ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. – Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park are hiking more cautiously after lightning strikes at the popular park killed two people in two days at the height of summer travel season.
Signs around the park warn its 3 million annual visitors that storms can close in quickly with deadly results. But the park hadn’t seen a lightning fatality in 14 years until Friday, when Rebecca Teilhet, 42, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was killed and seven more hikers were injured on the Ute Crossing Trail at about 11,400 feet above sea level.
One day later and a few miles away, lightning killed Gregory Cardwell, 52, of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at Rainbow Curve, a pullout on Trail Ridge Road with sweeping vistas from a vantage point about 10,800 feet above sea level. Three others were hurt by that strike.
The deaths were on the minds of visitors Monday.
“We were looking at the sky and (thinking) don’t be the tallest thing around,” Sarah Jones, of Greeley, said before setting out for a hike with her husband and three children.
Rebecca Tilhet’s husband, Justin Teilhet, was among those injured on Ute Crossing. He didn’t remember hearing a boom or feeling a sting, just waking up numb on the treeless tundra high in Rocky Mountain National Park and discovering his good friend was trying to revive his wife.
It was a lightning bolt, he learned later, and it killed his wife and left him with a burn on his shoulder and scrapes on his face when he was knocked unconscious.
“I had been laying in the ambulance for maybe 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and the two emergency responders who had worked on my wife came into the ambulance and held my hand and told me (she was dead),” Justin Teilhet said. “They were both next to tears.”
Colorado averages three deaths and 15 injuries a year from lightning and often ranks No. 2 in the nation in lightning casualties behind Florida, said Bob Glancy, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder.
“Part of that is because Colorado is a great place to be outside,” he said. The terrain and weather also are factors. The mountain profile and summer weather patterns create frequent thunderstorms over the Front Range, which includes Rocky Mountain National Park.
Justin Teilhet, his wife and his friend Nick Tertel, of Fort Collins, Colorado, were in a line of hikers hustling back to the trailhead parking lot on Trail Ridge Road as the weather changed.
“A storm blew in, and it came very fast,” Teilhet said Monday from his home in Ohio. “It started raining a little bit. We were hearing claps of thunder everywhere, but there wasn’t any lightning.”
Teilhet and Cardwell were the first people killed by lightning in the park since a climber died on Longs Peak in 2000, officials said. A woman was injured by lightning last year.
Park officials don’t close Trail Ridge Road because of lightning, saying that would be impractical.
Teilhet said he saw one of the advisories about lightning at the trailhead.
“When you see a sign warning you about lightning, you just sort of file it away with the things you already know are dangerous,” he said.
Teilhet said he doesn’t think the National Park Service could or should have done anything more, and he praised the staff’s response.
“This a huge, beautiful, dangerous, amazing place, and they’ve done a lot to make it accessible to the public,” he said.
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Lightning safety tips for mountain visitors
DENVER – Lightning strikes have killed two tourists and injured others in recent days in Rocky Mountain National Park. The strikes happened along a popular road that is above treeline and is prone to rapidly-developing early afternoon summer thunderstorms. Here are some precautions mountain visitors should take to stay safe:
CHECK THE WEATHER: According to the park, a bright summer day can turn stormy within minutes, with lightning, high winds and even snow. In the Rocky Mountains, thunderstorms typically develop in the early afternoon. Elsewhere, ask rangers or check the weather service to learn about the weather patterns of the area you are visiting.
GET OUT EARLY: If hiking, start your hike early in the day – and plan to be down the mountain by noon. Summer thunderstorms can form quickly anytime in the afternoon. Get below treeline or to safe shelter before a storm strikes.
STAY ALERT: If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you. If you see lightning in the distance, it’s close enough to strike you. And at altitude, if skies look threatening, a thunderstorm can develop immediately overhead. A significant lightning threat generally extends up to 10 miles from the base of a thunderstorm cloud. And on rarer occasions, bolts can strike up to 15 miles from a thunderstorm.
ABOVE TREELINE: Get inside your vehicle immediately, do not lean against the doors, and wait at least 30 minutes after a storm passes overhead. If you are away from a vehicle, get away from summits, isolated trees and rocks. Find shelter but avoid small cave entrances and rock overhangs. They won’t protect you. Crouch down on your heels.
BELOW TREELINE: If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees. Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects.
WHAT’S SAFE SHELTER: Tents, trees, small caves and picnic shelters are not safe. A vehicle or a substantive, enclosed building are. Stay away from water and any metal.
ESSENTIALS: Carry these: Raingear, map and compass, flashlight or headlamp, sunglasses and sunscreen, matches or other fire starter, candles, extra food and water, extra layers of clothing, pocketknife, and a first aid kit.
For more information:
National Weather Service: http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/index.htm
Rocky Mountain National Park: http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/yoursafety.htm