We got up at 6:30 am, and finished prepping for our trip: filling our Camel Backs and eating a light breakfast of cereal. We commented on how neither of us had slept well. In addition to the fact that we both were really excited about attempting to climb our first fourteener of the trip, a large cold front moved into the area around 3:00 am, bringing lots of rain with it.
We left the house just after 7:00 in the Tahoe, and headed towards American Basin and Handies. As we came into view of Lake San Cristobal, we saw a sight that neither of us were prepared for: snow atop all of the mountains in the distance. I was concerned that the snow might prevent us from even reaching the trailhead, let alone summiting.
We drove on, shocked at how much snow had fallen, and arrived at the trailhead around 9:00. There wasn’t any snow in the basin itself, but all of the mountains surrounding the basin were totally covered. Shortly after we geared up for our hike, another vehicle arrived. We spoke with the driver for a few minutes, and he was also planning on hiking Handies. I joked with him that he would pass us in a few minutes, and he laughed but said he certainly wouldn’t. He said he was from Denver and the extra 5000′ of elevation was hard on him.
We started our hike up at 9:15, and signed into the log book about 10 minutes later. Five minutes later, a thunderstorm–complete with sleet–blew into the basin from the southwest. The storm totally snuck up on us, and we had just about decided to go back down and wait it out in the car when it cleared off. Jim and I discussed giving up for the day so I could go back and get more equipment (gloves, rain pants and my waterproof boots), but we decided to push on.
About 30 minutes later, we came to a fork in the trail. Unfortunately, neither of us had remembered to bring a map, so we were at a loss as to which way to go. Jim decided to go on up and scout ahead, and I said I’d wait for “Denver” to catch up with us, as he appeared to know what was going on. After “Denver” caught up with us, we decided to all hike together. We introduced ourselves, and “Denver” became Joe. We learned that Joe was an experienced 14er, and we were glad for the company. (At the time, he had summited 28 fourteeners, with plans to do seven more during the week).
The next two hours were largely uneventful, except that Jim and Joe were able to keep better pace than myself. I’m not the most physically fit person on earth to begin with, but being 10-14,000′ higher than my normal stomping grounds was hard on me. Plus the fact that my shoes were totally waterlogged and provided little traction on the 2-4″ of snow we were encountering made for a trip where I was roughly 1/2 a rest behind Jim and Joe.
About 200′ (vertical) from the summit, it got very interesting. We heard thunder coming in over the same southwestern portion of the basin. Only this time, instead of being surrounded by cliffs, we were one ridge from the summit. We discussed for a minute or two whether we should turn around and go back or whether we should press on to the summit. I wanted to go back, but said nothing because I really, really wanted to finish up Handies. Jim and Joe clearly also had summit fever and we decided that with 10 minutes of effort we could be at the summit. We would stick around at the summit for a minute or two, rest, and then head back down as quickly as possible.
Jim and Joe started heading up, when we heard another thunderclap, even closer than the last. Joe turned and began to run towards us, indicating that it was time to go. He asked us quickly if we knew what to do for lighting. For those of you who don’t, (I’d be with you), I’ll reiterate what he said:
- If you feel a tingling, static charge feeling, that means that the ground around you is charged for a lightning strike.
- Assume the lightning strike position. The position is crouched on the balls of your feet, your heels together, your hands over your ears and your eyes closed. You want to form a ball balancing on your feet.
- Direct strikes are generally fatal.
- Lightning travels along the ground. An indirect strike can cause your heart to stop, but usually (70%) you can be revived with CPR.
- When caught in a thunderstorm, members of the party should keep at least 100′ between each other. The reason is that if one person is struck, the other members of the party can revive them.
I fell several times, and my hands began to get tingly. Remembering his warning, I yelled an expletive and tucked into the crouch position. I threw the metal walking stick I was using as far as I could away from me (horizontally, so I could recover it later). From behind me I heard Jim yell “Oh my God!! Are you serious?” I yelled back that I was and waited for the worst.
It never came. Thirty seconds later I realized that the tingling I was feeling in my hands was the result of their being wet and cold–from falling in the snow–not static buildup. I ran over and grabbed my walking stick and again began running down the mountain. The storm intensified, sending sleet nearly horizontally at our faces, and dark, frightening clouds up the basin towards us. I can safely say that I’ve never run for my life before… This was a first for me.
Twenty-nine minutes after we had began our descent we all caught up with one another. We had managed to drop 1000′ (vertical) in less than half an hour–the ascent up the same distance had taken us nearly three hours. By this time, the storm had almost entirely abated.
Although we weren’t technically out of the woods, we all felt much safer as there were now many more advantageous lightning targets than ourselves. We had a reasonably comfortable walk the rest of the way down the trail, back to the register and to the car.
Back at the car, we met up with some other folks who had been chased off of Redcloud due to the first thunderstorm (that had nearly sent Jim and I back home). We spoke with them for a few minutes and traded numbers with Joe, offering to buy him a meal if he called us when he came to Lake City in the next week.
I learned a few important things on this trip:
- Thunderstorms while hiking at altitude are not something to mess around with.
- The best path down might not be the path taken up, especially in cases of emergency.
- Having a map with you is key at all times.
- There are more important things than summitting. (Like living to summit another day).
Although we didn’t make it to the summit, I felt we made the right decision in turning around. My only regret is that we didn’t turn around and start back sooner.