I have been a complete idiot for most my life.
As a kid, I regularly climbed my way to very long falls with no safety equipment. I never owned a bike helmet. I broke my parents’ rule never to go into a house they suspected of prolific drug activity and violence.
As a teenager, I drove my two-door coupe over pedestrian bridges, rollerbladed down the middle of the highway at 3 a.m., stood inches away from freight trains rushing at full speed, and of course I was a skydiver. I crawled onto cars and countertops and into the top of closets for photos. I foolishly traveled deep into caves without an extra flashlight. I jumped off bridges into waters of unknown depths. aI’d be remiss not to mention that I had companionship in all this outlandish behavior. One of the characters in this story – “Paul” – was very frequently said companion.
As a young adult:
- I accidentally rafted a murderous class V section of a river running at flood stage.
- I nearly suffocated from smoke inhalation in a canvas tent in a snow-covered wilderness.
- I came face-to-face with a pack of wolves while hiking alone.
- I got stalked by a taxi driver after stubbornly walking through a South American border town’s red light district at 4 a.m.
Among other things.
Adrenaline Junkie, Wilderness Addict
I spent the summer after high school working as a rafting guide outside Yellowstone National Park. On my days off, I rock climbed without ropes, hiked unarmed through grizzly bear territory, and partook in copious amounts of daytime skinny dipping with my wilderness-addict friends.
As a final summertime hurrah, my boyfriend, best friend, and I set off on a week long backpacking trip at the end of August.
We parked at the trail head, hiked all day, and arrived at our high-alpine destination just before sunset. Alpine camping is like being on Mars: plant life is sparse, rock life is abundant. As we looked for a place to set up, we came face to face with one of the best and worst sites you can see in the wilderness.
A grizzly bear cub.
This is always a breathtaking experience. First, because seeing a bear – especially a baby bear – is incredibly rare. Second – because wherever there is a baby bear, there is almost always a fierce, angry, mama bear very nearby who wants to kick your ass for looking at her precious cub. With our hearts pounding, we quickly beat a retreat.
Ten minutes later, we crested a ridge and finally found a little meadow. Our hearts pounded instantly. Not with excitement. In the middle of the tiny meadow… was a huge papa grizzly bear! Given the sinking sun and rock-filled expanse, we had no choice but to wait him out. As we crawled into our tent that night, we tried to ignore the fact that we were sleeping among the terrestrial equivalent of Great White Sharks.
As a reckless optimist, I felt everything would be fine. My boyfriend, however, refused to leave the tent alone to pee… demanding I get my naked body out of bed and stand next to him under the stars while he trembled with bear fear.
If he’d known what would befall us over the next few days, he wouldn’t have batted an eye at peeing alone in dark bear territory.
Lofty Goals (for Which We Were Unqualified)
The next morning, we decided to go for gold. We set our sights on Buck Mountain – the highest peak within hike-able reach.
Our camp was on the west side of Buck Mountain, and the only place we could get up without ropes was on the east. So, we planned to climb to a saddle in a neighboring ridge line, go down the other side, and walk over the the east toe of Buck.
My best friend – let’s call him Paul – was a closeted gay teenage boy who was disgusted about being on a trip with a couple. He almost vomited every time he was forced to snap a couple’s photo. When we set off down the trail that morning, he was still stewing about how my boyfriend – let’s call him Sam – and I refused to wear pajamas in our sleeping bags the night before.
Our furious friend kept a quarter mile lead on us for over an hour. Hiking above treeline, it was easy to see him leave the trail and head toward the saddle we’d agreed to climb to earlier. When we arrived at the saddle, Paul was already 100 yards down the other side.
And there was no turning back.
Because “the other side” was a steep slope of scree. Scree is rock so loose that even a bird landing can send it sliding. It is 100% impossible to climb up scree. Any human movement leads to near-free fall through sharp rocks.
So our angry friend was at the point of no return. Two weeks later, an article in the local newspaper would detail a helicopter rescue of two tourists off this exact slope of scree. If I had have known that at the time… Oh, who are we kidding. The 18-year-old me would have made the exact same decision.
Stupid Scree Sliders
I lowered myself to the ground, cursing my decision to wear shorts that day. I tucked up my knees, to get my bare hamstrings off the rocks. Over the next hour, I vacillated between the glee of repeatedly sliding out of control and the annoying pain of sharp rocks slicing into my naked skin.
At the bottom, we got out the maps and digested the consequences of our actions.
