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Lightning—Poor Position, Failure to Turn Back, Inadequate Clothing and Equipment

LIGHTNING-POOR POSITION, FAILURE TO TURN BACK, INADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT

California, Yosemite National Park, Cathedral Peak

On June 25, my brother Andrew Betts (24) and I, Brad Betts (28), along with our friend Richard Meade (26), set out to climb the six-pitch, 5.6 Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak (10,940 feet). None of us had done the climb before, and it would be my first significant multi-pitch climb.

We drove up from the Bay Area the night before and camped west of the park, about 50 miles from the trailhead. We had planned to hike the three miles to the base of the route by 8:00 a.m. and be off the summit by 1:00 p.m., to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. However, we awoke at 4:00 a.m., to find that someone—not a bear—had stolen our food, and dealing with that put us two hours behind schedule.

We checked the weather board at the park entrance, but we were too early for the current forecast and the station was still closed. The old forecast called for thunderstorms yesterday but sunny weather today. That was good enough for us, and there was not a cloud in the sky as we started up the climb at 10:00 a.m.

By the end of the second pitch, small, white, puffy clouds were visible in the eastern sky, and by the end of the third pitch, with three more to go, we could see distant rain. Feeling that we were outrunning the storm and knowing that we could quickly descend the backside of the peak, we made a group decision to press on for the top instead of rappelling off. (Andrew was concerned about the ropes hanging up if we retreated, and he later admitted that he was hesitant to leave behind the gear required for safe rappel anchors.)

We raced up the fourth and fifth pitches, hoping to avoid climbing on wet rock, but rain and hail caught us on the sixth—and final—pitch. While I waited to follow Andrew, the hair on the back of my hand stood on end at least twice. It did not take a genius to know that lightning might be close behind, but we were committed to getting up and off by that point.

The wind and rain made communicating with Andrew very difficult. When the ropes to Richard and me came tight, we started up the pitch together in a rush. As we neared the summit, everything around us started to buzz. That was the most terrifying sound I had ever heard!

Not knowing what else to do, Richard and I took shelter under a small overhang of rock, perhaps 20 feet to one side of Andrew’s belay. We were all a little below the pinnacle forming the true summit. The crackling buzz continued for over five minutes, and the sky all around us was pitch black. None of us spoke. We remained frozen in place, waiting for the buzzing to stop or to be hit by a bolt. We were scared stiff.

The next thing I remember is a loud crack and being violently slammed into the cliff. I could feel current flowing through my right arm. The buzzing had stopped, but now I could hear Richard moaning. Two other climbers, Bojan Silic and Wolfgang Ertel, had crossed the summit just ahead, and one of them was screaming. Richard and I were shaken but otherwise OK. Then I looked over at Andrew. He was hanging limply from his belay on a steep slab, making a barely audible moaning sound. I screamed at him but he did not respond.

The minutes that followed were chaotic and very dangerous. Andrew had not yet tied us off when the lightning struck, but when Richard yelled at me, “Let’s move!” We both scrambled—with no belay—across the wet, 5th class slab to my brother. When I reached him, he was unconscious. His eyes were open but unfocused, he was still moaning, and he smelled of burnt flesh and hair. Richard and I discussed the rigging for 30 seconds or so, and when I turned back to Andrew, his eyes and mouth were closed and he was not making a sound. Worse, he did not seem to be breathing. With my helmet in the way, and the noise from the wind, it was difficult to listen for breathing sounds, but I could not see his chest moving so I started rescue breathing anyway. I was in near disbelief that things could turn so bad so quickly. Perched on that exposed slab, “belayed” only by my unconscious brother, and concentrating on keeping him alive, I could easily have become a second victim. Yet in the rush to help him, this did not occur to me.

The buzzing was gone but the black clouds were still directly overhead. This peak was clearly not the place to be, but to get out we had to move Andrew 30 feet up and around the summit to the descent route. Richard clipped himself to Andrew. Being in a better position near Andrew’s face, he also took over rescue breathing. Moving a completely limp 190 pounder was slow going and not gentle. At one point we literally dragged him headfirst down a 20-foot cliff, with his limbs snagging in the cracks. Thankfully, Bojan had come back to help.

For a couple of minutes we had to stop breathing for Andrew to move him. He looked dead, and I felt for a time that I was merely recovering his body. However, perhaps seven minutes after the strike, just as we got him over the top, he began convulsing and screaming. Less than a minute later, he started to regain consciousness, although he was still very confused. I asked him if he knew where he was; he was not sure, but thought probably in British Columbia, his previous home. His confusion gradually subsided over the next couple of hours. He could move now but could not support himself, and he complained of severe neck pain.

