Mt. Warren P2K SPS / WSC

Thu, Jul 5, 2001
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Thu, Aug 3, 2006

It was going to be a grand scramble-fest, culminating in a dayhike to Mt. Williamson, the second highest peak in California. I intended to climb Mts. Warren and White in the days prior, in order to acclimatize sufficiently for the 14,300ft+ of Mt. Williamson. The weather had other plans, and was successful at spoiling mine, but not my fun. A tropical storm off the west coast of Mexico brought storm clouds to the area, along with the usual accoutrements of rain, poor visibility, hail, thunder, etc. When I checked the weather reports for Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, they showed 4 solid days of thunderstorms, Wed-Sat, with partly sunny for Sunday. Since I planned to leave San Jose early Thursday morning, I was running smack into the middle of it all.

When I first decided to climb Mt. Warren, I thought it was an easy hike out of Tioga Pass to the north. Upon consulting a map, I found that I had confused Warren with Gaylor. Mt. Warren in fact was a bit further in, and a fair amount more climbing. Still, it seemed it could be done in a long afternoon if I left early enough from San Jose. I left the Bay Area at 8:10a on Thursday morning, and headed to the Sierra under high overcast skies. As I drove across the Central Valley, I could see large clouds collecting around the High Country, thunderstorms in the making, to be sure. I had the top down all the way through Yosemite without so much as a drop of water, but the clouds loomed thick and dark over the Sierra crest. There were climbers on Poly Dome next to Tenaya Lake who seemed equally unconcerned about the developing weather. Rock shoes on slick granite faces seemed a scary proposition to me, yet that didn't seem to bring them down off the rock (as Michael pointed out to me later, it isn't really that scary since they could always rappel off if it started to rain). I drove through the park and past the Saddlebag Lake trailhead, to the next trailhead a mile or so down the road. There is a small gravel lot on the south side of the road, the trailhead just on the other side. Despite the threatening weather, my luck continued to hold out. The road was wet, as it had rained briefly a bit earlier, but no serious precipitation. The clouds overhead suggested my luck was tenuous, at best. To be safe, I packed up a Gortex shell and pants along with the usual things like water, snacks, gloves, and hat. It was 12:30p when I locked the car and hit the trail.

"The trail" is being a bit generous. There is no maintained trail at this location, but an old jeep road goes in a short distance to some primative campsites, after which it becomes a use trail for a mile or so. Shortly after leaving the main highway, I came upon a single occupied campsite just off the trail. A large food cache was hanging from a tree, not five feet from the ground, and only a foot from the tree trunk. Surely this had no possibility of stopping a bear. The nearby tent was unoccupied as I walked by, and I noticed a second food cache hung with even less care next to the tent. Possibly the person was worried only about squirrels and birds, or possibly he was hiding in wait, hunting bears. I didn't stay around to find out.

It started to drizzle ever so lightly as I came to the end of the 4WD part of the trail, but not enough to bother donning a jacket. The use trail lead into a bit of meadow, becoming swampy in a few tens of yards. Looking ahead it seemed there was quite a bit of meadow to walk through and I didn't relish the idea of having wet boots so soon on the hike. So I back-tracked to the meadow's edge and struck off cross-country, following the canyon through the pine forest on its eastern side. There was little underbrush to impede travel, and I made good progress without a trail. Clouds began to lower about the high peaks and canyon ridges around me, making it difficult to positively identify the peaks. I carried a map and compass with me, and felt I had a pretty good "feel" for the lay of the land even though this was my first visit to this canyon. According to the map, I should just have to follow the canyon up until it petered out, then strike out for Mt. Warren high on the eastern side. How hard could that be?

I began contouring up the canyon, away from the creek down in the center. It was actually quite nice with the heavily overcast skies. The air was cool, not hot, and the ground moist. With so little snow this year, most of the high country is quite dry, and I expected to find this east-side canyon particularly so. On and off rains of the last few days had given a second wind to the wildflowers which were responding with renewed vigor. And while I normally enjoy the predictably pleasant Sierra weather, the cloud formations offered an ever-changing backdrop, bringing added drama to the landscape. After about an hour it began to drizzle heavier. At first I put on my windbreaker, but the volume of precipitation continued to increase. I huddled under a pine tree to see if I should take more protective measures. The trees were beginning to thin at the higher altitude, and my chosen tree was too scrawny to provide good shelter, only keeping a portion of the rain off me. I decided to put on my rain gear before all my underclothes became wet through.

