Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I've always had a deep love of thunderstorms. The palpable vibrancy in the air when lightning strikes, and the trembling reverberation of sound waves as thunder follows, always inspired a kind of hypnotized wonder and stillness in my heart and mind.

On the other hand, a thunderstorm when you're on an exposed peak or alpine climb can incite far less pleasant sensations- fear, panic, terror... though I admit that even in such dangerous situations I still feel an undeniable fascination with the power and peril of lightning.

Perhaps that explains why twice in the last month I've found myself in such a circumstance- watching a heavy, dark storm rapidly approach as my stomach sunk and adrenaline tightened my veins. Both times I was too exposed, too high up, and too scared to enjoy the storm.

The first storm occured two weeks ago when I hiked three 13,000 foot peaks- Mt. Ypsilon, Mt. Chiquita, and Mt. Chapin- in Rocky Mountain National Park with my friend Katie.

The day started off with blue skies and promises of good weather. We quickly ascended the three peaks, enjoying the cold winds of fresh, thin air and the hoards of marmots at the summits.

Check out the marmot camouflaged among the rocks- he's looking for a snack!

As amusing as the marmots were, we soon noticed a massive formation of dark clouds that had previously been hidden from view. Deep rumbles of thunder swept across the steep incline of broken rocks, resonating in our bones.

...the storm approaches....

Up at 13,000 feet, hours above tree-line, there was nowhere to seek shelter from the hissing rain or increasingly frequent flashes of lightning. We decided to make a break for it, running down wet and slippery shifting rocks, cringing each time we saw light tear across the darkened sky. The storm lingered over us for an hour, soaking us with rain and chilling us with whipping gusts of wind, but it granted us safe passage down the hills and let us pass unscathed.

vibrant alpine wildflowers and dark rain clouds

The next week, on another day that began with clear skies and bright sun, I woke up early to climb the Third Flatiron in Boulder with Katrina, my dear friend since age 5.

-our route-

The route we chose was very casual- seven pitches of 5.6- easy, enjoyable climbing in the sunshine with an old friend.

the view to the East from 1,000 feet...

... and to the North.

When we were a couple hundred feet from the summit, the air shifted so slightly it was almost imperceptible, but my senses made note. The soft breeze that had flowed over us all day dropped several degrees in temperature and began to blow stronger as the air that had smelled like warm rock and dry dirt took on the subtle scent of moisture. I looked up to see the first dark cloud roll over the peak.

We started climbing faster. When we reached the top, the murky clouds were spread across the sky like a heavy down blanket, yet the rain hadn't begun. We were hopeful of a dry descent until we reached the repel anchors, where a man was trying to convince his frightened girlfriend (who had never repelled before) to step over the ledge and lower herself on the rope. As he tried not to lose his patience, she whimpered and delayed, and Katrina and I looked nervously at the lightning that had begun to break.

We waited, 1,000 feet off the ground, with at least twenty pounds of metal gear strapped to ourselves as lightning spread like luminous tree roots closely over our heads. We started to get a little stressed.

Katrina reacts to a startling flash of lightning

Eventually, the terrified girlfriend was convinced to repel, and we followed quickly after. Reaching the ground, we raced down the trail, ignoring the rain and laughing happily at another lucky escape.

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