Narrow Escape from Piute Pass

by Zak Keene, Friends of the Inyo Stewardship Crew Member

On the last day in July, Friends of the Inyo’s Stewardship Crew and Trail Ambassadors headed out to Piute Pass, where a recent landslide had covered sections of the trail with debris. The overcast weather, while pleasant for working conditions, caused some trepidation among the crew as to what the rest of the day would look like. Nevertheless, there was work to be done, so we set about leveling the trail tread and moving rocks to prepare for building steps and check dams.

Rockfall blocking the Piute Pass Trail. Photo by Lauren Newey.

After breaking for lunch, we began working out a plan of action for moving an exceptionally large rock out of the trail. After a few minutes of experimenting with the rock bars came the first drops of rain. These were quickly followed by low rumblings of thunder in the distance. Instead of just blowing by, as we hoped it would, the storm moved into the canyon. Jeff Duneman, our Forest Service contact for the job, was looking around nervously, muttering into his beard about exactly how uncomfortable he was with the situation. Eventually, he called for a break and said we would try to wait out the storm. All I can say is: I was thankful for his conservative approach.

The Piute Pass Trail winds along a steep talus slope on the northern side of the canyon. Needless to say, apart from a scant few groups of trees dotting the hillside, there is no real cover to speak of. As the clouds darkened, we ducked under the branches of one such tree. When the rain intensified and the thunder growled ever closer, we decided to spread out and create a less enticing target for the lightning. We waited for no less than an hour for the storm to pass, huddling under our chosen trees and being pelted by heavy rain while lightning seemed to strike all around us.

Photo by David Wieland.

When the rain finally abated, we wordlessly gathered our wares and belongings, and began walking back to the trailhead. Moral of the story? The Sierra and mountains, in general, can be fickle. Whether you’re going out on hitch or taking a leisurely stroll on your favorite trail, remember: you’re entering a wilderness area that is prone to thunderstorms and lightning strikes. Always check the weather report. Even if the weather looks good as you set out, it can change at the drop of a dime.

Speaking as someone who has recently survived a harrowing situation involving thunderbolts and lightning (very, very frightening!), I believe the conservative approach is best. Good risk assessment is one of the most important tools you can have at your disposal. Do not be afraid of turning around; the mountains will still be there tomorrow for you to give it another try.

Comments (1)

I’m glad everything worked out okay. I’m not sure huddling under a tree is the right thing to do. I’ve read a lot of conflicting opinion in the last few years on how to behave with a lightning storm right over you…the current conventional wisdom seems to be NOT to hide under a rock overhang or in a cave, or under a tall tree. Which means…what, lying out in the open? As the rain pelts down on you? You’re supposed to toss your metal gear, and some people say to lie on your ropes (if you’re climbing). Only ten days ago I was caught in a hellacious lightning/hail/rain storm coming off a climb in the French Pyrenees. We hid under a shallow overhang just for sheer protection from the pounding of the hail. I tossed my ice axe a few yards away but the French guy I was with, who was carrying most of the pro, didn’t think that was important. The lightning strikes and thunder were near-simultaneous for about twenty minutes, then it got better. I have no idea if we did the right thing, the wrong thing, or a mix…or just got lucky, as most people do, since most people survive most storms.

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