The hike began to feel more like a hike in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska - constant drizzle, heavy skies, cool temperatures. I had learned from hiking in those places that you'd best just accept hiking in the rain/drizzle, or you won't get much hiking done. And with proper clothing it can be downright pleasant, even for fair-weather Sierra hikers.

I began to climb above treeline onto a gently sloping ridge that connected higher up to the main ridge around the canyon. I had been slightly worried that cliffs might make attaining the main ridge difficult as the map had shown some tight contours in this area. This little connecting ridge seemed to provide a very straightforward path all the way to the top, with great views off either side to boot. It felt like I had somehow wandered onto the perfect path, one of those rare times that by chance you happen to take the very best possible route. I was smugly congratulating myself for exquisite route-finding, and enjoying the climb tremendously. It didn't last long.

As I crested a gentle rise, I found that my route did not go cleanly to the main ridge, but ended in a talus field. To get to the main ridge, it was necessary to contour up and across a loose field of volcanic slate. The thin rock sheets were quite unstable, and made sounds like broken glass as they slid over each other under the weight of my steps. The rain had further made them slippery, and what I thought would take ten minutes took more than three times that. It was very tedious, and the rain began to come down heavier. As I finally gained the ridge, I glanced over the other side and was surprised to find a small lake hundreds of feet below. I hadn't expected that. I consulted my map, a somewhat fuzzy printout from a dot-matrix printer (my first experiment with getting maps directly from I could see none of the peaks as the clouds had lowered to cover their tops. I checked my compass. It suggested I was something like 90 degrees off. I should be heading almost due east, but the ridge went up to the north. I somehow managed to convince myself that the compass was only approximate anyway, and I certainly must be on the right ridge. I continued up, heading north. At least the route was easier, firm footing, class 2-3 ridgeline.

Around this time I saw a flash of lightning, and heard the first crack of thunder. Hmmm. Peak bagging in a thunderstorm. It wasn't the brightest thing I could imagine doing, but it was rather exciting at the same time. As I climbed the ridge I thought a great deal about lightning, wondering just how risky it was to be climbing out in the open, and what my chances of being struck were. I had very little idea what the risks really were. I knew that something like 50 people each year are killed by lightening in the US. That didn't seem like very many, so it suggested to me that my chances were quite low. But then, how many people would willing continue climbing in such conditions, and did this increase my risk by a factor of 10? A factor of 1000? Possibly more? It certainly didn't seem like it could be extremely high, or a large percentage of those being killed would be mountaineers, and that just wasn't the case. The last case in California I'd heard of was a guy on Half Dome some eight or so years earlier. He and his buddies had climbed to the top in a thunderstorm by the cable route, and taken refuge in a shallow cave on the northwest face. They had taken shelter here before, and were revelling in the excitement of the storm's fury. Seems they took a strike which gave the others injuries, but struck the one guy with the greatest force. He wigged out, ran out of the cave and off the cliff. 2000 feet to the bottom. Ouch. I had climbed up to the base of the cable route in an electrical storm once. I remember hearing crackingly in the air, and "feeling" the buzz of electricity. It had scared me considerably and I beat a hasty retreat back down the granite shoulder.

I noticed the lightning would strike quite regularly, every four or five minutes. It did not seem to be coming closer or moving away, most of the strikes happening to the west on the main Pacific Crest. The strikes were mild it seemed, but consistent. I began to have serious doubts about the route I was continuing to follow, having climbed over 500 feet of the ridge. I consulted the compass and map again. If the lake I could still see below was this particular one on the map, I was now heading almost 180 degrees away from Mt. Warren. Looking back behind me, I could see several tall peaks just below clouds. The tallest was right where the map indicated Mt. Warren should be. It was probably 2 miles away, but in the haze it looked much, much further, and I was suddenly very dejected. Arrgh.

Once again I had gotten lost. Sure the weather was crummy, but I had a map and compass and still got lost, all because I am reluctant to trust the compass over dead-reckoning. The rain continued its gentle assault as I took a few moments to confirm and regain my bearings. It was about 3p. I still had over five hours of daylight (using the term lightly under such conditions), so it seemed I still had plenty of time. I decided to turn back and press on. There were three subsidiary peaks between Mt. Warren and myself along the ridge, so there would be plenty of both ups and downs along the way. At least I now knew confidently where I was on the map. As I went back down to the saddle I had originally gained, I noted that I could have avoided the scree field below entirely had I the correct bearings from the start. My GPS with simply the Mt. Warren coordinate entered could have been a big help. Cleverly, I had left it in San Jose.

