Colorado and Wyoming rank at the top of the list for lightning-strike fatalities in the United States. It’s scary stuff. But dying from a bolt of electricity may not be nearly as frightening as surviving one.
A Climber’s Nightmare
Struck on: July 21, 2010 | Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
A rock ledge at 13,600 feet ranks among the worst places to be during a thunderstorm. But that’s where Betsy Smith, now 28, found herself stranded when a fast-moving storm cut off her group’s route on Wyoming’s Grand Teton at 10:30 a.m. on July 21, 2010. Smith and her group—boyfriend Alan Kline and two friends—didn’t know it at the time, but 13 others were also trapped on the peak, setting the stage for the largest rescue operation in Grand Teton National Park’s history.
With the risk of retreating back across the knife-edge ridge too high to attempt, Smith and her group huddled together on the ledge as the storm buzzed around them. “It was torture listening to the static start to build,” Smith says. “The only thing that would release it was lightning. For three hours we wondered what would release it. Our gear? The top of the mountain? Or us?”
Kline was the first to be hit, losing consciousness for a few seconds. Then one or two bolts—no one is sure how many—struck Smith. She fell back, crippled by pain and completely paralyzed. “I was convinced my body had become soup inside my clothes,” she says. It took 45 minutes for mobility to return enough for her to handle being lowered down the mountain on Kline’s makeshift rappel. Kline ferried the group 1,000 feet down to the Upper Saddle, where they met rescuers and eventually took helicopters down the mountain.
Burns were Smith’s most severe injuries. Doctors performed a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure in her left arm, slicing a four-inch-long cut above a burn encircling her wrist (where her watch had been); it had swollen enough to cut off circulation to her hand. Smith’s right index finger—already necrotic from another burn—had to be amputated. She left the hospital with both arms bandaged and splinted across her chest. Whether she’d regain full range of motion was anybody’s guess.
Fortunately, Smith’s physical recovery progressed well: Therapy helped restore most of her arm strength, and skin grafts returned her left arm to near-normality. Her phantom finger, nicknamed “Thelma,” still tingles occasionally. But the invisible wounds lingered on. “Right after the accident, I had nearly debilitating depression,” Smith says, citing the perfect storm of pain medication, the uncertainty of her injuries, and having to leave the Montana home she loved to accept help from Kline’s family in Connecticut. Enrolling in nursing school six months later got her back on track. “Even today, I have to stay very busy and on task,” she says. “I just keep on swimming.”
To this day, flashbacks intrude on Smith’s consciousness. “Everything replays over and over. I can’t get away from it,” she says. “People seem shocked when I tell them I think about it multiple times every day.” Despite it all, Smith still goes climbing. “Mountain weather is mountain weather,” she says with a shrug. “But I’m a bit more picky about the forecast now.”