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Out Alive: Struck by Lightning

A heart-stopping bolt hits one hiker and levels a group of his friends who then fight to resuscitate him.
0613_skills_strucklightningillo_445x260Illustration by Noah Macmillan

Katy and Joe performed CPR to revive me. As I learned later, it was a long 30 seconds before my heart jumped to life. And Katy continued rescue breathing even after I first gasped for air, as I couldn’t control my respiration at first (it can take 30 minutes or more for strike victims to regain regular neurological functions). Even when I was breathing on my own, I wasn’t out of the woods yet: I was paralyzed from the waist down. My legs were turning a mottled eggplant purple from lack of blood flow, and my veins protruded like spider webs under my cold skin. Katy and several members of a passing group massaged my legs to revive circulation while Joe and a friend sprinted to call for rescue.

As my legs regained a healthy color, the storm rolled closer. We watched bolts explode atop surrounding summits, not realizing that we remained in grave danger. Our group didn’t discuss moving to a less vulnerable location, which should have been our top priority the minute we noticed the storm. While there’s nowhere outside that’s totally safe in a storm, we’d have been better off below the bald, where stands of uniform-height trees and rolling terrain offered better protection from another strike.

It was only 90 minutes after the strike that the volunteer rescue squad arrived to haul me down the mountain. Though I’d been scared about the numbness and paralysis of my lower limbs, my legs had regained some function by the time they carried me to the bottom of the mountain another hour and a half later, thanks to the quick response and perseverance of my companions. Next came 18 hours in the hospital, with EKGs, IV fluids, watching for retina detachment, and trying to excrete burned myoglobin in my urine. Although it took roughly a month for my muscles to recover, I walked out of the hospital with no lasting damage—besides my charred clothes, that is.

Key Skill Keep Your Group Safe
Be aware of weather windows, check forecasts, and establish turnaround times, alternate routes, and points on your route that keep you away from exposed terrain during peak storm hours. Watch for safer terrain, and don’t wait for a storm to reach you before repositioning. If you’re caught in unexpected conditions and moving is unsafe—or your group is stuck on flat, open ground—spread at least 50 feet apart to prevent a single strike from incapacitating everyone, and assume the lightning position: Place your feet together, crouch low on a folded sleeping pad or insulator, and don’t touch nearby objects or conductors.

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