I thought a lot more about the lightning as I made my way along the ridge. I contoured right around the first two subsidiary summits to avoid the highest points in this local area. The lightning continued its regular strikes, but none struck near Mt. Warren that I could see. The storm continued to seem strongest to the west along the crest, weaker to the east, where I could see some glimpses of blue sky over the Mono Basin. I thought about the clouds that had threatened Michael and I on Mt. Clark, and how he had been spooked even though it neither rained nor thundered. I imagined he would find my current course pure folly. Michael always worried to excess, I thought.

The third subsidiary summit was higher than the first two, and only about a quarter mile west of Mt. Warren's higher, but more gently curved summit. I was sufficiently concerned that I again avoided the high point, and chose to go around it on the steep class 3 section on the north side, about a hundred feet below the top. As I found myself on the ridge again, climbing the last slope up to Mt. Warren, I estimated I was about ten minutes from the top. There would be only a few more strikes in that time, and if I hurried back off, there would only be one strike at most while I was on the summit. Still I had not seen any strikes on Mt. Warren, and I guessed my chances to be quite good. Clearly, I was capable of rationalizing almost any risk at this point.

Five minutes later a thunderous boom behind me indicated another strike had released its charge build-up. I could see the summit ahead of me now, a small structure with a ten-foot antenna at the top. I was fairly tired after almost 4 hours and four thousand of feet of climbing, and plodded along this last easy stretch. Several minutes later, and without immediate warning, I was knocked to the ground. It felt like someone had simply pushed my head down as I walked along, the surprise of which was easily enough to make me lose my balance. A momentary flash of white had passed my eyes, but it seemed more related to the knock on my head than a real flash of light outside. My first thought to myself was, "F*** Me!" I'd been hit by lightning, I had no doubt. There had been no immediate warning such as "buzzing" in the air, or St. Elmo's fire which indicate high electric fields building in the vicinity. I quickly noted that my heart and breathing still functioned, I didn't appear to have any serious injuries. I stood up again within a few seconds, to check to see if my body was ok. I was shaken, though physically unharmed it seemed. I was only 20 yards from the summit, and I continued, hurriedly to the top. It was almost 4:30p. I wasn't upset, it certainly was no fault of the gods that I was struck. I had done all I could to ask for it. But now I felt like the hunted, and half expected the next strike in four or five minutes to hit me again. I breathed rapidly now as the adrenaline rushed through my veins. My thoughts rushed at amazing speed, or so it seemed. Probably I was just confused and in partial shock and incapable of thinking clearly. I found a small cairn next to what I imagined was a remote weather station. I found the register and made a quick entry while I huddled behind the structure, trying to keep the rain out. I made no attempt to take photos or do anything that might prolong my stay on the top (yet I took the time to make an entry in the register, noting I'd just been struck by lightning - in case my body was recovered later there'd be some sort of record of the tragic stupidity). A jillion thoughts and images raced through my head. I looked behind me as though someone might be there, I scanned the skies nervously looking for another bolt to come racing out of the sky. Thor himself could have rent the clouds, threatening me with a fistful of deadly bolts - and I probably wouldn't have found that surprising.

After returning the register to its place, I quickly surveyed the terrain for a descent route. Rather than return along the ridge line, I decided to shoot down the southwest face which looked to afford the largest elevation loss in the shortest amount of time. I fairly flew down the talus field here. Several hundred feet down it flattens out, and I heard the expected Boom! of the next lightning strike. I was beginning to feel a little safer, and less hunted. The southwest face is short and funnels into a small bowl strewn with talus and boulders. A narrow strip of snow lies atop the boulders where the bowl channels down, the beginnings of a small creek that feeds into the main canyon I had hiked up. The hiking was not hard as the boulders were fairly settled, and the granite here made the boulder hopping considerably more pleasant than the earlier slate talus field I had crossed. I knew the bowl would have to eventually empty out to the steeper slopes to the west, and I hoped I'd find a route down among the cliffs I expected to find there. I did.

My mind continued to race. Who gets hit by lightning? Just the morons like myself? Why was I still walking. Should I have burn marks on my head and feet? Nothing smelled like it was burnt...

