American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Lightning

North Carolina, Linville Gorge Wilderness, The Amphitheater, Daddy

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 2005

In August, a party of two were climbing the Daddy (5.6) a classic 5-pitch route located in the Amphitheater, Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. The incident started when the lead climber (LC) was 65 feet above the large traverse ledge located on the third pitch of the route, when he suddenly found himself unable to climb upwards (he was climbing on double ropes). He yelled to his belayer (B) who was positioned on the ledge, with no response. LC then yanked on the rope to get B’s attention, again without response. LC looked down and saw B lying face down on the ledge. LC rapped down, and found B regaining consciousness with blood on his face. His head was ok as he was wearing a helmet. LC secured his partner and with 70m of additional rope rappelled to the ground and made his way to the trailhead for help. On his way out, LC ran into climbers Gary and Carol on the Jonas Ridge trail. Carol left the area to call for assistance. Both the North Carolina Outward Bound School and Burke County EMS responded.

In the meantime, LC and Gary walked to a position on the rim of the Amphitheater almost directly across from the route Daddy, where Gary was able to make brief verbal contact with B. After making contact with B, both LC and Gary traversed east around the top of the Amphitheater in worsening weather (by now it was raining hard) to the top of Daddy. Gary rappelled down to the ledge to assist B only to find him gone! All that remained on the ledge was the belay anchor high in the crack and a cut rope. Gary ascended his rope back to the top of the climb.

Because of the heavy rain, B became concerned about hypothermia and took matters into his own hands; he rappelled to the ground and climbed the fourth class descent gully out of the Amphitheater where he was eventually met by a member of the hasty team. He was able to walk out of the area unassisted.

After two CAT scans and retrospectively putting the clues together, B believes that he was struck by lightning. In trying to piece together the incident, he remembered that one of his shoes had been blown off his foot.

He also had a blistered left foot, blackened toes, and remembers hearing a “popping” sound before going into unconsciousness. He said, “Last time I heard that sound, I was close to a lightning strike.”

Analysis

After putting the clues together, B hypothesized that he was zapped by what a friend described as a phenomena known as “ball” lighting. It apparently exhibits buzzing sounds but no flash and precedes storms. Late day thunderstorms are a common summer occurrence in North Carolina. Climbers can prepare themselves by getting an early start and recognizing the signs of a potential thunderstorm. Familiarization with the appropriate tactics and techniques to help mitigate potential lightning strike will also be helpful.

During the quick hike to the top of the route, I (Gary) began thinking that many of my partners and my own self-rescue skills have become rusty or lost due to disuse. I urge all traditional climbers to learn, practice, and keep these skills current. As climbers, we should be capable of rescuing ourselves or other climbers and not rely solely on local rescue services. The North Carolina Outward Bound School, however, is consistently competent and should always be contacted in the Linville Gorge area as they are one of the primary SAR groups in the vicinity. Their support that day is appreciated, as is the quick response of the Burke Co. EMS. (Source: Gary Butler, from a posting on the Carolina Climbers Coalition Website www.carolinaclimb- ers.org, August 13, 2004, Kristian Jackson, NCOBS, and Aram Attarian).

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