Since we couldn’t go back the way we came, how would we return to our tent and sleeping bags? At first it seemed we’d have to hike eight miles off-trail before we could connect to a path that led back to our home valley. We checked the time. Doubting we could cover the distance before dark, we desperately searched for a shorter way.
“There!” Paul exclaimed. On the map we saw a notch half-way up Buck Mountain that gave way to a gentle slope which ended two-ish miles from camp. We decided we’d climb to Buck Mountain’s summit, then begin our return to camp at the notch halfway down the mountain.
Relieved, we started our ascent. Half way up to the notch, our steep hiking turned into almost vertical scrambling – without the safety of climbing gear. I was the only one of our trio who loved the thrill of having nothing but strength and luck between me and a long fall onto unforgiving boulders.
My boyfriend Sam said,
“Well, at least we don’t have to climb down this shit!”
Then we arrived at the notch and discovered the gentle slope back to camp… was at the bottom of a fifty foot cliff on which we were now standing.
My companions panicked.
We had a daylight shortage.
We had no extra food.
We had no extra layers.
We had no flashlights.
We had no assurances that we would be alive tomorrow.
We had zero room for further error.
The ridgeline leading up to the summit of Buck Mountain was a razor-thin spine, making it impossible for me to convince my friends to leave our gear at the notch and crawl to the top. I reluctantly agreed to forgo the rest of the Buck Mountain ascent, and instead begin Operation-Back-To-Camp-Before-Dark.
As we downclimbed, I babbled with giddy excitement. Paul and Sam both regularly told me to – “Shut. Up.” – as I chattered gleefully about what fun it was to be on the brink of peril. At the bottom, we ate lunch beside a glacial tarn.bTimberline Lake – mentioned in that newspaper article above. Paul was somber. Sam, my boyfriend, started crying.
“I don’t think I want to be in a relationship with someone who thinks this is FUN,” he sobbed.
Five hours later…
…my enthusiasm for our adventure had worn thin.
My bloody legs were exhausted from miles of hiking and gallons of adrenaline. The afternoon had consisted of several map-conference sessions in which we tried to guess where we were and how much farther we had to go. Our ongoing plan remained attempting to intersect the trail we’d left
three lifetimes ago that morning.
Now, I was sick of the slog. As I struggled up a hill filled with plants that stabbed into my broken legs, as I felt the evening chill start to settle into my bones, as the light started to fade from the sky…
…it was my turn to cry.
I wanted to know without a doubt that I was climbing that hill for a damn good reason. I wanted my pain to guarantee a finish line.
An hour after I dried my tears, we finally found a trail. A real path. Walked on by humans. That led somewhere. We followed it, hopeful our map reading skills would deliver us from our purgatory. When we crested a hill and saw the final splinters of daylight illuminating our tent, relief flooded our trio.
We Thought We Had Things Under Control
The next morning we all agreed that – after yesterday’s madness – we should choose something mild for that day’s adventure.
On the map, we eyeballed the second-highest mountain in the area. A trail went right to the base of the peak. In fact, it was the same trail we’d returned on last night, so we had the added bonus of spending the day in mostly-known territory.
We set out on our next, much-safer adventure, thinking proudly of our bags filled with all the things we didn’t have the day before – extra food, raingear, extra layers, flashlights… even a video camera.
At the base of Static Peak, well-above treeline, we laid eyes on an easy ascent. It was just a hill, then a short rock scramble, then a 20 ft climb to the top. At 1 p.m., we reached the summit and broke out our lunches.
As we ate, we marveled at our previous day’s stupidity and appreciated the beauty of the dark clouds rolling in from the west.
A few minutes later, Mother Nature turned up the volume on her gorgeous show. We got to see a bolt of lightning strike the Grand Teton – the highest peak in the range – 2,000 feet higher than us and over four miles away.
We oohed and ahhed as the thunder rolled.
Hey. Wait a Minute…
Then Paul – who had spent the summer working at a science camp – said, “Um, guys. We should probably get into the lightning position. That’s standard operating procedure in a situation like this at the science school.”
“That’s silly,” I argued. “The Grand Teton is miles from us and way higher.”
Okay, yes, Sam’s hair was kind of standing up on end. And pieces of mine were, too. But static is par for the course in summertime Wyoming. Electrons are always coursing through the air. A year earlier a friend was teaching me the golf swing on a summer afternoon. Each time he lifted my hands and club into the air, my hair stuck straight out. And just a few months before on a rafting trip, I’d giggled at the static in a passenger’s hair before her parents pointed out to me that it was also in mine, and I was touching the only metal in the whole boat.
