When two O/B interns were offered a fun summer assignment, they jumped at the opportunity. Little did they know that completing the objective would amount to a lot more than snapping a few photos.
It was only one month into my photography internship at Outside Bozeman.
In that time, I’d already hiked 150 miles, taking photos on trails around southwest Montana. My next assignment was Emigrant Peak.
I’ve lived my entire life in California. I go to school for oceanography and I’m well-versed in everything coastal. I’ve kayaked miles out into the ocean and camped on remote beaches. I can ride a bike with no hands. But when I came out to Montana for the summer, I found mountain thrill-seekers acquainted with a more high-elevation type of fun. I learned that there’s a fine line between fun and dangerous—and everyone out here toes that line.
Alongside my fellow intern, Daniel, my job was to take pictures of the entire trail and summit. It would be my first big mountain of the summer. Emigrant boasts a 5,000-foot elevation gain over four miles. It was going to be a doozy, but we were ecstatic. Daniel and I dutifully looked up the weather and saw that the gurus promised afternoon thunderstorms on Tuesday. So, naturally, we chose Wednesday.
It was around 9am on a clear, warm day when we pulled the truck up to Gold Prize Creek and began the trek. We started strong, but as the trail advanced straight up the mountain, getting steeper by the mile, it became harder on my sea-level body. The steep incline was even more challenging with our backpacks full of camera gear, water bottles, lunch, and bear and bug spray. But the photos we’d get would be worth all the physical strain.
Eventually, I couldn’t ignore the burning in my asthmatic lungs, so I asked Daniel to stop for a rest. After about five minutes, we continued, at a rhythm of hiking for 30 minutes, resting for five. Daniel chatted easily the whole way up while I responded between gasps for air. Over the next four hours, we weaved our way up the mountain and finally emerged from treeline to arrive at the summit ridge. Now at over 10,000 feet, the air was thin, the sun hot. Eventually, we reached a point of relief: a perfect place to stop and eat turkey sandwiches. We laid down to rest with our backpacks tucked behind our heads like pillows, enjoying the feeling of the hot sun on our faces.
Once rejuvenated by food and rest, we started our push to the summit. Approaching the top, we stopped again for one of my asthmatic-prescribed breaks. Turning around, we were shocked to see that the puffy white clouds we’d just been relaxing under had turned a dark purple. This was not in today’s forecast. We were too close to reaching the peak to simply turn back, though. Determination overrode common sense, and we kept going. Daniel pointed out two large boulders slightly below our current position that broke up the shale. “If it starts to rain, we can come back down here and get underneath those,” he said. With that, we agreed to continue a few hundred feet more and then reassess the situation.
We were sitting ducks on top of Emigrant Peak in an electrical storm.
Within minutes, we heard the first big clap of thunder. Almost 11,000 feet up, surrounded by nothing but scree, we didn’t have time to run down to the treeline. Instead, we jogged back to the boulders that Daniel had pointed out, our knees jolting from pressure with every bound. Daniel grabbed our backpacks and stashed them underneath a smaller set of rocks a few yards away, so that we’d have no metal on us. We crouched under the boulders and watched the strikes. I realized they were moving closer. The lightning seemed to be traveling directly up the face of the mountain. As I stood up to look around for a safer place to run for cover, I started to feel kind of... weird.
The skin on my forehead tingled as though it had fallen asleep. I touched my forehead and felt the peach-fuzz at my hairline standing on edge. My hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but all the loose hairs were standing up straight. To make sure I wasn’t going crazy, I asked Daniel. He confirmed with a far-too casual “yeah, total hair static” and that’s when I began to panic. “What?!” I ducked my head back underneath the rock and my hair relaxed into its normal state. “We have to go somewhere lower, we cannot stay here!” Skin tingling, hair standing on end, I knew that I was a vessel for electricity, a channel for an impending lightning strike. And for what—a couple photos for O/B? We were sitting ducks on top of Emigrant Peak in an electrical storm.
