Published in NZ Adventure Magazine, April/May 2018
by Derek Cheng
The first lightning bolt knocked Bruce Weiner senseless, and left him without feeling in his legs. The second one hit him so hard, his spirit seemed to leave his body.
“There was this incredible pressure wave, and when the wave ended, I was definitely looking down at my body from outside of my body. And I knew that if I left my body completely, I knew that that was death.
“It wasn’t like I had control over it. If this is the time, this is the time. I didn’t wanna die, and I didn’t know if I was going to, but I think I was very close to death at that moment.”
Weiner, an engineer from Massachusetts, was one of five people inside a small rock enclosure on the summit of Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park. It was summer, 1985. He was in his early 20s and it was his first experience in the outdoors.
Just before the storm struck, he had been enthralled in the delightful delirium of reaching the summit after a 13km hike with almost 1500m of elevation gain through one of the world’s most scenic wonders.
Weiner and his best friend Bob Frith made their final push as the summit of Half Dome became engulfed in a heavy thunderstorm. Frith’s friends Adrian Esteban and Tom Rice, who had summited Half Dome several times over the years, had told them that there was a partially covered rock enclosure on the summit that would provide safe refuge in stormy weather, so they forged ahead.
By the time they reached the enclosure, they were cramping, dehydrated, and utterly exhausted. But they were overwhelmed with what they had achieved, and by the sheer beauty of the place.
That all changed in an instant when the lightning hit. Weiner‘s initial impression was that Esteban’s propane stove, which he had been using to make tea, had exploded. But then he realised he couldn’t feel his legs.
Esteban, too, could not feel his legs. Rice and the fifth person in the enclosure, teenager Brian Jordan, appeared to be lifeless.
Frith, who had been sitting at the edge of the open enclosure, right next to a 600m drop to the valley below, was also unconscious. He had a lightning wound on his face and was swaying perilously as his body continued to convulse with the after-effects of the electrical charge.
As Weiner and Esteban realised what might happen, they lunged towards him and each grabbed one of his arms. But without the use of their legs, they could not haul him to safety. An almighty seizure gripped Frith’s body and threw him over the edge, as Weiner tried in vain to keep a hold of his friend’s hand.
The tragic loss of his friend sent Weiner into sobs, while Esteban escaped the rock enclosure just before the second lightning bolt struck, triggering Weiner‘s out-of-body experience. Weiner surveyed his own body from above and contemplated death, until eventually, and without any effort on his part, his consciousness flowed back into his body.
The first lightning strike had left him so numb that he didn’t feel much pain. But the second one left him in agony.
“I thought I had broken my ribs, or something bad internally, because it just hurt with every breath. Just so painful to move. I was just thinking that if I get struck again, I’m not going to survive.”
The shock from the lightning had seared the flesh of Weiner‘s legs and lower back, leaving them looking as though someone had hacked at them with a potato peeler. While Esteban had escaped the enclosure, Rice and Jordan were still inside it when the second lightning bolt struck. Rice eventually gained consciousness, but Jordan never did.
A dramatic rescue unfolded over the ensuing hours as the skies cleared and dozens of hikers made their way to the summit for sunset. Several of them happened to be Emergency Medical Technicians, and they soon extracted Weiner and Rice from the enclosure and started caring for them, while one rescuer ran down to the hiking trail to alert park authorities.
Leading the rescue team was Californian Linda Crozier, whose EMT training had been wilderness-based. She organised about a dozen people into two teams to do regular checks on Weiner and Rice, the most critical patients.
Night fell, and they both became terribly cold. As the hours dragged on, many began to wonder if they were going to have to spend the night on the summit.
Weiner suffered through the pain and discomfort of being unable to relieve his bladder because of possible internal injuries, as well as dealing with the pain of the burns and the danger of his body going into shock. His pulse became more and more faint and, as the clock ticked towards midnight, some gurgling could be heard in his lungs. He became very quiet, leaving carers nervous about whether he would make it.
But around midnight, a Yosemite ranger and a trail builder reached the summit with medical supplies, and proceeded to clear a landing zone for a helicopter to land. A night time landing on top of Half Dome had never been attempted, but pilot and Vietnam veteran Al Major had nerves of steel as he successfully landed on the summit.
