If you’re out climbing on the rocks or in the mountains and a thunderstorm sweeps in, you're in a dangerous situation to be struck by lightning since you're probably in an open exposed place like a ridge, cliff-top, or mountain summit. Follow these 10 tips for climbers to minimize your risk and stay safe from lightning when you're caught in the storm.
- Quickly descend to a lower elevation.
Descend and find a less exposed place. It’s best if you’re away from the direction of the approaching thunderstorm that is accompanied by lightning.
- Don’t be the tallest object around.
To avoid lightning, don’t stand in open areas like meadows or mountain tops. Instead take shelter in a thick forest and avoid taking cover beneath isolated trees or a tree that is taller than nearby trees. If there are no trees around, hunker down in a depression and squat. Don’t lay down on the ground.
- Keep away from objects that conduct electricity.
These include water, metal objects like climbing equipment, metal fences, and power lines. Take off any climbing pack with an internal or external metal frame and hang all metal climbing gear well away from you.
- Wet ropes can carry current.
A wet climbing rope also makes a perfect electrical conductor for lightning to strike you. In a bad storm, consider untying any wet rope from you. If lightning strikes above, the current can pass down the rope and zap you.
- Squat or kneel down.
It’s best if you use a sleeping pad, empty pack, climbing rope, or anything else that will insulate you from the ground. Put your feet close together so you will have less contact with the ground and reduce danger from ground currents. Do not lie flat on the ground because strike currents can easily travel through your vital organs.
- Spread your group out.
Spread your group out (a minimum of 15 feet) so that if there is a lightning strike there will be team members available to give first aid assistance.
- Don’t hide in small caves or under overhangs.
Sitting under an overhang or in a small cave is asking for trouble since lightning will jump the gap from top to bottom by passing through you. I had a friend killed by lightning on Pikes Peak when he sat under a boulder overhang above timberline to wait out a storm.
- Move to either side of cracks.
If you’re climbing and a lightning storm arrives, move away from vertical crack systems whenever possible. Lightning currents travel down cracks.
- Avoid rappelling in lightning storms.
Rappelling in lightning storms should be avoided if at all possible. Currents from a cliff-top strike can travel down your wet rope, zapping you. Sometimes, however, rappelling might be the fastest way to reach safety so you might need to take a calculated risk by rappelling…and keeping your fingers crossed!
- Don’t lie down on ledges
If you’re on a cliff in a lightning storm, don’t lie down on a ledge or sit with your back against the vertical wall since current can pass through you. Instead try to sit or crouch, preferably on insulation like a rope, on the outside edge of the ledge. Also tie in crosswise so you don’t fall off if struck and keep the rope from under your armpits.