The creek ran under the boulders, down through a steep but passable stretch of more boulders upon more boulders. Down these I gingerly made my way, careful not to upset the more unstable slope I found here. Every now and then I would come across a small cairn on this slope; evidently someone thought it might be helpful to mark the way. In fact, they were fairly useless, as there was no one best way, no need to mark the route, and they did nothing more than let me know someone had travelled this way before. So, in order to faciliate the illusion of wilderness and discovery for the next person travelling through, I knocked over the cairns as I passed by them (the Forest Service discourages the building of cairns in Wilderness areas, and actually requests that they be removed when found, so I didn't feel I was doing any injustice here).

As I got to the bottom of the steep section the weather began to improve, the skies grew less dark, and the rain tapered off. The thunder and lightning ceased at this time as well, and that helped relieve me further. I contoured around the slope keeping a more or less direct heading for the trailhead at the toe of the canyon. I came to a small rock outcrop, and with the encouragement of a bit of sunshine, I decided to take a break and rest a bit on the rocks. I was relieved to find that my digital camera likewise appeared to suffer no damage, and none of the pictures stored on the flash memory card were affected. Looking back up behind me, Mt, Warren was no longer visible, just the steep boulder field I'd descended. I had a much better sense of the lay of the land now, and could see where I'd gone wrong in navigating earlier. I had hiked up the canyon faster than I expected, and ended up northwest of Mt. Warren before I reached the main ridge. Now I was more southeast of my outbound route, and a much more direct path back to the trailhead. I tried to take stock of my recent encounter with high voltage at 12,000 feet, but found it difficult to fathom. I'd been struck by lightning and walked away without any observable damage. I had no idea how common that might be, as I'd never before encountered anyone in my life who'd been struck by lightning. Should I be dead? Was I lucky to not have been hurt? I had no idea if 10% or 90% of those struck by lightning are killed or injured. I thought more about the particular circumstances. My socks and underwear were about the only things that weren't wet (although I wouldn't have been too surprised to find them wet for other reasons). My shirt, jacket, and pants under my rain gear were rather damp. The rain gear and hat were soaked, my boots nearly so. It's possible that the wet clothes provided a low resistance path on the outside of my body that directed the current flow away from my insides. I checked my hat and boots for signs of damage, but found none. In addition to feeling incredibly lucky, I was feeling incredibly stupid as well.

After having a snack and taking some pictures the drizzle began to return, so I hurriedly packed everything up again and continued down. There was a high meadow above the canyon floor just below me, so I headed for the middle of it. The moderate slope I was descending was alive with the rejuvenated wildflowers, and I stopped to take pictures of a number of them. Just because I had a near-death experience seemed no reason to not enjoy the rest of the hike. The thunderstorm had finished, but the clouds continued to fill the sky and swirled about both above and beneath me now. I descended through one cloud that was sweeping across the ridge as I went down. Visibility was significantly reduced for a short while, but there was little chance of getting lost now. Down at the meadow I contoured around on the periphery to avoid damaging the wet areas in the center. On the other side, facing the canyon below, the slope steepened again as I made my way down through a thickening scrub. Before I reached the canyon floor and the relative easy travelling under the forest canopy, I had to fight my way through a short section of alder and aspens that grew on the lower stretch of the hillside.

Back in the canyon, I was surprised that I found the use trail (the one I had avoided at the beginning of the day). It carried me along the fringes of the marsh, treating me to more delightful flower displays, but keeping my shoes out of the wetter portions. I came upon the short stretch that did cross the wetlands, but was surprised that it was quite short (and in fact I had turned back earlier right after crossing the wettest part - go figure) and brought me shortly to the 4WD portion of the trail. I passed the lone camper's site, but saw no sign of camper or anyone else. All the food was exactly as it hung hours earlier. The last section of the trail was pretty much a shallow stream by now, helping to carry away the water that had fallen in the afternoon. The drizzle had stopped just before reaching the car at 4:30p in another fortunate turn. This allowed me to take off all my wet clothes outside the car and change into drier threads without having to rush to get out of the rain. Aside from the bad navigating, poor risk management, and several milliseconds of excitement on the summit, it had been a fairly fun outing. I had no distaste for continuing my climbing the rest of the weekend, and in fact looked forward to more of the unsettled weather. The thunderstorms I would do better to avoid, I concluded.

I drove down Tioga Road, stopping at the Mobil station for some delicious fish tacos. They were fantastic after a wild afternoon. As the sun began to set, I was treated to some great views up the canyon, over Mono Lake, and to the north. Afterwards I drove on to Bishop, arriving at 9p. I checked into the Sportsman's Lodge, where I spent the next three nights. There was a lot to be said for dayhiking instead of backpacking. Rather than hating the weather, I was enjoying it, and there was little the weather could do to take away from a similar enjoyment of a hot shower and a warm, dry bed to sleep on...


