Get off the summit by noon. That’s the rule of the thumb when you’re climbing the Rockies, at least in the summer. Because lost in all the propaganda about Colorado’s vaunted “300 days in sunshine” is that, for a few months every year, deadly thunderstorms graze the state’s mighty peaks almost daily.
I don’t care how sunny and clear it is in the morning. Rest assured storms are a-brewin’ somewhere, and these puppies move fast. It’s like watching a car barrel down the freeway, or a dam burst. By the time you’ve spotted the clouds heading your way, it’s almost assuredly too late.
I’ll never forget my first run-in with one of these freak storms.
We were at the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in Colorado. It’s a beautiful bit of protected shortgrass prairie just south of the Wyoming border, home to prairie dogs, ferrets, foxes, elk, coyotes, bears, and pronghorns – pronghorns looking a bit like an antelope and capable of sprinting over an amazing 50 MPH.
Though most definitely a prairie, Soapstone isn’t exactly flat. It’s full of gentle hills, stretching on seemingly forever into the horizon, producing almost the same impression as the ocean. There’s a near perpetual breeze, and bits of reddish hued rocks poke out here and there. It’s a strange, almost surreal terrain.
And it sounds pretty bucolic, doesn’t it?
It is, until a dark, distended cloud pops up over the distant mountains. It looks like doom, clashing strongly with the white, puffy clouds and blue sky around it.
“I’m not too worried about it,” I say. “I haven’t seen any lightning. It’ll probably pass without anything happening.”
On cue (this really happened – I’m not being cute and literary here), there’s a flash and a tremendous boom. The hills and little valleys function as a sort of echo chamber, the thunder shaking my phone as I calculate how long it would take to get back to the car. A quick look around reveals that we are by far the tallest object around for near future.
“Like, do you want to keep going? Because I think we should probably head back,” I say.
“It’s up to you,” my wife says. “I’m OK.”
Of course. She always leaves making cowardly decisions to me.
“Alright, well, let’s panic and go back.”
There’s more thunder. It’s unbelievably loud and bone-rattling. Now I’m power walking at Olympic speeds. I feel vulnerable, exposed. In my head, I’m begging Thor for mercy, offering up my firstborn if he’ll just spare me,
We make it to the car right before the downpour and cloud-to-ground lightning starts. Phew. It’s about 3 PM, and the storm clouds are rolling off the mountains in assembly line fashion.
About a week later, I was at the Reservoir Ridge Natural Area in Fort Collins. There’s sunflowers, purple larkspur, and waving stands of brome. It’s about 6 PM. The sky is clear as we walk up to the ridge, the brilliant and white, when suddenly another thunderstorm pops up out of nowhere and lights up the ridge with strike after strike.
I run back to the car while my wife slowly saunters behind me, unworried.
Now you might be thinking, well, yeah, but all these stories don’t even take place in the mountains. Fair enough. That’s because usually I wasn’t in the mountains after noon.
View from Deer Mountain.
But there was an exception, when I got to Rocky Mountain National Park a little late. Despite that, I decide to summit Deer Mountain, rising majestically at lofty height of 10,000 feet. I reach the top only a few minutes past noon, not too bad. I only plan on staying on the summit maybe ten minutes, so I figure I’m alright.
But in that ten minutes, I watch in mock horror as lightning dances on a nearby summit, and a nasty cloud barely veers to the west. I’m playing Russian Roulette with my life, even if the odds of me dying are pretty low. I notice the tourists around me aren’t worried in the slightest, even though people do get killed by lightning at the park. It’s not a completely irrational fear.
I have a slight phobia of lightning, if you haven’t guessed, which doesn’t help matters.
At least I can say I walked down the mountain that with my dignity intact, instead of running and squealing in a manly tone like I did at Reservoir Ridge.
Bottom line, the Colorado mountains get crazy during those summer afternoons. I’ve experienced crazy cloud-to-ground lightning in downtown Steamboat Springs, about 7,000 feet above sea level, followed by damn near slush higher up, flimsy guard rails all that was protecting the car from careening down a cliff.
Rainbow after storm in Steamboat Springs.
Take my advice: if you visit Colorado in June or July, enjoy the mountains early in the morning, and then spend your afternoon in a brewery or something.