Lightning Strike Kills Backpacker Near Muir Trail Ranch

On Friday July 30th, a backpacker was fatally struck by lightning as he and his group approached Muir Trail Ranch.  The hikers had been hiking on the John Muir Trail (JMT) and were on the Sallie Keys Cutoff Trail at roughly 8,000ft when a thunderstorm rolled in.  The 37-year-old man, identified as Nicholas Torchia of Fresno, was briefly seeking shelter under a tree to put on his rain poncho when the lightning struck.

Torchia was initially lucid, and was able to answer questions from his hiking companions before falling unconscious.  Despite the efforts of the more than 10 nearby people who responded, he passed away.  They included a doctor and nurse who performed CPR for over three hours while waiting for Search and Rescue to arrive.

The lightning strike occurred in the early afternoon at 1:25pm.  An emergency call was made at 2:20pm, but the raging storm prevented rescue operations for hours.  Fresno Search and Rescue was preparing to approach on foot when a break in the storm allowed for a helicopter retrieval of Torchia’s body at around 6pm.  The helicopter landed at Blayney Meadows near Muir Trail Ranch where hikers had transported his body.  Torchia was brought to the Fresno County Coroner’s Office where doctors ruled that his death was caused by electrocution by lightning, as reported by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

Without Warning

Witnesses said that the thunderstorm started suddenly and that the bolt that killed Torchia may have been the first strike.  While thunderstorms and lightning are common during the summer months in the Sierra Nevada, lightning deaths are rare.  NOAA’s storm events database indicates that there have only been 14 reported lightning fatalities in California since 1950.

Puzzlingly, the circumstances of this strike were not particularly conducive to lightning activity.  Typically, lightning strikes high points such as mountain summits or ridges.  However, this bolt nearly reached the valley floor, thousands of feet lower than the 12,000ft peaks nearby.  Also, the involved hikers were below treeline where the uniformity of the forest further reduced the chance of getting struck by lightning.  Sadly, as unlikely as this occurrence seems, Torchia seems to have just been in the wrong place and the wrong time.

Muir Trail Ranch is a popular resupply point along the JMT.  It is situated just a few trail miles from Florence Lake, a popular access point for backpackers seeking to visit the Evolution region of the High Sierra.

Lightning Safety

Generally, if you find yourself caught up high during a lightning storm in the backcountry, find lower ground immediately.  If you are exposed and above treeline, get down as fast as possible even if it means getting off the trail.  Aim for trees of a uniform height and avoid standing near the tallest thing around.  If you are the tallest thing around, find a ditch or gully.  Keep your feet close together and crouch.  Distance yourself 50-100ft from other people or conductive materials.

For more information about lightning safety, refer to these detailed and varied sources:

American Hiking Society: Lightning Safety
National Lightning Safety Institute: Lightning Safety for Campers and Hikers
REI: How to Stay Safe from Lightning in the Backcountry
NOLS: Backcountry Lightning Risk Management

For more information regarding the even that took Nicholas Torchia’s life, read HERE.

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