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Survival Tactics



Thirty miles west of Denver, elk carcasses littered a 60-foot circumference of open ridge in the Mount Evans Wilderness. Fifty-six in total; killed within seconds. The cause? Ground charge from a lightning bolt averaging 500 megajoules of energy. In one strike, the entire herd entered cardiac arrest instantly.

“People don’t die necessarily from a direct hit,” says Don Davis, explaining that the electrical current will make your small capillaries explode, creating a “fern” pattern on your skin’s surface known as Lichtenberg figures. While a high voltage beam to the head can disrupt that bioelectrical organ we call the brain, the mortality rate of direct strikes are between 10 – 30 percent. On the other hand, a ground charge, which dissipates in microseconds, knocks you off your feet and can stop your heart—so a nearby friend with CPR training is ideal. (Davis recommends all trekkers take, at a minimum, a wilderness first aid class, adding that, “In the backcountry environment, you are 9-1-1.”)

The key to surviving a lightning storm is to find shelter and stay low. “You don’t want to be the highest thing around,” Davis cautions. It’s why during baseball games, pitchers are usually the best target on the field, seeing as their mound is 10 – 15 inches tall.

“When you stand up straight, you’re like a lightning rod.”

When in the grasslands, dump any metal on your person, like hiking poles or a golf club. Then, stoop low without covering much ground—essentially squat down—and curl your head to minimize contact area. And if possible, get to your car. Should a bolt strike the roof, it acts as a Faraday cage, guarding you from outside static.

In the woods, though, when above timberline, get into the dark heavily forested area as quickly as possible. (Some people claimed to have their hairs stand as static builds before striking.) Trees can take the brunt of the force—evidenced afterwards by burnt trunks split into shards. It’s a close call experienced by Davis: While on a cliff, mid-repel, his friends below began yelling at Davis to hurry. Apparently lightning struck the tree beside the one he was anchored to. “Had it been my tree, it would’ve burnt through my rope,” says Davis. “I would’ve come tumbling down.”

Bottom line: Get your hiking done early in the day, and let Zeus take the after hours because lightning is unpredictable, and can certainly strike the same place twice.

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