Daniel agreed and we took off running, forgetting about our backpacks. I’m sure we looked like idiots. Maybe we were idiots. Regardless, we knew we needed to descend as much as possible before the storm was directly on top of us. With our phones in our packs, there was no longer any chance of calling for help. It was us against the elements.
My hair stood up for a second time, “It’s happening again!” I yelled to Daniel, who was out ahead of me. Sliding on loose scree, we reached another set of large boulders and took cover. Little did we know that rock overhangs are one of the worst places to hide during an electrical storm, but the summit was an obvious death wish. So at least we made a decision that was a half-step closer to safety.
Gripped with fear, we expected every second to be our last.
Within seconds of taking shelter, the rain began. Not just any rain—a torrential downpour of cold water that had us both soaked and shivering in less than a minute. The rain quickly turned to hail. I crouched into a ball, squeezed between the loose scree below me and rock overhang around me, and yanked the oversized t-shirt I was wearing over my bare legs in a desperate attempt to protect myself from the pea-sized pellets beating down on us. The sharp rock began digging into my skin as I curled my arms tighter around my knees. Daniel was not as lucky. The hail pelted his already-soaked body, leaving welts on his skin as if he’d been hit by a BB gun.
The lightning crept closer, the flashes got brighter, the thunder louder. The hail got more intense as time went on and my nerves became increasingly frayed. Would this thing ever end? As the soil beneath the layers of scree took in moisture, frisbee-sized rocks loosened and started sliding down the mountain, all around us, flying right over our heads as they tumbled off the overhang we crouched under. We clamped our hands over the tops of our heads as bright flashes of light struck the summit ridge where we had been sitting just minutes before. Every time I began to think the lightning might pass, an even brighter flash and louder clap of thunder would hit, and more rocks would fall.
About 20 minutes into the nightmare, a strike of lightning crackled directly in front of us, tendrils sprawling out in every direction. The muscles in my left thigh suddenly seized up in flaming pain. A massive clap of thunder followed instantaneously. I looked over at Daniel, unprotected with his head tucked into his shoulder, the relentless hail beginning to bruise him. My mind raced to try to make sense of what was happening. The timing of my muscle contraction meant one of two things: I either caught ground current or there was enough electricity pulsing through the air to have a similar effect. A hundred feet closer and I would have been fried. I sat there in the pouring rain and frigid hail, hoping it would all just end. I closed my eyes and the insides of my eyelids lit up with every flash. With my body pressed firmly against the boulder, I started to bleed. How much worse can this get? I wondered.
My hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but all the loose hairs were standing up straight.
Gripped with fear, we expected every second to be our last, but after ten more minutes, which felt like hours, the storm finally gave way. A speck of blue sky broke through the clouds, and I felt my entire body slacken. After being so tense in preparation of disaster, I finally realized we were going to make it out alive, and relatively unscathed. We shivered in our soaked t-shirts and shorts, praying for the clear sky to reach us faster. When it did, we emerged from the rocks that had been our unsafe but emotionally-comforting shelter. The ground was a blanket of white. Due to our state of hysteria on the ridge, we still had to climb back up to retrieve our backpacks. As if the small amount of metal in our packs would be the decider between life and death. Since the rain made the scree even more slippery and difficult to climb up, it was a two-step-forward-one-step-back type of effort. We grasped at the loose rocks in a futile attempt to get traction as we scrambled up the steep and slippery slope on hands and knees. Finally at the top, we grabbed our packs and immediately began running back down the mountain like two kids who knew they had just barely escaped disaster.
Photographing the hike and summit views for our internship had been the entire purpose for our climb up Emigrant Peak, yet we arrived back at the trailhead with empty memory cards. Nope, we told our editors, nothing but a silly little selfie and a thriller of a tale. On my next mountain climb, if I see a single dark cloud, even in the distance, I will be bailing immediately. Never again will I ignore nature’s cues, and never again do I want to be summiting a mountain when my hair is standing on end. But man, does an experience like that make for a fun story to tell.