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Reader Essays: Timber!

Jon Heaton and his son survive a deadly Yellowstone windstorm.

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In the summer of 2007, I went to Yellowstone with my wife, Lupita, and our two sons, Sean and Conor (then 11 and 12 years old). On one hike, we went to Grebe Lake, where we planned to fish for grayling. The start of the hike goes through a large area of standing dead trees left from the fires of 1988. The path winds through the grove of snags. It’s a very stark yet interesting area, and I enjoyed taking pictures as we hiked in. 

As is usual in the Rockies in the summertime, thunderclouds started building in the afternoon. On this day, though, they seemed to build even earlier and more swiftly than usual. It had been clear, almost cloudless, but now the sky darkened rapidly and the wind picked up. The fishing was not great, so my wife and Sean left early to head back to the car while Conor and I tried one more spot. However, as the clouds got darker and larger, and the wind started whipping small whitecaps onto the surface of the lake, we soon followed. We were jogging at times, then walking to catch our breath, then jogging again, trying to beat the storm. 

Eventually we reached the section of standing dead trees. We were a bit less than halfway through the area when I started to hear a strange, roaring sound that kept getting louder and more deafening. It’s impossible to come up with a comparison; the closest I can describe is a mixture of a busy highway, a freight train, thunder, and a howling animal. 

“What the heck is that?” I asked my son. 

“I don’t know,” he replied, as we both started running. 

Then, as I looked toward the oncoming storm, where the sky was black and ugly, I saw something that was both incredible and terrifying. A huge gust of wind, almost like a tornado, blew straight at us through the field of dead trees. Towering gray trunks fell before it like dominoes.

As the trees snapped like toothpicks and blew over, I looked quickly around for safety. But there was literally nowhere to run for cover. At least 100 yards around us, in all directions, stood a forest of dead trees—and they were now falling everywhere with deafening crashes. 

“Run!” I screamed at Conor, who was 30 or 40 yards behind me. 

With a look of terror on his face that will remain imprinted on my memory forever, he began to run toward me as trees started crashing both in front of and behind us. I was jogging slowly, waiting for him to catch up. I stopped dead on the trail as a tree crashed 10 yards in front of me. I turned to look back again at Conor. Three trees were coming down right toward him. The first two fell 10 or 20 yards behind him, but the third was coming down on a trajectory that would crash right on top of him. My first instinct was to yell at him to stop, because if he did so immediately the tree would fall in front of him. However, if he didn’t stop right away, if he hesitated at all, that tree would crush him. So I started screaming at him to run, run, RUN! I can only imagine the sound of panic that must have been in my voice, but it caused him to put on one final burst of speed as a huge tree smashed to the ground literally a couple of feet behind him. One of the branches grazed him on the side of the head. If he had been just a split second slower he would surely have been killed. 

The freak gust of wind passed, but the winds were still strong, dead trees were swaying all around us, and some were still crashing to the ground. We held hands and ran like hell together for the relatively unburned section of the forest ahead of us. It was a hairy 10 minutes as we sprinted through sections of burned trunks, only slowing to catch our breath in areas where there were plenty of green trees. 

I didn’t know what we had experienced at the time, but in one of those strange coincidences, some months after this happened, BACKPACKER published a short article (May 2008) about a weather phenomenon called “microbursts.” The story described what we had experienced exactly. 

Heaton live in Ridgecrest, CA. Favorite hike: the James Irvine/Fern Canyon/Miner’s Ridge Loop 
in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA.

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