My compounded wisdom of 18 years: static means nothing.
Paul and Sam disagreed. Off they went – fifteen feet apart, dropped into full squats with only their feet touching the ground, and lowered their heads between their knees.
I rolled my eyes.
Everyone knows lightning strikes the highest point in an area. We were two-thousand feet lower than the highest point which, as if to prove my “lower-is-safer” theory, was getting struck repeatedly. Plus we had yesterday’s failed summit – Buck Mountain – in our back pocket. It was six hundred feet higher, and was one of many peaks standing between us and the lightning.
The Things You Find Out Later
Weeks after I’d given my lightning rationale, I’d learn that the peak we were on – Static Peak – was named for the large amounts of magnetite present in the rock there. Magnetite is highly magnetic iron oxide. So magnetic that when you’re near it, your compass won’t work.
So basically while we weren’t on the highest point in the area…
…we were sitting on a giant magnet.
But we didn’t know it.
Safety is Boring and Uncomfortable
The lightning position freaks slowly lost enthusiasm for their disagreeable situation, eyeing me happily swallowing the rest of my lunch. Finally they gave up their silly safety mission, recovered their lunches, and joined me in watching and listening to mother nature’s great show.
As we sat chomping and chatting, I felt my static-filled hair do something it had never done before.
It started to bounce.
It felt like a little bird was tugging a lock of my hair skyward. I turned toward my boyfriend, Sam, to comment, but I never got a chance.
From over his shoulder, I saw a wall of light come racing toward us. It turned into a line of white as it zinged across his head, then mine, then Paul’s.
The thundercrack deafened us instantly.
What it Feels Like to Be Struck by Lightning
My whole body lit up with the tension and pain of uncounted volts of electricity. Worse than being electrocuted by household voltage. Worse than being electrocuted by a livestock fence. cYes, both of these things have happened to me several times in my life. I’m an idiot, remember?
I threw myself to the ground in hopes of avoiding a second strike.
My abused eardrums barely registered Paul, who thought he was the only one who had been hit, shout, “I’m okay guys! I’m okay!”
Suddenly I was no longer dumbstruck by pain and noise. I leaped up. “C’mon you guys! Let’s go,” I shouted as I grabbed gear in one swoop, stuffing it into the backpack as I ran toward the summit’s lip. The clouds began to drop buckets of water just as I lowered myself over the edge, but it was still the fastest I’ve ever down-climbed anything in my life.
We raced down the hill and then the trail, running for our lives. Finally we spotted shelter under a rock ledge.
We decided we should make a recording on our 90’s video camera in case we perished before returning to civilization. The Blair-Witch style snippet is three breathless teens talking to the camera.
Me: “Holy crap! We just got struck by lightning! And we lived!”
The Boys: “Oh my god! We… we… uh…we just got struck by lightning-but… uhh… we’re okay. Ohmigod. It was the craziest thing ever. Uhh… we think we’re okay.”
Let’s Get the #$%&* Out of Here!
Needless to say, the adventure we chose the next morning had nothing to do with peaks of any kind. In fact, we thought it best to get the hell out of the mountains.
None of us crazy teenagers saw a doctor in the aftermath of being struck by lightning. As far as we can tell, the boys and I are still all okay. Paul became an ornithologist at Stanford and spends lots of time in Costa Rica. Sam became a pilot flying private jets – his childhood dream – and the love of his life just gave birth to their first child.
I… well I became a crazy, risk-taking nomad who adventures around the world trying not to die and hopefully teaching people things like:
1) Don’t climb mountains in thunderstorms.
2) Be afraid when your volcano guide is afraid.
3) Be patient with your eardrums underwater.
4) Don’t jump off the top of jeep taxis.
5) Follow protocol in grizzly bear country.
6) Don’t get on a ferry in the wake of a hurricane.
7) When you parents visit you in Bali, don’t try to kill them.
8) Save yourself thousands of heartbeats: just buy a new towel.
9) if you are stupid enough to remain on a summit in a thunderstorm…
…at least get into the lightning position!
Happy Travels! ♣
|↑a||I’d be remiss not to mention that I had companionship in all this outlandish behavior. One of the characters in this story – “Paul” – was very frequently said companion.|
|↑b||Timberline Lake – mentioned in that newspaper article above.|
|↑c||Yes, both of these things have happened to me several times in my life. I’m an idiot, remember?|