In September 2003 some friends and I went on a Via Ferrata climbing holiday in the Italian Dolomites. We experienced lightning “up close and personal”….
Via Ferrata are scrambling- and climbing-grade routes, mostly at high level, protected by fixed metal cables attached at regular points to the rock. The cable is what makes it a Via Ferrata - Iron Way.
On our third day my friend Jason and I started the long walk in to a mountain ridge climb in bright sunshine. It took 2 very hot hours to walk from the top of the nearest pass (Pordoi pass) to the start of the Via Ferrata climbing route along a ridge. The route is called Via delle Trincee - “The way of the trenches” as it ends in first world war tunnels dug through the rock to fortifications.
When we arrived at the start of the exposed rock on the ridge and began to climb, it started to snow. This made the route a bit difficult because the holds were filling with mushy snow which made it difficult to get a grip and our hands were getting very cold. We were a little under 3000m above sea level, and traversing the ridge about 15-20 feet below the summit on a narrow ledge (maybe a foot wide).
The weather turned bad quite quickly, around 50-60 mph winds and icy snow, which was being blown straight up into the sky as far as the eye could see - one of the strangest sights I’ve seen. The visibility became quite poor and it was getting very cold.
We were protected from the worst of the elements by the ridge itself - the wind was coming from the other side and blowing over the top. Unfortunately, the ridge didn’t protect us from everything! There was a loud bang somewhere very nearby. I was convinced someone had fired a distress flare (don’t ask me why, it was just the first thought that came into my head). I turned to Jason, who was behind me: “What the hell was that?”. “I think it was lightning”. “But we’d have seen the flash if it was lightning”, I said. “I did see the flash” said Jason. “But we’d have felt the shock through the wire!”. Jason nodded, “Yeah, I felt the shock”.
While I was contemplating this, a second much larger strike hit the ridge. There was absolutely no doubt about this one. The whole party was shocked, in some cases fairly severely. One guy fell but was saved by his gear and only suffered a broken nose. Another suffered an extended period of convulsions after his shock.
Unfortunately I had my hand near the protection wire and was shocked quite badly - the flash as the current arced across was so bright I could still see it whenever I shut my eyes next day! There’s a brief missing bit and then I was falling backwards having a few convulsions of my own. They stopped as I hit the ledge, and as I’d realized exactly what was happening and was afraid my protective rope had burned through, tried to throw my left arm and leg out to the side to stop myself falling off the ledge. I’m not sure whether I succeeded in moving them but I stuck to the ledge anyway. My left side took most of the shock, the muscles were badly weakened and in a lot of pain, and I’d lost all feeling in the left side, but I could see my limbs were still moving so I knew I was going to be ok. And just for a few seconds I was very very warm, despite the conditions!
The organizer got us all onto a section of the ledge further on where it widens out and we sat on our rucksacks for insulation, roped together in case anyone fell off after another shock and waited for the storm to pass over. It was bitterly cold, and we were only a few feet from the top of the ridge where another strike was likely to hit, which was a bit nerve-wracking, but the storm passed over without striking again. People were pretty shaken up, but no-one was panicking and we shared round some energy bars I had handy in a side pocket and had a chat.
After about 45 minutes of sitting out in the snow the weather began to clear and we evacuated off the ridge a hundred yards of moderate climbing further on. This was actually hard going, as my hands were too cold to feel anything, with my left also being numb from the shock, my left foot had an intense burning pain in it and we were climbing on iced-over holds. But I was feeling good about a speedy departure from the mountain and was motoring along pretty quickly by hooking my left arm over the safety wire and hauling on the elbow that rather than using my hand.
It was a long hard walk down into the valley. I had some walking poles and was leaning on them heavily to support my left leg, especially on the snow, but was starting to feel a better when we made it back to the village about 3 hours later. We all met in the cafe and talked about our experiences, a couple of guys went off to hospital, we had a round of survivors photos and I inspected my sore hand and foot. I have a neat little burn on my hand (entry wound) - not blistered but completely cooked - and an exit wound on my left little toe. It seems I might have some internal burning in my foot as well as it’s still very painful (and one or two other minor ailments). I need to have an eye test (apparently glaucoma is a common complication) and I’ve lost some of the feeling in my left hand (which may come back over the next few months), but apart from that I’m ok.
I also have a few partially melted items I was carrying to keep as souvenirs!
It actually took 18 months to recover. I had a severely weakened left leg which made it difficult to lift my foot off the ground when walking, so it would keep catching and making me stumble. I had several months of vivid flashbacks and insomnia, and developed a strong fear of flashes (cameras, fireworks and of course lightning were the worst). While my hand recovered it initially felt like 2 of my fingers were missing, then later, as the sensation came back in patches, like someone else’s fingers had been attached to my hand. The tendons in my left arm were also damaged, as I discovered next time I went climbing. I’ve also had several years of problems with my intestines. The jury’s still out on whether it was related to the lightning strike but it has been shown that lightning causes many internal lesions and perforations and one paper I read suggested lesions in the intestines can harbour pathogenic bacteria.
On the plus side, I did remember many additional details during those flashbacks. Early on I was very sorry I wasn’t aware of the St Elmo’s Fire that enveloped us just before the strike, but later I remembered I did see it. For a fraction of a second, the rock face and via ferrata cable in front of me glowed with tendrils of purple light, very similar to a plasma lamp. Very eerie. When the air you’re breathing turns to plasma it’s not a good sign.