Surprised by a thunderstorm in the mountains - how you should behave now
The most important things in brief
- Most summiteers probably know that you should prepare well for a mountain tour in summer.
- But despite the sophisticated weather app and good forecasts: local storms can still occur in the mountains without much advance warning or lead time.
- Always be vigilant during the tour and pay attention to wind and clouds.
- When it comes to extremes, namely being exposed to a storm without protection, there are a few things to consider that are essential for survival.
Despite the weather app and meticulous preparation, it happens again and again that hikers in the mountains are surprised by thunderstorms. First try to make an emergency call, the mountain rescue service may give you a valuable tip on where to find a shelter or bivouac nearby. But you can also survive a severe storm at high altitude if you stick to a few basic things. Having enough food with you, such as space-saving and strengthening bars, is expressly part of it.
The top priority: keep calm
Sure, it's easy to say, but staying calm is half the battle when you're in a potentially life-threatening situation. Clear thoughts are so much easier to grasp, and clear thoughts are exactly what you need right now. Your calm also rubs off on your companions - you all have to stay calm together as best you can in this situation.
The first thing you should do now is place anything that might attract lightning far enough away from you. This can be an umbrella, your crampons, an ice ax or a walking stick. Try to keep these items at least a few feet away from you.
Storms in the mountains: safe places
People in the mountains often make crucial mistakes when looking for a safe place to stay during a thunderstorm. It is extremely dangerous to stay near water, for example at reservoirs, waterfalls or mountain streams. Towering trees or masts (for cable cars or electrical lines, for example) also attract lightning and should be avoided, as should mountain peaks or exposed ridges. The impact probability is significantly higher there.
Instead, at high altitudes, find a spot under a small rock face and sit or lie on the ground at least two meters from the rock face. Lightning will usually target the highest point on the wall, and by staying away from the base of the wall, you avoid being caught by ground currents. On the other hand, very unsafe places are forest edges (preferably go into the deep forest), free-standing rock towers, a tent or a mountain meadow.
Watch out for early signs of a thunderstorm
Correct posture can be crucial. Ideally, sit with your knees drawn up on an insulating surface, such as a climbing rope or your dry backpack. Don't lean on anything and minimize the contact area with the ground to counteract current creep.
Every storm sends harbingers. You just have to be able to spot them and read them properly. Trust not only your - hopefully excellent - weather app, but also your instincts. If, for example, cloud towers and cumulus clouds form where there were just fair-weather clouds, if the wind picks up or there is a buzzing in the air that comes from electrical charge, then get out and look for a safe place. Thermal thunderstorms in summer often form suddenly in the middle of a good weather period and are difficult to predict.
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