Today’s post comes from Sandra Frey, an MLP field team member for the past 2 1/2 years. Her reflections from a day re-photographing historic images high in the Canadian Rockies are an excellent reminder that mountain days are sometimes more than majestic views and bluebird skies. As Sandra tells us, the mountain environment can be a challenging place to work, live, and play.
Station location, historic, and modern images from “Lightning Peak”:
M.P. Bridgland, 1924, Station 356.
Reflections on thunder, lightning, and how to stay alive
Modern and historic westward-looking panorama from “Lightning Peak” – Station 356.
Early March, and the days are definitely starting to feel a bit longer…
What better time to start thinking about summertime hiking once more!
The warmth of a green valley in the afternoon sun. The crunching of shale beneath your brown leather boots. The blustery thrill of each spectacular summit, filling you with unbridled joy!
The hailstorms. Loose cornices. Surprise crevasses.
Alas, the mountains giveth, and the mountains taketh away.
And though they will reward you with the loveliest views and all the good feels, they will also very happily fling grapefruit-sized rocks at your head, chuck you off cliffs, and subject you to the most violent mood-swings of weather.
One of their favourite tricks is lightning storms.
Lightning is allll fun and games when you’re cozy and safe somewhere inside, drinking hot cocoa and remarking to yourself how glad you are to be tucked away inside, and not crouched down somewhere on some mountain, cold and exposed, cursing every decision that has lead you to this wretched moment.
In the summer field season of 2016, we found ourselves in the latter of the aforementioned situations. This happy* memory of mine manifested upon Lightning Peak†, a prominent and pointed mountain south of Nordegg, Alberta, and north of the Cline River (Figure 1). That morning, our helicopter pilot, the peerless Kyle Wadden, delivered one half of the MLP crew – Rick Arthur, Dale Thomas, and myself – to the tippy-top of this peak to re-photograph a series of historic images captured by Morrison Parsons Bridgland during the 1924 Clearwater Forest Reserve survey.
*Not actually happy
† Fictitious name applied to enhance story
A seamless hover-exit. A spectacular day! We popped a bottle of champagne, danced a quadrille, and sang a rendition of the Marsellaise. Or at least we would have, had we been 18th century alpinists summiting a previously indomitable peak deep in the Chamonix of France.
Instead, we had a quick post hover-exit snack‡, remarking on the most excellent views before us over mouthfuls of pineapple. (Thank you, Alberta Agriculture & Forestry, for providing us with the best food during our field work. Thank you thank you thank you!!).
It really was a beautiful day. Blue skies. A few clouds. Mayyyybbeee some cloud build-up off into the distance to our east. (Spoiler: It was definitely build-up.) We unpacked our gear, found the exact spot where to set up the tripod, and began the process of re-photographing each historic image.
And before we knew it, we were being violently pinged with an aggressive shower of hailstones.
‡ It is strict MLP protocol to always consume a light snack after each hover exit. (A rule invented and solely enforced by yours truly)
And then, the static…
My scalp crackled agonizingly as my hair tried to stand up on end beneath my toque. The radio buzzed. The metal button at the top of Dale’s ball cap zinged and vibrated, gaily singing a little song of doom and destruction.
And that’s when we knew all hope was lost…
Ok, that’s maybe being a bit dramatic.
But the steep slopes all around us had become wet and slippery, precluding any safe passage down to the refuge of the lower ridges. And yet it was imperative that we get off the top of the peak where our three bodies stuck out like sore thumbs, effectively hailing the lightning to come and smite us.
Leaving all gear save for the camera, we managed to pick our way down a few metres to a little ledge just below the peak. There we remained: crouched, shivering and silent, nobody quite wanting to give more reality to our dangerous situation by remarking upon it. Somewhat like the passengers on a large airline cruiser when suddenly mid-flight, there is a steady build-up of turbulence that seems to go beyond normal and acceptable levels of shakiness, and no one wants to be the first one to say anything and but everyone is secretly thinking, Shit, am I about to die?
The boulders next to us buzzed and hissed with static charge. I wracked my brain for my Sunday school prayers. Thunder clapped above our heads. Hail Mary, full of grace…Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
My experience with this single, isolated event clearly makes me an unequivocal expert on the topic of dealing with bad lightning situations whilst in the alpine, and I will now take this opportunity to share my great wisdom with you.
Firstly, I’d like to note that this was a bad situation, and one that should be primarily avoided whenever possible. Although MLP crew try to remain constantly vigilant against any potential weather build-up while we are working in the mountains, there are times when it does sneak up on you. In fact, that morning, AAF Wildfire Ranger Margriet Berkhout – who lives in Rocky Mountain House and spends a lot of time exploring the mountains – remarked how this area is rarely subject to thunderstorms and seems to be in a bit of a shadow-zone for lightning; a piece of knowledge that sadly offered us very little comfort later than morning when the lightning flashed all around us.
Generally, however, one can avoid being caught in such a predicament by paying close attention to warning signs that may indicate inclement weather and adjusting one’s activities accordingly. I recommend reading some of the following articles which nicely summarize how one can recognize signs of a building thunderstorm, as well as where to go and what to do to reduce the likelihood of being struck by lightning while outdoors:
But the true pearl of wisdom I’d like to share with you… the golden-nugget of alpine secrets… that final trump card to tuck into the sleeve of your merino base-layer is:
The Lightning Pose.
“What, pray tell, is the lightning pose?” you ask.
For those of you concerned that I am about to recommend yoga stretches while in the face of imminent danger, rest assured that this is not the case.
The lightning pose is one last course of action for the unlucky alpinist to take when lightning strikes (hopefully not literally) and you find yourself in a bit of tight spot.
Your shelter is nonexistent or less than ideal. There’s nowhere else to go. And the air is full of static and thunder.
Being the savvy mountaineer that you are, you crouch down on the balls of your feet with your heels touching, tucking your head down and turning yourself into a small, rounded target. You cover your ears and shut your eyes (Figure 2).
This position not only reduces your exposure, but it also encourages currents coming from the ground from nearby lightning strikes to travel up one leg and down the other, missing your vital organs. Feel free to cross your fingers too, if you’re the superstitious type.
And there you have it.The lightning pose, for when you find yourself in the thick of a thunderstorm and want to minimize the odds of being sent to the promised land in one quick flash of light and vengeance.
One last piece of advice: there is a relatively good chance of reviving a lightning victim with CPR. So if lightning strikes and your buddy isn’t breathing, there’s your opportunity to finally practice a little bit of mouth-to-mouth. Don’t be shy.
But truly, stay safe out there y’all. Lightning storms come and go. But death is forever.
So on that happy note, good-bye and until the next time I have some hard-won wisdom to share with you!