You do not want to be caught in lightning above tree-line, but if this happens, it does not mean you will necessarily die, statistics is not so bad, so do not panic.
It is most important to keep going if you can, so try to descend as soon as possible, and in the process avoid exposed areas. So if you can choose, follow gullies instead of exposed ridges.
Do people really get killed by lightning in the mountains?
There is no statistics for the whole world. So here are some numbers for specific countries.
According to Wikipedia, in the United States and for 2009-2018 period there is an average of 27 lightning fatalities per year.
But how many people really go to the mountains in the US? From an article I read that around 59 million people in the United States participated in hiking activities at least once in 2021. This is outside of the year range mentioned above, so perhaps not related completely.
However, they also say that this was more than 80% above the number in 2010 which is inside the mentioned period. In any case, this is about tens of millions of people. Now compare this with the mentioned 27 fatalities/year.
I found a paper about lightning casualties in Austria, and the numbers are as follows. For the period 2005–2015, there were 64 patients hit by lightning in the Austrian Alps. By the way, 54 were male. Four persons died on scene, and survival rate was 93.8%.
Now, have you ever been in the Alps, in particular in the Austrian part? I can tell you, they are full of people. So with the rate of 6.4 per year, and the given survival rate, this is simply negligible. However, you do not want to be one of those, this is sure.
One more detail is worth noticing, 95.3% of the accidents were between 12:00 and 22:00 h. What does this tell you?
As I discussed in my separate text, weather in the mountains is generally worse in the afternoons. Did you hear about the term ‘alpine start‘? This means start early in the morning, more precisely when it is still dark. One of the reasons for this practice of mountaineering is exactly the weather conditions that are more stable in the morning.
All in all, the statistics seems to indicate that it is not as bad as you might think. People indeed get killed, but this is rare, so this should not stop you from going outdoors.
The point is, stay alert and keep an eye on your environment and the weather situation.
Can you survive lightning?
I certainly would not want to be a living witness for something like this. However, people indeed survive lightning. You have seen the statistics about Austrian Alps, the survival rate is excellent.
But I have read a story about a park ranger Roy Sullivan who apparently was struck 7 times and it did not kill him.
So how to play safe regarding lightning?
• If you are in a car, you should be safe. So if this is a high mountain pass or a trailhead, just get in the car. I have spent quite a number of nights in storms on some very high passes in the Alps. Probably the worst was on Fluela Pass near Davos, and it happened twice.
I expected the storm and moved with the car at a bit lower place below the pass. I did not really feel I was in danger from lightning, I was more concerned about the car because of hail that started at one moment.
• If you are in open space, it is best that you see the picture below. This is from a presentation available online and you can download it as well. Make sure you inspect the picture thoroughly as this may save your life.
As you realize from the picture, the area above tree line is extremely dangerous. So it is best do descend as fast as possible towards less exposed places below.
In the process it is best to avoid ridges, so take gullies if possible. Once you get to the tree area, make sure to avoid prominent and large trees.
• But if you cannot descend quickly, don’t rush, to avoid possible injuries. Try to find a shelter in some area that is lower that the surroundings.
• Make sure you place your metal items (ice axe, poles) horizontally on the ground, preferably at some distance from you.
• If this is about a group of people, it is better to stay dispersed to minimize chances for multiple casualties. People tend to gather and stay together in the case of danger, but this is not the best way.
• From statistics it appears that more than half people killed by lightning are because of ground current. By direct strike it is just a few percent. So, I doubt that you can do much about it. Sitting on a (wet) backpack, as some suggest, will not save you.
• I have seen some suggesting that you crouch down to reduce exposure and to encourage lightning strike to travel down your back so that vital organ are less damaged. Also, reducing your footprint may help to reduce voltage differences in the case of strike. This all makes sense only if you are in a shelter. But this would be the most stupid thing to do staying directly in the rain and wind.
• As you know, this all can be noisy and with lots of light, so it may be good to cover your ears and close eyes.
• Then pray a bit, you have nothing to lose.
Here are some more suggestions in this video, please have a look:
So this is all I had to say about the issue of lightning above tree line and about what to do if you are caught in such a situation.
Last time when I myself was in a lightning storm was just a couple of months ago in the Dolomites in Italy. The storm started when I was at almost 3000 meters of elevation on my descent from Piz Boe.
I put on my waterproof poncho and some pants that were supposed to be waterproof (they were not, as usual), and just continued walking down, towards the Pordoi Pass. There was no reason for fear or panic; there were plenty of much higher peaks around for strikes instead of my own tiny figure on the path.
Let me know if you think I missed saying something important. There is a comment box below.
Bookmark this site and visit it occasionally, you have new texts added here regularly. Check for more texts of this type in the category Mountaineering. Read for example how to descend steep dry grass slopes and much more. Thank you for reading and have a nice day.