I Survived a Lightning Strike

Minko Nikolov, 32, suffered a near-fatal lightning strike while scouting a bouldering objective in Rocky Mountain National Park in August 2019.
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lightning strike

I’ve been shot, I thought. I lay on my back, and a light rain mingled with the blood trickling from my mouth and ears. Someone must have shot me—why else would I be incapacitated in the middle of the woods? I didn’t yet realize that what had actually happened was just as scary.

When I moved to Colorado, I fell in love with the snow-flecked peaks and granite boulders of Rocky Mountain National Park, and spent as much time there as I could, hiking and climbing almost every weekend.

One Saturday in August, I packed my bag to hike up to Lower Chaos Canyon in search of boulders to climb. I threw in a thermal shirt, a rain shell, some food, a headlamp, and water. One last look at the forecast revealed only a 20 percent chance of rain. Perfect.

But by the time I got to the parking lot around 1:30 p.m., dark clouds of a clockwork thunderstorm were cluttering the sky. I sat in my car, watching rain and hail rattle off the hood. Colorado storms never stick around for long; 15 minutes later, the sky brightened. I grabbed my pack and started walking.

As I hiked, patches of blue sky widened above me. About halfway up the trail, around 2:30 p.m., I passed two climbing rangers. We stopped to chat, and one of them warned me that there was another cloudburst on the radar, about an hour away.

In retrospect, I should have turned around then, but I was still below treeline and my destination was less than a mile away. After seven years in the Rockies, I had learned that there’s a certain regularity to summer storms and had grown comfortable with taking shelter under large boulders or below treeline until they passed.

At Lake Haiyaha, the trees opened up, revealing views of prow-like Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide. The rangers had been right—clouds were building on the western horizon. Normally, I would have pushed through, but I needed to get home and pack for a weekend trip to celebrate my mom’s 61st birthday. I didn’t want to be late. This isn’t worth it, I thought, looking at the incoming front. I’ll just hike down.

I’d been descending for about 10 minutes when it started to drizzle. I stopped to pull out my rain jacket. That’s where my memory goes blank.

When I regained consciousness, I lifted my head and could feel the blood oozing down my face. What happened? Why am I in the national park? Then I felt the pain flood in. It was a burning sensation, more intense than anything I’d felt before. I thought that my leg had been severed, and that my arm had been broken or shot.

I wanted to move but couldn’t. My muscles felt fused together, and any stretching of my skin caused searing pain. I was surprised to see that my leg was indeed intact—and that it was steaming. I smelled burning flesh.

“Don’t move!” I heard voices up the trail. It was two hikers, a man and a woman. “You’ve been struck by lightning!”

So that’s what happened, I remember thinking, eerily detached. I wonder if I’m going to make it. If I lose two limbs, I could live.

Later, I found out that lightning struck the aluminum frame of my backpack and entered my body through my left shoulder. It exited through my left big toe, missing my heart by inches and burning 30 percent of my body. The blood came from facial wounds, an injured eardrum, and my jawbone, which had cracked when my head hit the ground.

The hikers called 911. They asked me questions and, after a while, details started floating back. The time of year. My itinerary that morning. My name.

While we waited for rescuers, I asked the hikers to turn me into a more comfortable position. Afraid that I was somehow still sizzling with electricity (which is impossible), they wouldn’t touch me. I begged them for help, but they refused.

Aside from feeling helpless, I don’t recall much emotion going through my head. The pain was so bad, I figured I’d be a goner before help arrived. I thought of my family and felt vaguely sad that my mother would learn about my death so close to her birthday. But mostly I felt calm. I wanted to live, but accepted that I might not.

After 45 minutes, the first ranger arrived, followed by the two climbing rangers from before. I could see on their faces that my situation was grim.

But as they asked questions—name, age, date of birth—I began to relax. At least I’d get off the mountain. The rangers cut off my clothes and lifted me onto a stretcher, careful to avoid damaging the burned tissue.

I was airlifted to the emergency room, where doctors discovered that a good chunk of my left deltoid (where the lightning entered my body) was blackened, dead tissue. They removed 50 percent of it. That was the first of six surgeries and 25 days in the hospital. But a few months later I was back on the rock.

It’s rare to get struck by lightning, but it’s even rarer to survive and make a full recovery. I paid for my luck with pain, but that’s the price of getting a second chance at life. 

—as told to Corey Buhay

Skill School: Weather the Storm

Avoid getting struck by lightning with this advice from Kathy Kupper,
spokesperson for the National Park Service and a former ranger.

Seek shelter. As soon as you notice lightning or thunder, evacuate exposed areas. Head downhill and to a car or building if possible.“If you’re camping, get out of the tent,” Kupper says. The best option for shelter is a stand of shorter trees at low elevation. Try to avoid contact with anything that conducts electricity, like water or metal.

Single yourself out. When traveling in a group, stay 50 feet apart. If lightning strikes, the chance of multiple injuries or casualties will be minimized.

Act fast. If someone is struck by lightning, contact help. Make sure the scene is safe, then assess the person and treat wounds to the extent that you are capable. Lightning strikes often result in cardiac arrest—administer CPR if you’re able to. You will not be harmed by touching someone who has been struck.