Thunderstorms in the Mountains: Safety Rules
Thunderstorms are dangerous for hikers for many reasons. Apart from getting struck by lightning, you could die of hypothermia or slip on wet rock.
Do you know how to recognize an approaching thunderstorm? What to do if you get caught by a thunderstorm in alpine terrain? How to help a victim struck by lightning?
Better Safe Than Sorry
This one is obvious, but it needs to be spelled out: in the name of God, check the weather forecast on the evening before the hike. Double-check it on the morning of the hike. Weather forecasts change quickly. Nowadays, you can check weather conditions for specific regions or peaks.
Thunderstorms tend to occur in the afternoon after a stuffy day, so it’s good practice to leave for a one-day hike at dawn. Going on long and exposed trails is safer if weather forecasts are good for the whole day.
If it’s cloudy, you could check storm maps on the go. Also, pay attention to early warning signs: a strong wind and dark, tall clouds. If you hear a distant thunderbolt, turn back immediately.
If the Storm Catches You High Up...
There are a few rules that will make you safer:
- Protect yourself from the cold
- Don’t touch metal objects or streams of water
- If in a group, spread out
- Sit on your backpack and put your feet together
- Don’t sit under overhanging rocks
- Protect your phone from the rain
If you are still in alpine terrain when the storm catches up with you, stop descending. Put on an extra layer of waterproof clothes. The storm and altitude can lead to hypothermia, especially if the storm is accompanied by hail or snow.
If you are in a group, spread out. This way, lightning won’t strike you all at once.
Next, squat in a safe place. Don’t touch anything that conducts electricity; keep away from metal aids for hikers (chains, ladders, metal rungs) and streams of water. Concave rock formations will gather rainwater, which can convert into streams. Don’t squat in such places if you can avoid it. Similarly, don’t hide under overhanging rocks. If struck by lightning, they could crush your head.
Once you've found a safe place, sit down on your backpack with your feet together.
It’s a myth that phones attract lightning. However, it can be damaged by a close thunder or water. For that reason, it’s best to switch off your phone and put it away somewhere safe.
If You Are in a Valley
The lower you are, the safer you can feel. But lightning also strikes in valleys. Remember that:
- Being in a forest with trees spread out evenly is fine
- Hiding under an isolated tree is NOT safe
- Mountain shelters with lightning conductors are your best option
Lightning can split trees in half, so you can imagine that hiding under an isolated tree is a bad idea. However, you can use it as a lightning conductor; stand at a safe distance from it and wait for the storm to end. Mountain huts without any lightning conductors are also unsafe.
What to Do if Someone Is Struck by Lightning
There is a misconception that touching a person struck by lightning will give you an electric shock. But this is NOT true and could cost someone’s life.
If someone gets struck by lightning, check if the injured person is in a safe place and if you can safely reach them. Killing yourself on the way won’t help the victim.
If you can reach the injured person safely, do it. Move them if they’re in danger of falling down or being hit by loose rocks. Assess their condition. Are they:
- Unconscious but breathing
- Unconscious and not breathing
Next, call for help or delegate someone else to do it while you take care of the injured person. The search and rescue team will ask about the condition of the victim, and especially if they’re breathing or not.
As you’re not a health professional, the help you can give to the injured person is limited. The single most important thing is making sure the person is breathing. You can also keep them warm, dress wounds, and offer psychological support.
If the person is conscious your job is easy: put extra clothes on the person to keep them warm (use a space blanket if you have one) and make sure they don’t faint.
If the person is unconscious, check if they’re breathing by putting your ear close to the mouth and checking if the chest is moving.
If the person isn’t breathing, you have to perform CPR as quickly as possible.
- Open their mouth to see if there’s anything obstructing passage of air
- Unzip the person’s clothing
- Put your hands in the middle of the chest
- Push the chest 30 times
- Blow air 2 times into the person’s mouth, closing at the same time the nose
- Repeat the last two steps until the victim starts breathing or help arrives
Note that performing CPR is a hard, physical job. If you don’t believe me, try doing 5 rounds of CPR on a doll. That’s why if there are more people with you, ask them for help.
How to Perform CPR
Learning these basic rules should keep you safer on the trail. Perhaps the single most dangerous thing for hikers is summit fever – the obsession to reach the summit no matter the cost. Learning to plan responsibly and turn back in unfavourable conditions is a precious skill that can save your life.
As Ed Viesturs said “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”