I decided not to tell anyone about my lightning encounter until I could find out more information on the statistics of lightning strikes and whether my experience was typical or incredibly lucky. I did this because I imagined the response from most persons upon hearing this tale would be, "What, are you stupid?" to which I would could reply little except, "Yep." As I searched the web, it became clear pretty quickly that there is little definitive information on lightning strikes. There's lots of information on what to do and what to avoid, which are little more than best guesses and best practices for a danger that is poorly understood. There just aren't that many people being struck by lighting, and the data that is collected is either poor or anecdotal. Here's a sampling of what I found:

Florida Lightning Statistics

You'd expect lots of thunderstorms in Florida, being a tropical/subtropical environ. They average 10 deaths and 33 injuries a year. Then they say, "Based on the above numbers, odds are about 1 in 4 that you will be killed if struck by lightning." This would be true if all lightning strike incidences are reported, which hardly seems likely. Certainly deaths and serious injuries would be more difficult to go unreported. The site goes on to claim there are 93 deaths and 300 injured in the US in any given year. No source is cited for the data, but it seems consistent with other sites.

NOAA Colorado Lightning Resource Page

This site has an interesting link to a map showing all casualties in the US since 1959. This indicates that by far more people die in Florida than any other state. Consider that Florida is about as flat a state as it comes. Colorado ranks 11th with 95 deaths, while California ranks 35th with only 21 deaths and 58 injuries since 1959, about 2 combined per year. Interestingly, Alaska has had no fatalities or injuries in the same time period. Seems there is likely an inverse relationship between temperatures and lightning occurences.

I found lots and lots of sites on the web by searching for "lightning strikes," "lightning statistics," "lightning facts," and "lightning injuries." There are papers that seem to be scientific in nature, but are little more than cursory treatments of the subject. One paper was by an internist MD who in his opening disclaimer admits to never having actually treating a victim of a lightning strike. Others, having appeared in scientific journals, are nothing more than a collection of anecdotes on specific cases.

Nowhere in many hours of searching did I read accounts or descriptions of folks that were struck by lightning and esentially walked away. Michael provided me with some pages from the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) on lightning that was better than other information I could find online. It described the process by which lightning bolts form, and how these come to strike the ground or objects on the ground. A bolt starts from high in the clouds, shooting out with a "stepped leader" in approximately 50m increments before another leg forms in another direction, generally heading towards the earth. As the bolt reaches the vicinity of the ground, "streamer" bolts rise up from various locales on the ground toward the main lightning bolt. The main bolt then chooses one of these streamers to connect to and return the current, which becomes the location of the direct strike. All of this takes place in anywhere from 1 to 100 milliseconds. I suspect I was knocked down by one of these streamer bolts (which carry significant, but much less current than a direct strike), and not actually a victim of a direct strike. It is also possible that I was knocked down by ground currents that may have flowed along the ground from a nearby strike. I tend to discount that possibility because of my vivid recollection that I was knocked on the head, not from the lower torso. Also, the main strike did not likely hit the weather instrument antenna on the summit, as I'm pretty sure I would have seen the flash since I was facing that direction. It was also interesting that in all the reading I did, I did not come across any accounts of individuals being struck while on a hill or mountaintop. Open fields, ball fields, under trees, and on or near water account for over 50% of lightning deaths. In or around heavy road equipment and on golf courses accounts for an additional 11%, and a whopping 35% is "unspecified." Somewhere in that 35% is a place for stupid peak-baggers.


Anonymous comments on 05/13/13:
"Nowhere in many hours of searching did I read accounts or descriptions of folks that were struck by lightning and esentially walked away."

Bob, I had a very similar experience on Boundary peak a couple of years ago. I had popped up on Montgomery, horrified to see a thunder storm approaching from the Sierra. I boogied on down.

Lightning was infrequent and distant. It was raining, I was wearing a soaked goretex jacket. I was contouring below the ridge below Boundary and was not too worried. The ridge descended to meet the contouring use trail at a small saddle. As I stepped up onto the saddle, there was a crash, a blue-white pencil thin streak of light in front of me, and something struck me on the very top of my head, pushing me down onto my butt.

After a minute of sitting there, I got up and hurried off the ridge. No burns, no marks, no super powers. -- Gary Schenk
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