A Shocking Yosemite Experience

Well, I was going to keep this kinda quiet… but word is getting out about my electrifying experience with lightening in Yosemite and the pressure for me to tell the “full story” is increasing, so I’m giving in hoping this doesn’t discourage anyone from coming to Yosemite Summit in the future!

The question I keep getting is, “Were you really struck by lightening at Yosemite?” Well, since I’m typing this from my current location on earth (rather than heaven) the technical answer is, NO! But… I was in the middle of a strike that hit trees all around me and there is that mysterious jagged hole in my poncho to account for! So when I posted on Twitter and Facebook that my most exciting experience at Yosemite was being struck by lightening… it wasn’t much of a stretch!

So here’s the story! We started out Day One with a spectacular all day hike that began at Sentinel Dome, where the view is absolutely breath-taking. Here we all are on the top of Sentinel Dome:

After our chapel time and quiet times alone, we took the Ponomo Trail, a little traveled segment of a longer trail, in order to loop around through the woods and then to the edge of Upper Yosemite at the top of Sentinel Fall. Here we are at the top:

Yes, I photo-shopped myself into this picture, since I took it! You can’t see the water fall in this picture, because, well, we are above it, BUT you can see we are higher than El Capitan in the background! O.K., here is a picture of the falls… as close to it as I wanted to get:

It’s hard to tell in the picture how HIGH we are, but that is the valley below, some 3000+ feet below! Here is a view of it (from Google images) from the bottom, it cascades for awhile before it final long drop to the valley floor:

Next we left the sunny warm open areas and entered into a forest where the temperatures were still cool and snow was still on the ground!

We forged rivers… (OK, one creek)

and finally all arrived at Taft Point at different times since the group spread out over time depending on their hiking pace and whether they constantly stopped to take pictures. Which is why I usually am one of the last to arrive at the meeting spots. Taft Point is simply amazing!

Taft Point is one of the highest places that has a STRAIGHT DOWN view, over 3500 feet. (hard to see in this photo, but there is one of the few railings in all of Yosemite at the very tip where you see the guys standing!)

I know, I know… what about the LIGHTENING!? I just want to make sure you know, it’s not like we just went to Yosemite and got attacked by lightening, it was a spectacular day… with an even more spectacular ending! So, on to the lightening…

Here’s me at Taft Point, in what very well could have been the last picture of me ever taken! It indeed was the last picture of me that day! By the time I got to Taft Point, we had started to see some clouds appearing East of us toward Half Dome and heard some thunder in the distance. It is a known fact for Yosemite hikers, that being out on large open granite surfaces is not safe if lightening is even remotely possible, as the lightening, being unable to absorb into the rock, will travel across the surface at, well, lightening speed, until it finds grounding. Being in the path of that lightening is, well, let’s just say, not recommended. Oh, and Taft Point is a huge open granite area, oh, and with a metal railing at the highest point!

As the leader of the expedition, and taking our group’s safety seriously, as soon as I got to Taft Point, I called out to the guys that we needed to leave and skipped going up to the point myself even though I’d hiked all day with this being the final destination. But there was another “final destination” I wasn’t interested in reaching today, if possible. Let me say for all the wives reading this – the group was not in any danger at this point, but we weren’t going to stick around until we were!

We regrouped, counted to nine (something we did often!) and once we knew the entire group was accounted for, headed back to the van. At this point, due to the loop we were doing, we were only about a mile and a half from the van. We headed back, and over the course of that last segment, the group spread out again until six were back at the van and I had two guys with me. About half way to the van the rain started, and by the time we got near the parking lot it was pouring HAIL. Seriously! We went from a beautiful sunny day with clear skies to rain and hail!

AND NOW THE EXCITING PART! (you skipped to here, didn’t you?)

Because the trail was blocked by a creek and in the rain we didn’t want to walk across the log that would normally be the easy way across, the three of us headed down river a bit until we could find some rocks in the creek that were high enough to cross over. I went first, called out to the two guys behind me that I’d found an easy way across, and then headed up toward the road. I could see that I was about 200 feet from the road, and gathered that the parking lot was probably another 200-300 feet up the road. I was almost out of the storm and into the van! I was feeling bad knowing that the six ahead of me were locked out of the van in this hail, but fortunately they had found a small pavilion to huddle under.

At this point everything is both fuzzy and crystal clear – don’t ask me to explain that – but as soon as I reached the road and started to walk toward the van – IT HAPPENED. It is difficult to describe. The words I have to use don’t do it justice. But there was this incredible NOISE – yes, an explosion, all around me. Scared is not the word. I was beyond scared, but only for a nano-second, honestly. It was like I was so terrified in that instant as I had no idea what was happening – I just froze – then I saw red billowing flames ahead of me followed by a pillar of smoke of biblical proportions and realized that lightening had struck VERY close. For the next few seconds, I wondered if I was dead. That sounds strange, but I just had a stent put in my heart a month before, and had been given the OK to go to Yosemite via stress test, but in that frozen moment, I wondered, “If your heart stops, do you feel it?” I couldn’t feel anything anywhere in that moment, so I wondered, “Do you die instantly, or do I have a minute to soak in life?” It was literally just a few seconds and I could feel that I was truly was OK and not about to keel over. I heard the guys behind me calling out to me and asking if I was OK. I heard them, but was still in shock (no pun intended) so while I answered, I knew they couldn’t hear my soft answer. When I could, I yelled that I was OK, and we’d better get to the van as fast as possible. I was finally able to look away from the explosion that was still smoking and noticed wood fragments were scattered everywhere, I instinctively reached down and picked up the piece at my feet before starting toward the van, the last two guys were now with me.

