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A Dozen Ways to Die

How do hikers meet their maker in the backcountry? The answers may surprise you.

6. Lightning
Going high in July? Start early–afternoon is high-voltage hour in many mountain ranges.

In some parts of the country, Boy Scouts have gained a reputation for walking into disaster. But Troop 7001 from St. Helena in California’s Napa Valley was different.

These boys had gone on 110-mile canoe trips and winter campouts. They’d climbed the Grand Teton and Olympus. They’d studied first aid and navigation. And now, in late July 2005, they were tackling a 70-mile, 9-day trek in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks.

Around 2 p.m. on day 7, the 12-person party pitched camp in a clearing at the eastern foot of Mt. Whitney. The plan was to turn in early, get a midnight start, and summit at sunrise. As the boys lounged, a storm cell moved in from the north. This was little cause for alarm: The forest rose a thousand feet above them to ridgeline. They were beneath tarps, sitting on their sleeping pads, and atop dry groundsheets when the rain began.

“We were counting the time between flash and thunder,” recalls leader Stu Smith, “and teaching the kids about sound speed. We never finished the conversation.”

The bolt hit a nearby tree and arced horizontally under the tarps. All but four members of the troop were immediately knocked out.

“I came to in this brown sea of hurt,” says Smith. “It was like when your foot goes to sleep then comes awake, only all over and to the 10th power.” Three people were in cardiac arrest, and a fourth lay moaning, with blood streaming from his mouth and nose.

As Smith directed CPR efforts, two of the boys raced to a nearby ranger cabin. Two adults came around quickly, and ranger Rob Pulaski arrived within the hour, followed by a helicopter. Despite the troop’s efforts, 29-year-old Stephen McCullagh, a burly winemaker and father of two, never regained consciousness. Ryan Collins, a 13-year-old who would have entered 8th grade that fall, was resuscitated, but loss of brain function led to removal of life support weeks later.

Analysis
Lightning injures 500 to 700 people a year in the United States, and kills 75. Few are backcountry accidents, perhaps because electrical events are so impressively frightening. Most wilderness incidents happen to boaters, or hikers and climbers caught on high ridgelines during afternoon storms. “We get near-daily summer lightning storms,” says Renny Jackson, head climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park. “But when we had a major disaster on the Exum Ridge 2 years ago, we checked our records and were surprised to find we’d never had another fatality inside the park.”

Advice

  • Climb early, camp low Your single smartest move is to descend from above-treeline peaks and ridges by 2 p.m. during the summer. If there’s a black cloud within 5 miles, you’ve waited too long.
  • Split up Should a lightning storm approach your party, spread out so a single strike doesn’t disable the entire group.
  • Avoid electricity magnets Bad: single tall trees, metal objects, and high rock outcrops. Good: gullies, depressions in a meadow, and any spot lower than your current position.
  • Learn CPR “Nearly everybody who dies from lightning dies from cardiac arrest,” says Grand Teton’s Jackson. Troop 7001′s training and the fast SAR response surely saved two lives.
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