American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Lightning, Poor Position, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992

LIGHTNING, POOR POSITION

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak

On August 24, 1991, at 1500, Tim Finnegan was struck by lightning while climbing the Teeter Tooter Pillar on Longs Peak. The lightning bolt struck above them, traveled down the crack system they were climbing, entered Finnegan’s upper back and exited through his right foot. He sustained two burns the size of a silver dollar but did not lose consciousness. Partner Mike Gruber experienced some ground effect from the lightning strike but did not sustain injury. Finnegan and Gruber decided to avoid the Longs Peak summit by exiting the peak via the top of the North Couloir and down Keplinger’s Couloir into Wild Basin.

At 2303, Finnegan and Gruber telephoned park dispatch from the Wild Basin Lodge outside of park boundaries. They requested a ride from park rangers back to their vehicle at Longs Peak parking lot. They were recontacted by a park ranger who realized that Finnegan should seek medical attention and receive a ride in an ambulance due to the unpredictable behaviorisms of lightning injuries. The ranger offered Finnegan and Gruber his services as an emergency medical technician, and an ambulance, both of which were refused. Finnegan was later admitted and kept overnight at Estes Park Medical Center, where he was treated for superficial burns.

Analysis

Summer lightning storms are quite common and violent in the Rockies. The best strategy for surviving lightning storms is to avoid them through careful planning. This entails planning to leave for the climb at an unattractively early hour (predawn), and picking a route where it is possible for the climber to summit and be descending before the storms hit. Lightning storms are regular events; if one occurred at 1500 today, there will probably be one at 1500 tomorrow. There may be tips on what to do if caught in a lightning storm. Prevention is the best cure. According to the United States Weather Bureau, there are over 40 days with one or more thunderstorms in June, July, and August in the Central Rockies. At Rocky Mountain National Park in 1991, there were two other lightning incidents in addition to the Finnegan incident. A female climber on the Book at Lumpy Ridge received minor burns, and a female tourist on Trail Ridge Road was severely injured, requiring CPR and advanced life support. (Source: Jim Detterline, Ranger, RMNP)

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