Zeus’s Target – One Climber’s Shocking Story of Lightning Strikes

Everyone was soon thoroughly engaged in the climbing—everyone, that is, except me. Earlier I’d heard distant thunder, and I watched the intensifying clouds uneasily.

By Phil Broscovak | August 9th, 2017

Illustration by the author.


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 241 (April 2017).


On August 13, 2005, my wife, two of our three kids, my nephew, his girlfriend, my faithful crag dog Goldie and I scrambled up to the base of Walt’s Wall in Vedauwoo, Wyoming, for a fun-in-the-sun family climbing day. Leading the two short pitches of Edward’s Crack (5.7) in one long continuous pitch, I built a gear anchor, tied my double ropes together, set up a 60-meter toprope, and rapped.

Everyone was soon thoroughly engaged in the climbing and having a great time—everyone, that is, except me. Earlier I’d heard distant thunder, and I watched the intensifying clouds uneasily.

Time to go! The first cold drops of rain splattered the wall as I started back up the route to retrieve the gear, reaching the anchor just as the storm blew up directly overhead. Pulling the pro and trailing the double ropes, I scrambled up and over rightward to a bolted rap station, knotted the ropes through the rap rings, clipped in and began pulling the rest of the ropes over to throw below. They were stuck.

The storm ever worsening, I unclipped and hurried back across the wet steep slab, finding my ropes entangled in scrub brush. Frantic, I ripped the bush out by the roots, bundled the wad in my arms, and stumbled back over to the anchor. I threw the tangle down, fed the ropes through my belay device again, and started rapping. Fifteen feet down, I saw my ropes still tangled with the shrubbery on an incut ledge filling with water. I reached them, clipped my daisy chain into a nearby bolt, and ducked to clear the mess. With a simultaneous blinding flash and deafening crash, a blast blew me off the ledge.

At first I couldn’t move. All was pain, as if I’d just been stung by 10,000 wasps from the inside out. Consciousness returned in an odd out-of-focus jumble. I was hanging by my daisy, and the rope had somehow unfurled perfectly to the ground. Had I not clipped my daisy in before reaching down to clear the rope, I would have hit the deck.

On the rock at head height was a black scorch mark, from the lightning strike. Had I not also dropped to clear the rope exactly when I did, I would probably have been drilled through the ears.

 

Compared to the general population, climbers are at increased risk of lightning strikes due to a lifestyle that puts us on walls, peaks and ridges in proximity to storms. Direct strikes from the sky are rare and almost always fatal: Most victims die instantaneously. Ground currents are the most common danger and may be deadly. Splash-over (crossover) or side flashes, also considered lightning strikes, are the next most common cause of fatalities, and in survivors can cause lifelong injuries and symptoms.

Unfortunately, over several decades in the mountains, I have had an abnormal amount of lightning encounters even among climbers. All told, I’ve experienced dozens of strikes within 100 meters of me, been blown off my feet at least six times, suffered a dozen ground shocks from mild to severe, and been blasted twice with splash-over strikes. During storm season I can’t help feeling like Zeus’s target. I fear the sky.

In 1978 I bivied in the cirque below the North Face of Pyramid Peak near Aspen, Colorado, setting up on a tombstone-like slab with only a lightweight rainfly over me. The storm that evening unleashed a hellish fusillade of lightning bolts close enough to pepper my rainfly with rock shrapnel and blind me even through tightly clenched eyes.

In 1987 Jim Nigro and I were on Mount Sacagawea in the Wind River Range of Wyoming when the entire summit began to hum, buzz and crackle, and the rock stung to touch. Feeling shocks racing up and down my spine and fearing contact with my metal rack (metal does not attract lightning but conducts it), I repeatedly heaved my pack ahead of me as we fled full tilt down the mountain. That night as we camped in Titcomb Basin, jarring spasms shot from my tailbone to the nape of my neck, causing me to twitch uncontrollably.

In 1991, Joe Callahan and I were six days up, way beyond the point of retreat on the Hallucinogen Wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, when a violent storm terrorized us beginning before dawn. In under two minutes we were wide awake, out of our portaledges, into our aiders and holding knives in hands wondering how much metal we could cut loose and still make the rim. Later that day, with no option but to climb out, Joe was leading the last delicate aid pitch when the wind grabbed both the haulbag and me. Pelted by hail and suspended in space at the end of a six-foot tie-off, I was battered against the bag as I struggled to belay. Through the howling I could hear a static charge building up behind my head to a deafening buzz. Surrounded by electrical potential, I was sure I was a dead man. Then the crackling static and the wind stopped, the haulbag and I crashed together back into the wall—and a massive bolt of lightning, close enough to feel its heat, blasted into the Gunnison River 1,500 feet below.

 

The day after the Vedauwoo strike, I couldn’t stand up straight and hurt from head to toe. Every hair follicle felt as if it was on fire, and walking made me wince. I had difficulty seeing and hearing on my left side and was only marginally coherent. But since I was up and breathing and we were on vacation, we didn’t bother with a doctor or hospital visit.

What I did not know then was that being struck was only the beginning. Lightning can cause brain injury and seriously damage the nervous system. Survivors often face a terrible solo journey—a struggle, sometimes lifelong, to return to normalcy. At first, and for many years after that critical strike, I would inadvertently slip into a black hole I call a lightning fugue. These episodes would come on often, like bouts of malaria, varying in intensity and duration (sometimes lasting days, even up to two weeks in the early years), and leave me a shaking husk. Recovery from these fugues felt like rebuilding a tumbled Jenga tower, balanced in midair, from the top down. At different times I experienced insomnia, generalized pain, hypersensitivity to sound, difficulty forming or writing words, and an inability to regulate my body temperature. I still have tinnitus and can panic at the grocery store from hearing the faux thunder and lightning as produce is watered.

Fortunately, in the last five years, the symptoms have eased, and I have learned to recognize the signs of a fugue rising and redirect myself. I find my strongest and healthiest connections through helping others. In that spirit I do ongoing lightning-safety outreach programs for students through the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather service, and recently spoke at a presentation of the Lightning Data Center, St. Anthony’s Hospital, Lakewood, Colorado. Lightning awareness and safety are critical to climbers and other outdoorspeople, and the more messaging about it, the better. This link contains excellent, crucial safety information: www.nws.noaa. gov.

 

Phil Broscovak, a longtime resident of Boulder, Colorado, is an electrician.

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