Pamola’s Wrath: Hiker Safety During Summer Storms

Summertime along the Appalachian Trail means frequent thunderstorms, an occasion to experience terrifying beauty, but especially, to engage in safe practices. Every year, according to the National Weather Service, tens of millions of lightning strikes occur in the United States and hundreds of people are struck, often fatally. If you die while hiking the Appalachian Trail, it’s probably from hypothermia (too cold). If the cold doesn’t get you, heat will. Falls are a leading cause of injury and fatality too. Fatal heart attacks are not uncommon in at-risk populations, namely old farts, which I am quickly becoming! Fatality or injury from lightning strike is not as common as injury or fatality from hypothermia or falls, but thunderstorms do bring high winds and ripping rain and these can cause tree falls, which have been known to crush sleeping tenters to death. Summer storms are serious business, and if the aspiring long distance hiker is not aware of the hazards of such storms, he or she soon will be when summer comes on.

While I am not experienced on the western trails, I assume thunder storms and lightning strikes pose a threat to hikers out there. If you haven’t heard, the Appalachian Mountains experience a high amount of precipitation each year. Much of this arrives as snow, but there is no “dry season” in the east. If it stops raining for a few weeks, it’s called a drought. Hot and humid is the summer norm, and even as it is cooler in upper New England, it is still humid and a little summer heating can fire up storms. While rain alone is something the Appalachian Trail hiker will always contend with, and it is necessary and even desirable to push through even heavy rain, there is no badge of courage for stupidity. The sane and proper thing to do when the thunder booms is to take shelter immediately.

Oftentimes the skies explode with no shelter nearby. I have been caught several times on mountain tops when a storm erupted. Once, in Virginia, I got caught on top of a mountain in the open, no trees around for several hundred yards. It had been a hot day. I was in shorts. When I started up the mountain the skies had been blue. At the top, clouds formed rapidly out of seeming nothingness over the mountaintop. I literally walked inside a cloud– this is quite common on the AT. Then the thunder exploded. It felt as if a bomb went off. My body shook when the thunder boomed. The Mountain seemed to shake. The darkness of the stormy skies flipped momentarily to bright white light as the clouds unleashed lightning. It became suddenly winter cold on that mountain top. I was a little overwhelmed by how quickly the skies changed.

So I found all six feet five inches of myself the tallest thing on the mountaintop, holding titanium metal poles in my hands! Stinging hail and heavy rain fell on me. Utterly frightened, my hands shivering from fear as much as cold, all I could do was haul ass to the tree line. I ran, with a full backpack after a big climb, two football fields to get out of the open. I dropped my pack as soon as the trail started going down in elevation. I put on rain gear– to warm up, not to get dry. The thunder sounded like the mountain was being bombed by the Luftwaffe. I stood in the muddy trail and listened to the booming of doom. There is nothing that fills the mortal soul with more confusion, trepidation and fear than being stuck on a mountain when the skies drop hell on the earth like that. There are also few things more beautiful and miraculous.

Lightning is scary and dangerous when you are exposed. When you are under the forest canopy and you hear numerous trees start falling around you in the woods, that is also terrifying. Once in Pennsylvania, I waited out a pop up storm under a tree, perhaps a thousand feet of elevation below the top of a ridge. The tree was like an umbrella and I stayed dry for ten or fifteen minutes as buckets of rain fell. I remember laughing, as if I had out smarted nature. Then the leaves of the tree became saturated and dumped a sheet of cold water on me. I was soaked. Then three trees fell nearby. I wasn’t laughing anymore. An hour later it was sunny and pleasant at the top of the ridge and I dried out in the sun and ate a snack.

I have waited out afternoon storms in trail shelters, in park toilets, large culverts and even a porta-potty. I would recommend only getting caught in a thunderstorm within sprinting distance of a deli, which is a real possibility in the overdeveloped mid Atlantic states. One of my favorite occasions on the AT is when a small crowd of hiker trash forms in a deli or gas station, arriving in increasingly soggier and freaked out waves. It is best when your stomach led you off the trail before the storm and you get to watch the chaos erupt and the soggy hikers stagger in, and you sit there eating your turkey and cheese and laugh and smear bits of mayonnaise into your gamey beard. As soon as the sky clears, you hike out and meet all those soggy people hours later at a shelter trying to dry out their gear. But most of the time you’re the soggy fool.

Remember kids, Pamola makes the lightning up there in Maine, on top of his mountain, Katahdin. He’s been forging countless spears of electricity for millions and millions of years. He can strike down the mightiest old trees like flicking a booger. Remember that you are less than a booger in this context. Observe best practices. Virtually every book on hiking, backpacking or camping offers sage advice on the subject of maximizing safety during lightning storms. Park websites usually offer safety tips. Most experienced hikers are willing to share their knowledge and experience. After absorbing this information, the aspiring long distance hiker might plan an overnight “shake down” or practice hike when manageable bad weather is in the forecast. The ability to make sound decisions while cold, soaking wet and a little scared is one worth honing for the purposes of a long long trek in the eastern mountains.

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