Question about lightning and sport climbing


Original Post
Alec Orenstein · · Gallup, NM · Joined Apr 2013 · Points: 10

I've had a few experiences recently that raised a question about lightning and safety while sport climbing. I've searched for the answer for this, and asked a few people, but I can't seem to find a satisfying answer.

The scenario: You are sport climbing at a steep crag; the crag is several hundred feet high (essentially the side of a small mountain), but the routes are only about 80-100 feet high, i.e., the routes go about a third of the way up the cliff. (Specifically, I'm thinking of Shagg Crag in Maine, but lots of sport areas fit this description.) It begins to rain, but because the wall is steep, everything around the base is dry, and the climbing is unaffected by the rain. Then you hear thunder.

The Question: Is it dangerous to continue to climb during the lightning storm, or at least any more dangerous than simply waiting it out on the ground?

It seems unlikely that lightning would strike the cliff close enough to you (i.e., low enough down the cliff face) for there to be any danger, but I don't know much about how lightning conducts through a cliff or mountain top. And I have no idea how ropes and hardware affect this. Also I know about the danger of being in a cave during a lightning storm, but the cliff isn't so steep that I could see lightning jumping from the top all the way to the floor (but I could be wrong?).

So, thoughts?

Hobo Greg · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 115

Lightning tends to, but doesnt always strike tall objects. In fact, lightning can strike just about anywhere as it moves in roughly 50 meter segments (hence the fragmented look of a bolt). It would be more dangerous to be on the cliff, as #1, you're not grounded, and #2, you are now taller than on the ground, increasing your chances of being struck. Remember that most people "struck" by lightning are really hit by the lightning spreading through the ground, though this is much less intense than being struck directly. Not much chance of survival if that happens.

Matt Himmelstein · · Orange, California · Joined Jun 2014 · Points: 115

If it is me, I am getting my derriere off the rock as quickly as I can do it safely. Sure, you may not get struck, but do you really want to paint a big fat target on your head and dare Thor to toss a lightning bolt your way?

Mike Lane · · Centennial, CO · Joined Jan 2006 · Points: 905

If you get struck while actually up on the route you will mutate into a 5.15 climber. That's how both Sharma and Ondra got there.

Mike Lane · · Centennial, CO · Joined Jan 2006 · Points: 905

I rode out a sever thunderstorm at Shelf once. It rolled in fast from the north and by the time the clouds were over us it was too late.
We were at the Bank, we found the closest thing to an overhang there are clung to the wall. Bolts were hitting the canyon right in front of us at like 30 second intervals. It was like surviving an artillery attack.
My understanding is that negatively charged ions rise up from the ground which creates the path for the bolt. Whether or not being close to the cliff is better than away I do not know.

climbing coastie · · Wasilla, AK · Joined Feb 2011 · Points: 90

Greg,

How is a climber not "grounded" when they climb?? They are touching the rock with their hands and feet, to me they are more grounded than standing on rubber soled shoes.

Hobo Greg · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 115
climbing coastie wrote:Greg, How is a climber not "grounded" when they climb?? They are touching the rock with their hands and feet, to me they are more grounded than standing on rubber soled shoes.
What if they are mid dyno?

Seriously, the rubber has nothing to do with it (same as your car- youre not safer there because of rubber, youre safer because of the car's frame acting as a ferric cage), but Im not sure if being on a rock, which can be semi detached from the actual earth and loaded with iron, constitutes being grounded in the same way as standing on soil. Someone smarter than I will have to chime in.
climbing coastie · · Wasilla, AK · Joined Feb 2011 · Points: 90

I agree the rubber soles wouldn't make a difference. Never thought of the rock being detached. One thing that might make a difference is the rock would be dry, so there's no water to help conduct the electricity.

I'd still not climb during a storm for safe measures!

Alec Orenstein · · Gallup, NM · Joined Apr 2013 · Points: 10

Thanks for all the thoughtful answers -- glad it doesn't seem to be an open-and-shut case, but an interesting question like I thought. Obviously being around lightning in general is scary and dangerous, but I'm curious as to why climbing would be worse than standing. Let's assume the rock is solid and not detached--I would think you'd still be grounded.

Keep 'em coming! Thanks.

Kurt G. · · Reading, PA · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 110

from personal experience almost getting caught in a storm in the gunks, the impending storm takes your attention away from climbing and onto the storm. I wouldn't want to risk making a mistake on the wall because im freaking out about whether or not im going to get hit by lightning. my suggestion is get off the wall if you can.

Alec Orenstein · · Gallup, NM · Joined Apr 2013 · Points: 10
Kurt G. wrote:from personal experience almost getting caught in a storm in the gunks, the impending storm takes your attention away from climbing and onto the storm. I wouldn't want to risk making a mistake on the wall because im freaking out about whether or not im going to get hit by lightning. my suggestion is get off the wall if you can.
Thanks Kurt -- valid point about maintaining focus, but I'm asking a specific question about climbing on a formation that doesn't come close to topping out, unlike the Gunks, which top out on the ridge.
Kurt G. · · Reading, PA · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 110
Alec32 wrote: Thanks Kurt -- valid point about maintaining focus, but I'm asking a specific question about climbing on a formation that doesn't come close to topping out, unlike the Gunks, which top out on the ridge.
yeah I hear ya. just throwing in my 2 cents.
Greg D · · Here · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 871

I'll chime in in much greater detail later when I'm not working. But to start, rubber shoes do make a difference. In fact there was a lightning strike on the soccer field in Africa not too long ago. The team wearing metal spiked cleats died while the others with plastic spike shoes did not. They were on the field together at the same time.

