John: In response to your call for lightning stories (“The Bright White Light,” Smoke Signals, MG #181): Ol’ pal Derwood and I have been around the West alright, from the Sierras to the northern Rockies up on the Canadian border down to the desert southwest. Seems like the only time we’ve ever had run-ins with life-affirming lightning was in the High Country of Colorado.
There was that one time atop Arapaho Pass, where we squatted on our packs as our hair stood straight up and a friend from California finally took off running down the mountain, screaming, “My father warned me about going to Colorado exactly because of the lightning! Aaaaahhhh!!” Good times.
Another time, we were on the boulder field on Longs Peak when we hoofed it past a hiker wrapped in one of those metallic silver blankets quivering (maybe the correct term is “seizuring”), having been blasted, and waiting for the Flight for Life helicopter as the swirling wind blew the graupel around. Freaky times.
The thing that finally changed my thinking about the respect owed to mighty Thor happened on the back side of the Maroon Bells, about 15 miles in on a backpacking trip that, we planned, would take us down to Gothic and up over to Conundrum Hot Springs. We started with four of us, but two bailed — one was a buff aerobics instructor from Brooklyn who, our other bud had assured us, was in better shape than any of us. Which might have been true, from a physical standpoint. Trouble was, loose talus on the flanks of Snowmass Peak and mad mountain exposure was more than she ever conjured on the sea-level flatlands, and so they bailed on us and headed back to Aspen on the third day.
So Derwood and I went up over Trail Rider Pass and down the other side and up the Crystal River Valley. We figured we’d make it up just past treeline in Fravert Basin below Frigid Air Pass and call that a day.
We made it right where we wanted to — hoping mightily to elude the spikes of rain that were threatening us all afternoon. We probably should have found a spot in the trees instead of above them, but the draw and vision of high, exposed peaks right outside our tent door was too much for us, so we plodded on, and thought we found the winning spot in the high basin above the trees.
We saw an interesting brown circle amidst the verdant tundra, and thought maybe a previous camping crew had set up for a few too many days and killed the grass. We thought of pitching our tent right there on that spot, but it was down a ways, and there was a fine spot right at our feet, so we doffed our packs — just as that cool Colorado rain began to pelt us. We dove into the tent, wet but not soaked.
And then. And then the damn thunder started rattling our tent poles, not to mention some dental work around my back molars. We figured some herbal remedies would calm our nerves — and probably did, at least until the time horizon between flash of lightning and crash of thunder shrank to instantaneous.
Truth be told, we started freaking a bit. We thought we should take our hiking boots off, because the bottoms of them were wet and that might conduct electricity better. Then we thought we should put them back on, because, if one of us did get blasted with lightning, and the other lived, then time would be wasting for the living to go get help and shouldn’t be bothered with the time-wasting process of getting one’s boots laced back up. Still, it somehow made a little more sense to avoid getting blasted altogether, and so the better answer was to dry off the boots as best we could, and take the boots off.
Holy mother of Zeus! That one cloud-ripper not only made us flinch, jump even, but when I looked on over at Derwood, his eyes got simultaneously beady and dilated, like he was peaking on a good double-dose while turning into a prairie pheasant. Finally, we consulted our laminated pocket first-aid guidebook. We always had a good time flipping through that manual — the best part was in the last pages, when it moved on from simple remedies on cuts and abrasions to advice on amputations. The line that contributed to more than a few backcountry guffaws was the counsel: “Then, cut the bone.”
Oracle thusly consulted, we settled upon a two-prong strategy. One: get our boots back on, again. Two, check out the topo to see which was the quickest way back to civilization, just in case the one living person of us in our tent would have to trek on out to get help or a hearse.
Having settled upon a plan, and too terrified to do anything, especially the things you might think would be de rigueur after a day’s pack over one pass and to the flanks of a second — like, say, piss and eat — we settled into our sleeping bags, hoping against hope that we’d be able to sleep, perchance to dream.
Damn if I didn’t do just that. The crazy thing was, I had this dream about an old elementary-school friend of ours, Matt Karwowski, whom I honestly hadn’t given a single thought to for literally years. But there he was all the same, inside my head at some elevation north of 10,000 feet, in the heavenly lap of a bowl on the backside of the Maroon Bells, helping me get through some dreamlike cityscape that sort of approximated the metropolis Charlton Heston lived in in “Soylent Green.” So, Matt helped me out, and when I woke up, it was light out.