Bojan and Wolfgang set up a rappel down steep slabs. Richard tied Andrew tightly to his harness, and Andrew leaned backwards against him while Richard controlled their rappel. They were still on the ropes when the buzzing returned. Bojan and I, at the top, grabbed the ropes and slid down the pitch bare-handed, all four of us loading the anchor at once, but it was a false alarm— no strike this time—and we made one more rappel to easier ground.

Bojan had brought his HAM radio, and about an hour after the strike he finally reached another HAM in Martinez, 150 miles to the west. His contact called the NPS, then relayed back to us that Rangers would come out to look for us. Wolfgang and Bojan went ahead to meet them while we slowly worked our way down the slabs. We were wet and very cold, and Andrew felt like ice. He was weak, vomiting, in pain, and still disoriented. He leaned on one of us at all times and needed constant encouragement to keep moving. I worried that his symptoms indicated some underlying form of shock. We made very slow progress, taking frequent rests.

Bojan ran into the YOSAR crew and guided them to us around 6:00 p.m., three-and-a-half hours after the strike. Andrew was unable to continue on foot. Because of his neck pain, YOSAR immobilized him in a litter, then they wheeled him out to the road while Richard and I walked. A waiting ambulance took Andrew and me to the hospital at Mammoth Lakes. Richard, Bojan, and Wolfgang had all been stunned momentarily by the bolt, but the dice had come up in their favor; they were released at the trailhead with only a few minor injuries and a story to tell.

At the hospital, Andrew and I were treated for minor burns and dehydration. His spine was OK, but he was groggy and extremely weak for 24 hours. We were released after two days, but two weeks later Andrew developed severe pain and weakness in his right shoulder and back. He had a condition known as “winging scapula,” a result of damage to the long thoracic nerve. The nerve is expected to regenerate within a year, as nerves outside the spinal column do regrow, albeit slowly.

Analysis

I (Andrew) was the instigator of this trip, the most experienced member, and the de facto leader, so the responsibility for decisions was mine. In my opinion, the accident was a direct result of insufficient preparation in at least three ways: (1) We did not have the current weather forecast. Instead, we relied on a day- old report, unaware of predicted lightning in the high country. Up-to-date information would have allowed us to better plan the day, perhaps choosing shorter routes close to the road instead of tackling a remote, multi-pitch route. In retrospect, a weather radio or a visit to the Ranger Station would have been wise. (2) We lacked proper gear for alpine conditions. Brad and I wore cotton clothing, affectionately referred to as “death cloth” by the YOSAR crew. It is colder than synthetics when wet, and slower to dry. Furthermore, we had no rain gear and no way to start a fire. In our condition, we faced serious hypothermia if we had had had to bivouac at 10,000 feet that night. We had a single headlamp, but no other signaling devices, so we were very fortunate that Bojan had his HAM radio. (3) Finally, and most importantly, we did not stick to our safety plan. Once behind schedule, we just tried to catch up. In fact, we had no explicit plan for bailing once the climb began. Without criteria for retreat— dark clouds on the horizon, etc.—we kept moving up until fleeing in either direction was equally risky.

In the final analysis, we got into trouble because we raced for the summit instead of retreating. All other considerations—forecasts, rain jackets—were secondary. Preparation is important, but no substitute for intelligent analysis of the developing conditions.

Brad’s and Richard’s first aid training may have saved my life. Brad was not sure if I had actually stopped breathing, so he played it safe. If there is any uncertainty, do not waste time—properly done, assisted breathing will not hurt your patient.

I would like to sincerely thank Bojan and Wolfgang for remaining at the summit to help in spite of the obvious danger of staying. Without their aid things would have been a whole lot uglier. My eternal thanks!

Months later, I still remember very little about the strike. Oddly, I think that makes me the lucky one. The true victims are the people who do remember: Brad and Richard, worrying if I would survive the day; my family, receiving the late-night call; my girlfriend, upon whom I placed tremendous demands during my recovery. As we take risks with our own lives, we risk a part of the lives of all those who love and care for us. I still climb, but I do so with a new and profound respect for everyone emotionally tied to the rope with me. (Source: Andrew and Brad Betts, and John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

(Editor’s Note: Mother Nature chose her targets with a sense of humor: Four are electrical engineers and one is a computer science pro.)