Submitted March 31, 2011

Nightmare at 14,000 feet

My story is from my college days. One of my geology professors got me involved in mountain climbing. Since he and I climb at roughly the same pace, we made perfect companions on the trail. On one trip, we hooked up with the Colorado Mountain Club to climb Mount Massive, the second highest mountain in Colorado and fourth highest in the Lower 48 states.

The day started out great. It was a beautiful sunny day. The CMC folks decided they wanted to take an "alternate" route up the mountain rather than the established trail. The alternate route was straight up the west (steep) side. CMC is synonimous with mountain goat. Most of these folks scurried up the mountain like most people climb a set of stairs at the mall. Carl and I were a bit slower; quite a bit slower.

We made it to the summit around noon, feeling like I was a 70 year old with emphysema. For those who have experienced the joys of the air (or lack thereof) above 14,000 feet, you know what I'm talking about. We sat down and ate lunch admiring the spectacular view along with a half dozen other climbers. By 1:00 we decided it was past time to vacate the top of the mountain. Those familiar with the Rockies know that between 1:00 and 2:00 every afternoon, thunderstorms roll across the mountains. Being 3,000 plus feet above timberline, people are the tallest standing thing and make great lightning rods. Every year several people are killed by lightning in the high country. Just the day before, a climber was killed on Mt. Elbert, the next mountain over, so you can imagine our anxiety.

We could see the thunderheads building to the west, ready to seek out their hapless prey. It was time to get the heck off the top of the mountain and fast. One climber opted to boot ski down the snow covered east cirque. I didn't think it was a great idea but he quickly made it to the bottom some 2,500 feet below in mere seconds. Seemed like a good idea right? Wrong! While my climbing partner Carl opted for the trail, I prepared for my snowy descent. I took three seps into the snow and whoosh, I slipped on the ice layer under the snow and slid under the snow. Now completely soaked with melt water, I could only crawl on my hands and knees to the dry rock above.

By the time I made it out, I was out of options. The thunderstorms were approaching fast and all I could do was try and make myself flat against the mountain. Realizing almost too late that being the good geologist that I was, I had a rock hammer, camera, and who knows what other metal objects in my backpack. Hmmmm sounds like good lightning rod material to me! I quickly took off my pack and threw it as far away as I could. I then laid down on my back and tried to sink into the mountain as far as I could.

I could hear the lightning striking the back of the mountain. The frequent loud report of the thunder marching ever closer. It started to rain, the rain turning to sleet. Normally this would not be a real big deal except my nice warm rain jacket was cleverly tucked away in the backpack I just threw some 30 feet away. Already cold from being soaked with ice water, the high winds and sleet were added insult. Hypothermia was rapidly setting in but I dared not move. Just then the lightning arrived. Bolt after bolt was striking the mountain around me with instantaneous explosions of thunder. I couldn't tell if I was shaking from fear or the hypothermia setting in. My hands actually looked blue!

The storm moved across and the bolts of lightning were striking far below me now. I waited until I was certain the storm was truly past. I looked over and saw what really got me. There about a half-mile down the trail, I could see my climbing partner, snug and warm beneath a rock overhang he had found to wait out the storm. I gathered my pack and headed down the trail to catch up to him. We had a few laughs about it and I realized that with age does come great wisdom!

- Don Whitley

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