Before discussing the Hut in detail, let's consider lightning danger in general. I posted the following in the deleted WPS Board thread:
Lightning experts say that most lightning fatalities are not due to people being struck directly (although that is likely to kill you). Rather, lightning strikes the Earth near a person, who then falls victim to the resulting currents. For example, if you are lying on the ground, currents may flow more easily through your body than through the ground. That's why one is advised to crouch with only feet, as close together as possible, in contact with the ground. Also, it is better to crouch on a pack than on the ground -- the extra insulation helps.
With regard to the Hut, a person inside the Hut is not in danger of a direct strike. However, when the Hut is struck, currents flow along the walls and along the ground nearby. As I recall from sleeping in the Hut back in 1971, the floor used to be dirt. That would seem like a poor place to sleep if lightning strikes. I believe the wood floor was added after the lightning fatalities -- that seems like a huge improvement. Being on the wood floor, away from the walls, seems pretty safe to me. Crouching on the floor with feet together seems safer still.
Clearly, the lightning danger in the Hut at the time of the 1990 accident was the large currents resulting from a strike, rather than the strike itself. In order to assess the Hut, let's begin by considering the earlier statement that typical lightning rod protection of ordinary structures works 93% of the time. That statement applies to a single lightning rod on a wooden house. It tells us nothing whatsoever about how well the extensive grounding system on the Hut works. Here is a picture I took of the Hut in August, 2005.
One can clearly see the metal roof, 7 of the 9 lightning rods protruding from the roof, and thick cables running from the roof the ground. One can see 7 cables -- there are evidently about 12 on the entire perimeter of the Hut. The metal shutters on the windows are connected to the cables. In addition, the Hut has a wooden floor that was not present at the time of the 1990 accident.
It was stated above that "It is impractical to build most structures with absolute protection from lightning." The closest thing to absolute protection would involve a metal roof, metal walls, and a metal floor -- a Faraday cage. The system on the Smithsonian Hut is surely a better approximation to that ideal than one commonly encounters at home. The roof, window covers, and cables are basically an equipotential structure. There has to be a much greater than 93% probability that this system will absorb and dissipate a lightning strike. Without the grounding system, one could easily imagine significant potential differences between points on the walls or along the dirt floor, possibly resulting in large currents that could be fatal to a person in the wrong place inside. In the present configuration, there does not appear to be any way to sustain a substantial potential difference between any visible parts of this structure.
Despite the appearance of safety, I sought expert opinion on the subject. In searching for more information, I came across a line in the resume of a lightning safety expert who designed a grounding system for the Smithsonian Hut in 1987. (I am not using his name in this post as I do not have his permission. I am seeking it but did not want to delay this post any further.) I contacted this man and we carried on an excellent conversation via e-mail. Before discussing those exchanges, I will comment on the motivation for a grounding system and the timing of its installation.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1994, there were lightning injuries in the Hut in 1985. 1987, 1988, and 1989. The LA Times article is reprinted here
(see Richard's post on 7/28/03). The Forest Service obviously realized after the first of these accidents that the Hut needed a grounding system, since the aforementioned design dates back to 1987. However, no system was implemented prior to the death of Matthew E. Nordbrock on July 14, 1990. As reported in the LA Times article, Nordbrock "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...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."
In the ensuing lawsuit, the presiding judge awarded $700,000 to Nordbrock's family and $1M to three other hikers injured that day. He wrote that "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 Nordbrock family's attorney said that "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." That must have been obvious to all concerned. According to that LA Times article, "a warning sign had been placed on July 15, 1990, the day after the accident."
The expert I contacted did not know about the outcome of the lawsuit or any work on the Hut after 1987. However, after examining my photo (see above), he told me:
You will be MUCH safer in the protected hut than on the trail!!! They have followed essentially my design in spades. Note that the stovepipe, the window frames and the roof have been bonded, and there are several grounds. It is of course possible with this design that there could be potentials between the grounds, depending on where the strike terminus is, but the wood floor finishes the design nicely. Again, you will be orders of magnitude (literally) safer in the hut than outside of it, even if you were on your way down. Go in, have a sandwich, and enjoy the storm. You know the hut is essentially a Faraday cage.
I emphasize that this was a response to my inquiry, not a note to the public to disregard common sense advice about staying away from the summit if a storm is approaching, etc. I see it as the opinion of a knowledgeable expert stating what is obvious to at least some non-experts.
Following the disappearance of the WPS board thread, I looked over some old threads dealing with the subject. In the one that contained the LA Times article cited above, I found this comment from Bob R:
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. [Italics mine.]
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.
So there we have it. Bob R. said basically everything I have to say and he said it 4 years ago.
I can add one further insight into the warning sign and general lack of encouragement for regarding the Hut as a refuge. In an article
on legal issues associated with lightning protection, Dr. Ronald Standler, a layer with a PhD in physics (whom I did not contact in connection with this post) states that, given the litigious climate in the US, structures that offer incomplete protection (which he identifies as structure lacking metal roof, walls, and floor) should carry warning signs (basically what I said in my initial reply to Icystair).
I hope that I have added some useful information. I certainly want to emphasize the paragraph of Bob's that I italicized (see also my original disclaimer). I am not going to make life and death decisions for anyone else. I certainly know what I would do in the situation under discussion and why I would do it. However, I do not intend to ever actually do this experiment! For one thing, I could show up at the door and find the Hut full (evidently part of Mr. Nordbrock's problem).
Giving Bob R the last word:
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.