Gunkiemike · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 2,740
climbing coastie wrote:I agree the rubber soles wouldn't make a difference. Never thought of the rock being detached. One thing that might make a difference is the rock would be dry, so there's no water to help conduct the electricity.
If the rock isn't going to conduct the current of a lightning strike, guess what is? Your salty fluid-filled body, that's what.
Jeremy Polk · · Sandy, UT · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 5

I know this doesn't specifically answer your question. But IMO the advantage to sport climbing during times of possible thunderstorms is the ability to get off the rock quickly. With all due respect, don't be one of those annoying people that basically won't stop arguing the fact that there's a chance you might not get hit by lightning. Being safe in the mountains is all about MINIMIZING RISK. I've been caught on route during a thunderstorm on an east facing wall. Before we knew it, it was too late. We were in it. I could see lightning bolts hitting low spots, high spots, didn't matter. It is also my understanding that unless you get struck directly, being insulated from the ground DOES matter. So standing on the ground with rubber soles should definitely make a difference. Be safe out there.

Tapawingo Markey · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2012 · Points: 75
Greg D wrote: I'll chime in in much greater detail later when I'm not working. But to start, rubber shoes do make a difference. In fact there was a lightning strike on the soccer field in Africa not too long ago. The team wearing metal spiked cleats died while the others with plastic spike shoes did not. They were on the field together at the same time.
I'm interested in hearing more about this Greg. If rubber soles make such a difference then why is it imperative to not get caught on a mountain in a thunderstorm since our boots/shoes have rubber soles?
Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0

The simple answer is that no matter what, you are more conductive than the mountain, and electricity will flow through the path of least resistance, which means you. Even if you are wearing rubber shoes.

Long answer: The mountain (even if wet) has some finite resistance, which is fairly high, on the order of kOhm*m when wet to MOhm*m when dry. Under high voltage situations, the human body's resistivity is around 500-1000 Ohm. Since we're talking about human body length's, let's just call granite's resistivity as kOhm to MOhm.

When a lightning strike hits an object, the voltage at the point of contact goes up to several million volts (the charge from the lightning), and then spreads outwards from that point. Usually, it spreads out along the ground (ground current). This means, though, that if you measure the voltage at one point and again at another point a couple feet away, the voltages will be different. If you put a human body there, the electricity will flow through the human body.

The fun thing about really high voltages is that it can go through what we would consider to be adequate everyday electrical insulation. The problem is that the rubber sole on your climbing shoe and mountaineering shoe is so thin (on the order of an inch or so) that high voltage electricity will arc through it. For reference, air is a better electrical insulator than rubber, and when high voltage switches for electrical substations open, they sometimes arc for several inches. And we're only talking a couple thousand volts here, whereas lightning is millions of volts.

This is why in lightning drill, you minimize contact with the ground. If you only are spanning an inch or two on the ground (standing on tip-toes), you get much less voltage and current than if you spanned say 20 inches (sitting on your butt with your feet tucked in). And if you span around 70 inches (say you were climbing), that would be nearly 10 times the amount of voltage you'd get compared to if you were just standing on the ground.

tl;dr: yer gonna die. Period.

Dankasaurus · · Lyons, CO · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 85

Whether or not the electrons can arc across a gap of high resistivity (an insulating layer) depends on the voltage differential (voltage can be thought of as potential energy). In almost all cases I'd imagine the voltage will be high enough to arc across such a thin insulating layer. Once the arc happens, the insulating layer might break down and become less resistant, increasing the ability of the electrons to flow (that is what current is, the movement of electrons).

Current is what kills and damages people. So if you're standing on the ground, and are subject to ground effects from a nearby strike, what compels the current to move through your body is it's low relative resistivity. It can be easier for an electron to get from point A (your left foot) to point B (your right foot) by going through your legs and body than by going across or through the ground or rock, despite the shorter distance.

I'd imagine the same principles apply if point A is your left hand and point B is your right foot, whilst you are climbing on a cliff and lighting strikes the top of it.

I know that for electromagnetic fields, the intensity of the signal decreases with the cube root of the distance from the emitter. This is why carrying your mobile phone in your pocket next to your reproductive organs all day every day is a bad idea. Or why I cringe when I see young men with laptops on their balls for hours and hours at the coffee shop. A few inches of distance will really help your sperm count, lads.

My question then is: What is the function that describes how the intensity of the voltage/current of the ground effects decreases with distance from the point of the strike? Is it more like sqrt( distance )?

David Baddeley · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2014 · Points: 30

http://rendezvous.nols.edu/files/Curriculum/research_projects/Risk%20Management%20Reports/NOLS%20Backcountry%20Lightning%20Safety%20Guidelines.pdf

has a really good explanation of how lightning strikes work. For me it would depend on how much higher the cliff was, and if it stayed truly dry, or if there was a good chance of wet ropes etc ... My gut instinct says that you'd be somewhat less safe than waiting it out on the ground below the cliff (but far enough away to avoid cave arcing), but probably safer than being in the middle of a clearing away from the cliff.

t.farrell · · New York, NY · Joined Aug 2016 · Points: 60

A guide that I climb with has been struck by lightning. You don't have to be directly impacted by the bolt to feel the effects.

So I'd say ask yourself would you rather be struck while roped up on a cliff side (keeping in mind that lightning can melt your harness and rope) or down on the ground? If it hits anywhere close enough to affect you, whether ground or cliff, you're not going to be in a good spot where ever you are.

Dankasaurus · · Lyons, CO · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 85

Answering my own question

From the article, it appears that it's probably too complicated to compute the ground current intensity-distance relationship because of the differing types and orientation of media in the ground.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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