I really wonder about the popularity of those Worst Case Scenario books even as I browse them. They're clearly written for extreme situations. The advice is serious (in a superficial way), not snarky. Yet who plans to be in an extreme life-or-death situation? Who, when finding oneself in an extreme life-or-death situation, would have the presence of mind to pull out and consult a little yellow handbook? And who, having the book handy, would also have whatever tools are deemed necessary to survive the worst case?
Below the flip is a true story, which requires no handbook or special tools of survival, of a worst case scenario while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We were camping with our boys, then aged three and nearly-one. We planned to drive to a pretty little lake, hike, and drive back to the campground. The lake was very pretty, but the path around it was flat.
In my world, one either strolls or hikes. Hiking involves hills, water, an elevated heart rate, and views; it's a good thing. Strolling involves flat paths, a cup of designer coffee and a cel phone, a sense of leisure, and a mall; it
is boring has its place, but that place is not Rocky Mountain National Park. We finish our stroll -- and it was a stroll, not a hike -- around the pretty lake by 11 AM. My then-husband thinks that's quite sufficient for the day, but I want to do more (perhaps that's a reason he became an ex-husband...but I digress). I consult the park handout map, devise a ten mile trail across a couple of ridgetops that would take me back to camp, refill the water bottles, and set out.
I hike alone about three miles straight up. So far, so good. The pretty little lake is just a speck down below. The trail is clearly marked, albeit little used on a beautiful sunny August day. I sing John Denver, badly, just like every other tourist in Colorado. Somewhere above the 10,000 foot mark, I pass the treeline (a point above which trees can't survive, although smaller alpine plants can.) Then the clouds roll in.
I'm a California native, and our storms take days to arrive. I'm not used to the Mountain West pattern of sudden afternoon thundershowers, and I'm only wearing typical summer t-shirt-and-shorts attire. Pretty soon, I'm drenched, but I continue on. A couple of bluejays squawk at me, as if to say "Foolish human!" I ignore them.
Thunder booms, not terribly far away. There's a couple of lightning strikes. I can tell, by the split seconds between the flashes and the noise, that the lightning is very, very close. I remember, quite fondly, a night spent in a wilderness above Pendleton, OR during a dry lightning storm, during which you could read a book by the near-constant glare. I keep hiking. I'm now the tallest thing on an exposed ridgeline.
Suddenly my entire field of vision goes blinding-white just as noise fills my ears. A bizarre sensation, like an electric shock, but much, much larger, and excruciatingly painful, smites me -- yes, "smites" is the right word. I'm knocked to the ground. I'm knocked out. When I come to, I'm sick to my stomach. At first I can't move my limbs at all. I stagger up like a drunken sailor, but still can't move my facial muscles. A couple of hours later the feeling dials down to tongue-swollen-and-numb.
I've been ground-shocked by lightning! I haven't suffered a direct hit. However, the lightning charge has traveled through the wet ground and up through me. If I had to estimate, the bolt came down perhaps ten feet away. A bolt of lightning can be 28,000 degrees fahrenheit, or five times hotter than the surface of the sun. I consider my options. I'm nearly halfway done with the hike, but if I were to return to the pretty lake, my husband would be gone and I'd be twenty road miles back to camp. I decide to finish the remaining six miles of the hike.
Much thereafter is blurry. A marmot scampers across the trail. It's laughing at me. Somehow I stagger back to camp. My husband decides we should go to the ranger station and ask about first aid. At the ranger station, I tell my story, whereupon I'm advised:
If you're not dead already, you'll be fine.
And that, dear reader, is your Worst Case Scenario tip of the day on how to survive being struck by lightning: Don't die! No handbook required. If you do consult the Worst Case Scenarios handbook or webpage, you'll learn how to avoid lightning (stay below the treeline, get flat, and get inside), and you'll learn how to give CPR to someone who's been struck by lightning, but you won't learn how to get struck by lightning and live. (For the detail-oriented, Wikipedia elaborates: "The most critical injuries are to the circulatory system, the lungs, and the central nervous system. Many victims suffer immediate cardiac arrest and will not survive without prompt emergency care, which is safe to administer because the victim will not retain any electrical charge after the lightning has struck. Others incur myocardial infarction and various cardiac arrhythmias, either of which can be rapidly fatal as well. Loss of consciousness is very common immediately after a strike. Amnesia and confusion of varying duration often result as well." Thanks. I wouldn't have known that without reading it here.)
On the way back to California, we spend one night at a Vegas hotel. The afternoon thundershowers roll in. The lifeguards order everyone out of the pool. I'm the first one out. From here on, I take lightning seriously. However, I keep hiking. Expect more diaries in this series to celebrate the joys of being outdoors, in national parks and other places, and please use this as an open thread for your worst case (or even best case) scenarios.