Day 33 – A Close Call

Today is two days after one month on the trail exactly. I had planned to write a recap of the past month last night, but I’ll have to save that until tomorrow, today’s events take precedence. As a side note, reception has been terrible recently. The last entry was written two nights ago, I’m not sure when it got sent out.

Last night I camped at the highest shelter on the AT. At ~6000 feet it’s close to the elevation of the highest point. I was worried about lightning camped so high, but it was a quiet night. Just rain, no thunder. After packing up in the morning during a light rain, it was a quick 3 mile walk to the first bald of the day. I got there right as the sky was clearing and it was definitely one of the best views so far. Nearly 360 degree view of mountains at least 3000 feet below, with clouds filling in the valleys. It seemed like the day was clearing up and would be a beautiful walk, even though the forecast called for thunderstorms.

A few hours later, after some of the fastest, nicest hiking yet, bald after bald really, I came to a shelter 8 miles into the day. It’s a old barn that has been converted into an AT shelter. Back in the civil war it was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. I met up with some friends and we decided to push on ten miles to a hostel. Right as we left thunder started rumbling in the distance. Another friend, who was staying at the shelter that night, called out “hey smiley great time to head up on that ridge!” as we were leaving. He was giving me a hard time for my well known skittishness around lightning and we did have a decent climb up a completely bald ridge ahead of us. I replied that I didn’t mind the lightning so much when I was moving, only when camping does it get to me. I was almost excited for it really. Plus the lightning makes me hike faster, which is always nice.

About an hour later a friend, named Rafiki, and I are nearing the last climb of the day, 500 feet up a bald slope. The thunder is rumbling in the distance, but we’re having a great time howling at the weather and generally playing around. We joke that the day wouldn’t be as nice without the cloud cover and that the thunder isn’t so scary anyways. But We’re really in the worst possible place to be in a thunderstorm, 6000 feet up, and no trees around for at least 300 yards. Textbook worst case scenario. But somehow it’s less scary as a present danger than as a distant threat. We’ll either make it out or we won’t so there’s no reason to worry.

Hiking up the ridge, we climb into a cloud. The thunder is getting closer, but what’s worse, I can hear it all around me. So things are getting really serious. I’m thinking that if lighting decides to strike, or even arcs through the cloud, we won’t have any warning. Even though the strikes are a few miles off, since they’re all around us, it’s clear we’re in the middle of the storm, not just experiencing a passing cell. Regardless of my earlier comfort, I start to feel tense.

By this point it’s been raining and hailing on and off for a while. As we crest the ridge Rafiki decides to take a break, but I’m getting more and more nervous about a direct strike. I decide to push on to get off the bald as soon as possible. I figure the trail must drop down below the treeline pretty quickly, but as soon as I start coming down the crest it’s obvious that the trail runs along the ridge for a while. Ironically it would be an amazing hike in clear weather. At the time it was more nerve-wracking than anything else.

At this point I’m already hiking about as fast as I can go. But I start to feel, what I imagine a least, to be the hair on my head standing up. It’s hard to tell if it is, since my hair is wet, but it’s a well known indicator of an imminent strike. I break out into a jog for a few hundred yards, all the while begging the trail to dip below the ridgeline.

After a little while I calm down, I haven’t heard thunder for a bit, and stop jogging. Finally I see a fence and behind it, trees. Soon I’m back below the treeline, happy to be off the ridgeline. After a mile on the ridge, my neres are frayed and it’s comforting to not be the tallest thing around.

But not 200 yards into the treeline, thunder booms out, the closest one yet, less than two miles out, and I start hurrying along again.

The trail is rocky and rooty, hard to move quickly on. Sometimes I have to slow to an almost crawl to avoid slipping, but eventually the rain starts to slow, the trees get taller and I think I’m finally out of the storm. The sky even starts to get lighter.

But sure enough, not fifteen minutes later, it starts pouring rain again. By this time I almost couldn’t care less, I’ve been worn down by the storm and the fear has been burned out of me. Right as I stop caring, thunder strikes right in front of me, not 200 yards down the slope. Then, the first strike I heard in a good while, comes down right in front of me. Like a scared cat, I leap away from it, as if that would do any good, and run down the trail until I calm down. At this point there’s nothing I can do but keep hiking, the trail is going down anyways, so there’s no reason to get off it.

After a few minutes, and a few switchbacks, I come upon the tree that the lightning hit. It was laying across the trail, obviously having just been split. While I didn’t notice it at the time, Rafiki said he smelt something burning as he passed through. If I had been just a few minutes further down the trail when the lightning struck, I would’ve been hit by it. Or if it struck just a little further up the slope.

It was a close call. I think that’s what gets me about lightning. As Catfish said “If you hear the thunder, you’re okay, it’s when you don’t hear it that you’re in trouble.” There’s no real way of telling how much risk you’re in, or how close you came to being hit, until it actually happens.

But it could have been worse, and it’s a risk like any other being out here. It’s not worth worrying over too much. We all made it safely to the hostel tonight and will be back out on the trail tomorrow. For now it’s nice to been in a warm room with a calorically intensive dinner in my stomach. Although the woman in the bunk over had too much to drink and is already snoring like no other.

On to Damascus in the next 4-5 days.


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