Yes, I thought of taking pictures or grabbing my video camera. No, I didn’t!

When I was walking toward the van my head was down and I noticed that there was a huge jagged hole in my poncho. Was I struck by lightening?!?!? It was a brand new poncho and it had been fine before the lightening strike! It was then that I realized my leg hurt a little. Not much, but like I’d been hit. We got to the van and I just handed the key over and asked another guy to drive, I was still kinda in shock. (not literally!) I was wearing zip off pants that convert to shorts so I unzipped them to look where my leg hurt, and there on my leg was a bruise – not huge, but clearly new. (I took a picture, but I’m sparing you that!) I looked at the wood in my hand and realized I must have been hit with “shrapwood” from the exploding tree! (Later, when putting my PJ’s on, I was to discover multiple bruises, I had been hit in several places by flying wood!)

The conversation in the van was charged with excitement. This was both exciting and sobering. Debate broke out on where the lightening struck, and how close it was to me. The guys by the van saw it hit much higher and farther away than I described. The guys behind me described it as being even closer to me than I thought. It was a bit of a puzzle, but we were curious, so we decided to return the next day to investigate.

The following morning was our sunshine at Glacier Point, which just happens to be a mile or so farther down the road than where we had parked the van the day before. It was pitch black out when we drove by so we couldn’t see anything.

After an awe-inspiring time at Glacier Point and our chapel time, we headed back to to the cabin to pack up for our hike that would begin in the valley today… but not without stopping first at the scene of the crime from yesterday:

Of course, I wanted to go back to the very spot I had been standing when the lightening struck! It felt kinda wierd to revisit the spot. My foot prints were visible and it appeared, that contrary to what I remembered, I had actually moved backward 4-5 feet reacting to the explosion, judging by the foot prints and dug in impressions that matched my shoes. (We were all acting like CSI guys!) Most of the wood debre was now gone, either washed away in the storm, or perhaps cleaned up off the road, but as I was standing in “the spot,” someone pointed out the large piece of tree that was lying RIGHT NEXT to where I had been standing!

It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway… what if THIS ‘stick’ had hit me? In a very large area, on BOTH sides of the road, wood scraps lay everywhere.

Not all of it was on the ground, some was up in trees:

Look a little closer, that’s not a twig!

As we walked up and down the hill, it turned out ALL the reports in the van were correct, as lightening had struck several trees, on all sides of me, in an area probably more than 50 feet circle.

This is the tree that I saw on fire and whose fragments probably hit me. It doesn’t look like much damage to the tree from here, but up close it’s kinda crazy…

Wood was ripped off these trees so fast and so hard that branches still stuck out in places like rebar from concrete! And the parts of the trees that were damaged spiraled from top to bottom, so it was hard to get a picture of all the damage.

Here you can kinda see how the damage spirals toward the top of the tree! And there is another 8 feet below and up higher on the other side toward the top!

Hard to even image the POWER of something that can rip through a tree like this!

Matt McDaniels holds up a massive segment of a tree he found… yeah, I know.

Me and my tree. Wow.

Well, what can I say? Yosemite Summit was a blast. Can’t wait until next year. Statistically, it can only be safer!

In conclusion, one of the guys shared at our chapel time the next day that God had given him a verse for me, and thought perhaps this could be my theme verse for Yosemite Summit 2009. I think I like it!

He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him —
the dark rain clouds of the sky.

Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.

Psalm 18:11-12

Yes, I still have that piece of wood I picked up, and plan to keep it as a reminder of how God protected me that day. Every day of life is truly a gift… perhaps that is why it is called the Present.

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11 Comments:

  1. WOW! Now I am really “charged” to go next year. :) We’re all thankful for your safety, but maybe you should add some things to the packing list for future years, like giant rubber boots!

  2. Well, lets see…., Last year it was the bear that was the big story. This year, you get struck by lightning (or nearly), what happens next year? You come across Bigfoot?

  3. Matt McDaniels

    Who’s that stud holding the huge piece of wood? Is he married?

  4. The picture where you photo shopped yourself in, aren’t you already in the middle of the front row or is that someone that looks like you?

  5. Melissa – WOW! You are observant! I’m tempted to claim its my twin brother that mom and dad kept from you all these years, and he was the one who was mean to you as a little girl! Never me!

    Seriously, you cracked me up, because after spending like 20 minutes on that on the airplane home, I noticed that I added me to the wrong photo! So I redid it, but here used the wrong one. Not sure I’ll get that fixed until after camp this week, so now everyone will see photographic proof of my split personality!

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  7. Thanks for posting this story. I found it the next day after I finished reading “Shattered Air: A True Account of Catastrophe and Courage on Yosemite’s Half Dome.” I assume you’ve read the book, but if not, you should, because it’s also a manual on just about everything you need to know about lightning. I was in Yosemite the day (6-6-09) after you posted this story–I’m not sure if your incident and the day you posted were the same day–but I decided to hike up past the foot bridge to Vernal Falls to see where the John Muir Trail branches off from the Mist Trail. I left at about 4pm and it was raining lightly. I was loving it but with all the thunder heads in the sky I realize now it’s not such a good idea to hike in such conditions. While I was standing next to the JMT, a group of SAR guys walked past me. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were one of several teams that were dispatched to rescue the woman who had just slid down Half Dome on the wet granite at about 3:30pm. She survived but with a lot of injuries. The helicopter was able to pluck her off at about 8pm. Anyway, I’m sure glad you weren’t injured, and your story drove home the point that we must learn lightning risk management to minimize our chances of being struck by lightning. God bless.

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