American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Lightning, Bad Weather, Oregon, Mt. Jefferson

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1980

LIGHTNING, BAD WEATHER

Oregon, Mt. Jefferson

On September 1, a party of seven moderately experienced climbers departed Pamelia Lake (3,884 feet) at 6 a.m. in clear weather to climb Mt. Jefferson (10,497 feet) via the Southwest Ridge. About 8 a.m., one member of the party sprained his ankle and returned, alone, to camp. It was about this time that the party first noticed high, thin clouds.

By 9 a.m., the party noted increasing clouds to the west, but concluded, due to light winds, that they were not threatening and decided to continue the climb. At noon, the party was climbing on an eastern exposure of the ridge at about 9,000 feet and was unable to see approaching weather. As the party reached Red Saddle (10,000 feet) about 1 p.m., clouds began to engulf the top thousand feet of the mountain. One of the party decided to remain at Red Saddle while the remaining five chose to make a summit attempt, hoping the poor visibility would break. They left Red Saddle at 1:45 p.m.

Climbing the west face of the summit block unroped as a group of three and a group of two, the three reached the summit first and descended about 30 feet to a sheltered spot to await the second group. By 2:15 p.m. the wind had increased, and it had begun to rain. Shortly after the final two reached the top, the first of a series of lightning bolts struck the summit. Robert Jack (22) was sitting while his companion, who was standing, was thrown into nearby rocks and received facial lacerations. Jack, although dazed, was conscious and asked, “What happened?” Just as his companion began to reply, a second bolt struck the summit. During this second strike, one of the group of three—waiting in the sheltered alcove about 30 feet away—received an eight-inch spark from the rock to his right arm.

Jack’s companion, finding him not breathing and without a pulse after the second strike, yelled for help from the others. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was administered on the summit with no positive results. While CPR was being performed, a third lightning bolt struck the summit area, and the party decided to move Jack’s body to the alcove before continuing CPR. After 20 minutes, without any signs of improvement, the party presumed him dead, left his body in the alcove, and descended the mountain. They reached Red Saddle at 2:45 p.m., Pamelia lake at 6 p.m., and reported the accident at 8 p.m. (Source: Bob Freund, Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit)

Analysis

Determination to get to the top in spite of the poor weather discovered at Red Saddle was a significant factor contributing to the fatality of one climber and could have cost the lives of four others. Although the early signs of high, thin clouds did not indicate electrical activity, this accident again demonstrates how quickly mountain weather can change. Climbing on the leeward side of the ridge effectively shielded the rapidly approaching frontal system from view. (Source: Bob Freund, Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit)

(Ed. Note: This is the first report of a lightning fatality on a mountain in a long while. Lightning statistics for the entire U. S. are available from the Center for Short Lived Phenomena in Washington, DC.)

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