Just about everyone who has spent time in the high country has a lightning story to tell — when lightning cracked open a nearby tree, or how their hair stood on end and they got out of there.
I'd been in Colorado a short time and was ignorant about everything Western when I decided to climb a mountain outside of Denver in July. It was a walk-up kind of "thirteener," and I was dressed in my usual mountain climbing outfit of shorts, sneakers, shirt tied to my waist, and a fanny pack. I lollygagged getting up that morning and didn't start up the mountain until 10 a.m. or so. Anyone who knows the mountains knows this is a stupid thing to do, and no, I had no compass, map, rain gear or even water bottle. Even stupider.
As I started up the trail, clouds began building over the Continental Divide. I ignored them.
I am a butterfly collector, and I was collecting butterflies in the rocks above tree line. I paid no attention to the weather because the sun was shining and it felt warm. By mid-afternoon, though, it was suddenly overcast, and that's when I stupidly decided to bag the peak as fast as I could. I got on the top and was sweating and breathing hard, when I noticed a humming in the air as if the mountain were singing. "Oh, wow, far out!" I thought. (This was the early 1970s, and we talked that way.) "The hair on my arms is standing up. And, man, I got an Afro. Whoa!"
The next thing I remember is a guy standing over me asking me if I was dead. From below, he said, he'd seen a lightning bolt hit me on the top of my head. Thinking back, lightning felt like the "thumpers" — what we called a "schmiddock" in Pennsylvania — that my older brother used to give me on my head.
I looked down; I'd turned a purple-pink color and there were snakelike tracks on my skin. My feet were burned, my T-shirt was gone, my shorts were in tatters, and my shoes were charred and nearly blown off. Somehow I staggered down the mountain with the help of the Good Samaritan and drove home. I assume I did that, but I don't remember anything about it. I hurt for weeks from the burns and the muscles that seized when I was hit. When asked what happened, I told everyone I had a lot in common now with Frankenstein's electrified monster.
I was a lucky innocent that day. I must have had my mouth open because my eardrums didn't burst, and because I was sweaty, electricity ran down my skin and not through my body. I was also high up and the clouds were low, and though the charge was somewhere between 200 million to 2 billion volts, the amperage or current was not. This "flashover" effect travels on the outside of the body, so it doesn't usually disrupt the electrical functions of the brain and heart.
Deaths from lightning are rare and so are direct strikes. "Splash" — where lightning hits somewhere else and the electricity runs along wet rocks or grass — is what kills most people. People stand with their legs apart, and the current runs up one leg, through their body and down the other leg. This summer a golfer in Granby, Colo., was struck exactly the way I was, surviving with similar burns and pain. Personally, I would not carry a metal stick under threatening skies in the mountains during summer. Perhaps he should have been holding a one-iron — even God can't hit one of them.
What I learned from this experience is to get on and off the mountain early, before the clouds build up. Keep your feet together. Try to hold your mouth open. Don't carry a metal stick. Count "1001,1002" when you see the lightning flash; if the count gets up to 1005, you know the storm is about a mile away and get the hell out of there. Unless, of course, like me, you want to get your battery charged.