Weiner and Rice were flown to the burns unit at UC Davis Medical Centre, where doctors were unsure if they would survive, let alone be able to use their legs again. The swelling was so severe that they had to have several operations to remove the fascia from their legs to allow blood flow, without which they would have had their legs amputated.
To keep dead tissue from getting infected, they were regularly given pain medication, put in a bath, and scrubbed repeatedly with what was essentially steel wool and small spatulas.
“That was pretty painful,” Weiner recalls. “I still have a scar in my neck, where they had to put a jugular catheter in, because an IV catheter in the arm wasn’t a big enough needle to put that much pain meds in at any one time.”
Slowly but surely, over several weeks of treatment, Weiner and Rice recovered. After four weeks, Weiner‘s parents had him transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, so he could be closer to his family and friends.
He underwent painful physiotherapy over several months to regain the range of motion in his legs, ankles and feet, while eating a 3500 calorie-a-day diet to enable his body to deal with the metabolic needs of healing.
For the next five years or so, he suffered pain shooting up though his feet and legs at random times, and he still has mild kidney problems to this day. But when Weiner reflects on what happened more than 30 years later, he is grateful.
“The people that took care of us, rescued us and got us out of the cave and looked after us for all those hours until the helicopter came, they didn’t know us. They just took it upon themselves to be there and never asked for anything.
“I’m always going to be very grateful.”
He said it was “reckless and irresponsible” for the experienced leaders of the group, Rice and Esteban, to tell outdoor rookies like him and Frith that there was a safe haven on the summit in the event of a lightning storm.
“In reality, it was the least safe place we could have chosen to be at that moment, short of standing on top of that mountain with a big lightning rod in our hands. Which is essentially what we were doing.”
But he also takes responsibility for his own ignorance, and the dangerous situation it led him to, along with the self-imposed pressure and peer pressure to reach the summit.
“Looking back on it in retrospect is always different to the moment, when you’re there, and you just want to get there, and you don’t think something horrible’s going to happen.
“It was my responsibility to look out for myself and be smart. Ultimately, we made the decision, and no one held a gun to our heads.”
Weiner, who now lives in Florida and has made a new career as a veterinarian, eventually hiked back to the summit of Half Dome the following year, taking every safety precaution he could; he went up with a friend, camped part-way along the trail, and summited in the morning, minimizing the risk of getting caught in a storm, which typically unleashes late in the day.
“I was glad that I made the trip, glad I went back up there. Bob would’ve been happy to go up there as well. I knew he was glad that I did. It was good therapy.”
He said he owed it to himself and to Frith to revisit the summit.
“Just being miserable for the rest of my life over this would not be what Bob would want. He’d be like, ‘Don’t be stupid and unhappy the rest of your life about this. You’re alive, do what you want to do. And for God’s sake, don’t climb to the top of mountain in the middle of a thunderstorm ever again.’”
Lightning storm safety:
– Avoid storms in the first place. Check the forecast. If you’re in the outdoors, keep an eye out for clouds with dark underbellies. If you can hear thunder within 30 seconds after seeing lightning, then it is less than 10 kms away and you are not safe. Lightning can travel several kilometres horizontally before hitting the ground (hence the saying, ‘a bolt out of the blue’.)
– If you’re in a storm, the only way to avoid lightning is to find a large, enclosed shelter. Small structures like a shed or the rock enclosure in this story provide nearly zero protection as they lack a grounding mechanism. In a shelter, avoid contact with objects that conduct electricity, such as computers, corded phones, metal items, or large amounts of concrete. If in a car, roll up the windows and don’t lean against the inside doors. Wait at least 30 minutes from the last thunder clap before leaving the shelter.
– If caught outside, avoid bodies of water, high ground and open spaces. The summit of a peak is the last place you want to be, as lightning always wants to travel the shortest distance possible. If in a forest, retreat to smaller trees surrounded by taller ones. If in an open area, go to a low point like a valley and make yourself the smallest target possible by standing on an insulating item like a backpack, placing your heels close together and crouching. Do not lie down.