Tuesday, July 19, 2005


As a preparation for our Pikes Peak Ascent in August, Cindy and I went down to Mt. Bierstadt just south of I-70 for a day-hike. Bierstadt is a 14er, and clocks in at 14,060 feet. The route is pretty straightforward, and quite short - it's a 6-mile or so round trip, starting from a trailhead off Guanella Pass at about 11,000 feet. Cindy had the misfortune of straining her knee two days before the hike, and was very disappointed that she was not going to try the summit with me. Still, she wanted to come and planned to spend the morning doing some writing and relaxing in the area near the trailhead.

Feeling energized, I started fast on the trail. I could see a few puffy cumulus around the summit area, and realized right off that I was getting off to a late-ish start (~ 10am). I figured that it might start looking pretty scary by the time I summited, and that I wouldn't have too long to hang around up there before heading back.

Sure enough, the clouds continued to build, and I hiked ever faster. I got near the summit area in about an hour and a half, which is pretty quick. Unfortunately, that still wasn't fast enough. It began to precipitate lightly, mostly small frozen pellets of graupel.

(That's a graupel shaft in the upper right of the pic, by the way.) Not a good sign, because charge separation occurs when frozen material moves in a convective updraft like that. And charge separation of course means -- lightning. There were about 8-10 other hikers in the area, and we began to hunker down. With about 5 minutes of clambering remaining to the top the first bolt of lightning hit, about a quarter mile away. Holy crap. I struggled to think of a time when I was as terrified as I was at that moment. Being near a mountain summit is about the worst place you can be in an electrical storm. I knew this rationally, and yet there I was, having put myself in this pickle. Still, in spite of this, I didn't want to head back down yet, because I was so damn close to the summit. I had to get to it - otherwise the whole trip down here was for naught.

Now, I know that this was a faulty rationalization which fails to consider the waste of time of the trip if I happen to get struck by lightning in the process; but at just under 14,000 feet, I apparently was incapable of sound reasoning. I wanted the summit. I needed it. So I took what I thought were reasonable precautions considering the insanity of what I was about to do, staying as low as possible and just trying to get to the summit area for a moment, time my arrival so that I get up there shortly after any nearby lightning strike, and get the hell off there a moment afterwards. (Remember kids, do NOT try this at home.)

As a side note, I got to personally experience another aspect of terror which I had heard about before, but never really understood. Each time the lightning flashed nearby and the thunder broke around me, I shouted back, and even occasionally laughed. It was so odd, laughing in the face of danger, but also utterly natural. I'm not sure that I laughed as a way to reduce the fear, but it's an undeniable reality that such a reaction happens. The situation was just so ridiculous, and so perilous, that I guess I thought it was sorta funny.

Anyway, in about 3-4 minutes time, climbing upward in the frozen pellets and the lightning which was still about a quarter mile off, I finally made it to the top.

I tried to angle a self-portrait shot with what I could see of the view from there (at least the part that wasn't obscured by the thundercloud), all the while trying to be mindful of how idiotic it would be if I were to get struck on the summit while trying to take my own picture. (As if merely being up there already weren't dumb enough...) Just as I was about to snap the shot, there was another huge thundercrash, which caused my arm to flinch and make the picture crooked. I didn't sweat it at that point, and decided that, OK, maybe now was a good time to start descending. Although it wasn't easy clambering down slick rocks in the cold, I made it back without further incident.

I had some trepidation about telling Cindy about this exploit, and sure enough, she wasn't thrilled about my choice. But as it turns out, she actually hiked up the trail a good ways herself, having felt much better after I had started hiking, and wanting to get some exercise anyway. She made it up about 2 miles along the trail before turning back because of the impending weather, and she also tells me about how looking back she even saw a figure in green, some stupid guy, near the summit when the lightning was ramping up. Hmmm, coincidentally I had my green rainjacket on at the time too.

Whatever you do, I don't recommend that you do what I did. I plead temporary insanity due to summit lust. If you must hike Colorado 14ers in the summer, get a nice early start appropriate to how long the trail is; in the case of Bierstadt, I'll want to start hiking no later than 8.

Nature is glorious, full of mystery and wonder, often serene, and every now and then frighteningly powerful. It's moments like those described above which lead people to say that you should always treat the mountain with respect. I certainly didn't need to experience all this to believe it, but I guess a little reminder was in order.

Thank you!
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