I was so happy. We made it through the thunderous, lighting-spiked night. I zipped open my bag, and zipped open the door of the tent to revel in some early morning blue sky I knew I could count on.
What the? — I couldn’t see the top of any of the Bells because they were infected with a creeping, charcoal crown of clouds that did not look friendly one single bit. I leaned back to tap Derwood and whisper a choice expletive when — shitfuck! Shitfuckshitfuck! — a splinter of lightning accompanied by a simultaneous roar from some medieval creature made Derwood sit up straight, and fast.
“Dude!” I said.
“We’re still in this thing?”
We decided — it seemed like a good idea at the time, anyway — that the best course of action was to not stop, do not collect $200, and just get the freaking hell out of this cursed cirque. As we were packing up the wet tent, I think it dawned upon both of us at the same time that the brown circle in that meadow below us was probably not from a tent set up for too long. No. We both looked at each other knowingly. All that grass was singed dead because 10,000 volts from the sky fried the ever-loving shit out of its green verdant life.
We hoofed it, triple time, up the rocky trail, into the clouds where we could no longer see if we were getting close to the top of the pass or not. C-c-c-c-crrrrack! “Fuckshit!” We had hiking poles with us. Truth be told, they were ski poles doing double-duty during the summer months. We again both looked at each other knowingly. Ski poles. Metal ski poles. Portable lightning rods!
We decided to ditch the poles, then found a boulder that we rationalized could maybe keep our heads dry from the rain that began pelting us, and maybe at the same time it would keep the lightning from snagging us.
I know, I know. Still, at the time, having not eaten or pissed in probably 18 hours, up near 12,000 feet, it seemed perfectly logical.
We sat there, in the cold rain and savage lightning, pondering whether we should continue going upward because, in theory, that would bring us even closer to the lightning. As we talked about calculus and differential equations and the random nature of lightning strikes, all of a sudden it occurred to us that we hadn’t heard any thunder in a number of minutes. We stopped talking. We waited. Derwood raised an eyebrow at me from behind his speckled specs. It occurred to me that the rims of his glasses were some metallic substance, and me sitting next to him was no better than holding onto a ski pole when you get right down to the relative attractiveness of elements to lightning. But before I was able to reach over and grab those confounded glasses and throw them down the mountain along with the ski poles, I realized that another minute had gone by in non-thunderous silence.
We were sitting on a pile of edgy maroon rocks, in the cold, in the rain, in the clouds, at two miles above sea level. But we could deal with all that, because the existential threat of our very existence no longer needed to be a topic of conversation, and we could start the process of discussing more material things, like whether our frozen, frightened nut sacks would remain the size if not constitution of a frozen mouse medulla, or not.
We decided the time was ripe to continue our journey up into the clouds, and I stumbled the stumble like when you reach the top of the stairs in the dark and think there’s another stair to step on but you’re already on the top. And I was. On the top of the pass. Not that I would know it, since we were squarely in a pea-soup cloud. But a silent cloud. Here’s to the silent clouds!
We made it a hundred yards or so down the other side of the pass, silently ruing the disappointment at having come to the hard-fought top of a pass, with the ineffable views that go with all that, and all we could see was the inside of a bag of cottonballs.
And just then, a sly wind from the north blew against us, and it made us both stop. The wind blew out of nowhere, or everywhere maybe, and after a minute, like a dream, a few banks of clouds blew away, and it revealed a golden-grass landscape below colored peaks that were now mottled with snow. Honest to God, it was one of the most sublime viewsheds I ever laid eyes on. Matter of fact, tears swelled up from inside my head and I wept a bit. It was a cry of beauty, and of grace, and also of hunger and exhaustion, and of tapped adrenals — we made it, and were rewarded.
Epilogue: When Derwood and I made it back to Boulder, we discovered that an old friend of ours — that’s right, Matt Karwowski — had been shot dead in New York City. He was killed the very night Derwood and I battled the lightning in the heavens, the selfsame night Matt came from out of nowhere to help me navigate the demons of my dreams. I figured we were as close to heaven as a mortal needs to ever be, not to mention feeling like I was as close to losing my mortality as I ever wanted to be. And the spirit, or soul, of Matt came flying through the metaphysical spiritual noosphere on its way around the world and out of town.