Lightning strikes kill two in Rocky Mountain NP

View from Rainbow Curve

RAINBOW CURVE — I drove up Trail Ridge Road to my favorite overlook at Rainbow Curve, about a quarter mile past the sign that says “You are now 2 miles above sea level.” Below is the highway I’ve just come up. The golden area is as much the result of a spot of sunlight as the presence of yellow aspen trees. Just to the left of the highway is an area of marshy beaver ponds. The large flat tan area beyond is the meadow or “park” where elk gather this time of year.Tourists come by the hundreds at dusk and park along the road to watch them feed and rut and listen to their bugling. The town of Estes Park lies on down the valley on the other side of that lumpy mountain just right of center. (Click photo twice to fully enlarge. You’ll be able to see cars down on the highway.)

This is a photo I took at the Rainbow Curve overlook on Trail Ridge Road and posted back in September 2011, with the caption I used then. It’s my favorite destination when I decide to take a little joy ride up Trail Ridge.

I remember one summer vacation in particular when I was staying in Estes Park, down at the end of the valley, and it was really hot. I could see cool clouds and rain up on the peaks but it wasn’t getting into town, so I hopped in the car and drove up here real quick (20 minutes?) just so I could sit in the clouds and rain for a while.

In the future I may have second thoughts about doing that. Lightning struck and killed a man at this overlook Saturday afternoon and injured 12 others. And tragically, just a day before, a mile or two from this spot, another person was struck and killed by lightning. She was hiking the Ute Crossing Trail. Seven other people were injured by that strike. All the injured were treated at Estes Park Medical Center, and two of those injured Friday are still hospitalized.

Denver’s Channel 9 news did a very informative report about the accidents and the hazards of high country lightning.

 



Categories: Rocky Mtn Natl Park

12 replies

  1. From Yahoo Answers, this:

    When it comes to severe weather, flooding is the number one killer, followed by lightning, then tornadoes. Tornadoes can and do injure and kill a lot of people. Lightning, however, catches people off guard because there really aren’t any warning signs that a lightning bolt will strike. This leaves people outside very vulnerable.

    • And in both of these cases, the individuals were at or above treeline, meaning a lot fewer high points around them to attract the lightning. But probably they were tourists, perhaps not as familiar with the dangers. Rain and thunder would have been a warning, but as I understand it, on Saturday, there was no warning. On Friday the hikers were aware of the impending danger and were hurrying back to their cars.

      • Right. For what it’s worth, this is from a NOAA website on the subject:

        Safety Precautions
        While nothing offers absolute safety from lightning, some actions can greatly reduce your risks. If a storm is approaching, avoid being in, or near, high places, open fields, isolated trees, unprotected gazebos, rain or picnic shelters, baseball dugouts, communications towers, flagpoles, light poles, bleachers (metal or wood), metal fences, convertibles, golf carts and water. If you can see lightning or hear thunder, the risk is already present. Louder or more frequent thunder means lightning activity is approaching, increasing the risk for lightning injury or death. If the time delay between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder is less than 30 seconds, you are in danger.

        No place is absolutely safe from the lightning threat, however, some places are safer than others. Large enclosed structures are safer than smaller, or open, structures. Avoiding lightning injury inside a building depends on whether the structure incorporates lightning protection and its size. When inside during a thunderstorm, avoid using the telephone, taking a shower, washing your hands, doing dishes, or having contact with conductive surfaces, including metal doors, window frames, wiring and plumbing. Generally, enclosed metal vehicles, with the windows rolled up, provide good shelter from lightning.

        • In the case of these accidents, the people on the trail were in the open, above tree line. There’s no hiding place if you’re caught there. At the overlook, if they’d had some warning, they could have gotten into their cars. But reports say they were struck with no warning. (The park service should post signs there saying to stay in your car if it’s cloudy.) As for me, at least on that particular day I mentioned, I was sitting in the car because it was raining.

          You know, during storms I always think of those warnings about staying off the phone, out of the shower, etc., but I’ve never heard of anyone being injured that way. I’m afraid I’m a little lax about those indoor precautions, although I suppose if it’s bad out, I’m most likely going to be sitting on the couch watching TV. I might be on the phone, but it’s a cordless phone.

          • I’ve read reports that some people, reporting near misses, experience a feeling of static electricity just before a lightning strike, as in your hair standing up, like that. The advice then goes that one should immediately stoop down to present minimum height consistent with minimal footprint. This may be apocryphal, but it sounds logical to me. Better than nothing.

            • I got that prickly feeling when I was on the summit of Longs Peak years ago. It’s terrifying when you don’t have any real cover. (We just scrambled off the summit as fast as possible.) Crouching, but staying on your feet, is the rule these days. Lowest possible silhouette but minimum contact with the ground. Best, of course, to avoid exposure in the first place. The park is already full of informative signs for visitors who are unfamiliar with the surroundings, but I don’t recall any about lightning. Maybe now they will add some.

  2. Good grief PT, that is just so sad. Mother Nature sure charges a high price to live amongst such beauty!

  3. Hi PT- i was here for both of these. Rangers are shaking their heads trying to figure out the weather this year; as you remember, the typical storms move in from the west, developing as they cross the Divide. These storms have been coming down the front range and then moving west up across the mountains. More electricity with these, too– or maybe i am just paying attention more since these deaths? I was at my cabin when the Ute trail hikers were struck, but missed RC by only minutes… i didnt stop only because the clouds had ruined the light for good pix of Horseshoe so didnt want to be in the crowd for nothing. That said- when I turned 40, i was caught by a surprise pop-up storm in the saddle between Chiquita and Ypsilon… strangers near me saw my long, wet hair standing up– i couldnt feel it and had no idea. we all immediately crouched down in that small silhouette position… me with a camera and tripod… but we were not hit. someone made the decision to run for it right after a bolt struck somewhere, so we did– the only time i ever RAN down a steep mountainside in a desperate race to reach treeline and anything taller than us! on a happier note- this is a banner year for alpine sunflowers- just beautiful- and i have pix of moose, elk, bighorn rams AND the elusive ptarmigan! yep, enjoying these fleeting minutes as much as possible 🙂

    • I know what a threat lightning can be in the mountains, but I was still really shaken by these two deaths. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d been as close to it as you describe. Missing it simply because the light changed!

      I had that “run down the mountain” feeling on Longs, but it’s much too far down from the summit to even try. You can only make haste carefully. But the shelter house looked mighty good when I got there, and the trees looked even better. There is literally “no hidin’ place” above tree line.

      So glad you’re having (or had) a great time in Estes. It’s pretty hard not to.

      I’ve never seen ptarmigan or moose in the wild. You did great!

"Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance." ~ Plato

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