Storms and Lightning

Storms and Lightning

Hikers and mountain climbers face their fair share of dangers when they partake in their adventurous hobbies.  Perhaps some of that risk is what lends itself to the excitement and exhilaration they feel as they negotiate challenging terrain and face the looming obstacles that nature has provided.  But one thing all outdoor enthusiasts must be cautious of is the onset of storms and threat of lightning, particularly when out in the open and at higher altitudes, as is common when hiking or climbing in the Dolomites. 

Storm season in the Dolomites region tends to be most prevalent during the summer, typically from June through September, during which time any given month may see between 6 and 10 days where stormy weather is a problem.  Storms can sometimes be forecast visually and audibly by the observer, by noting the direction of the cloud cover over the mountains, watching for the frequency of lightning strikes and listening for an increasing volume of thunder.  This can help determine if and when the storm might strike a particular area.  For instance, when measuring the time between a lightning strike and thunder, an interval of 3 seconds indicates the storm is about 1,000 meters away.  This gets tricky, however, when the cloud formation becomes irregular or if the observer happens to be in mountainous areas, where the sound of thunder may not carry or is blocked by the high surrounding peaks.

Perhaps the most dangerous component of a storm in the Dolomites is lightning, which often accompanies the rainy, thunderous weather during storm season.  Lightning is the result of the build-up and discharge of electrical energy between storm clouds or between electrically charged areas of the storm and the ground below.  Consequently, when lightning is the result of a charge between the clouds and the ground, it can also pose a serious threat to anyone who happens to be in the area at the time the lightning bolt strikes.  Lightning is also particularly dangerous because it’s capable of reaching distances up to 20 km in length.  It can also reach temperatures as high as 30,000 degrees Celsius and speeds of 10,000 km per second.  In other words, it’s nothing to mess with.

There are several ways that climbers may be able to detect impending lightning strikes.  Things like experiencing a tingling sensation on the exposed area of the body, hair standing on end or getting goosebumps are all ways in which the human body can predict a nearby electrical charge.  There may also be a sound of buzzing in the air, small noises emitting from nearby metal objects just before a lightning strike, or even bluish flames visible around exposed metal so be aware of the feelings, sights, and sounds around you. 

Certainly, the best way to avoid being struck by lightning is to get to shelter and remain indoors until the storm passes, but, as is often the case with outdoor activities such as hiking and mountain climbing, this isn’t always possible.  As such, it is important to know how and where to seek refuge when faced with being exposed to a summer lightning storm in the Dolomites.  Some of the most important things to remember are to:

  • Move away from upward-pointing rocks and anything that might act as a striking point for a lightning bolt
  • Stay away from cables, electricity pylons, trees or isolated rocks
  • Avoid water and drain pipes
  • Stay clear of vertical walls and any type of metal object (such as the crosses on the mountain summits) and maintain a safe distance between yourself and any metal climbing equipment you may have with you
  • Avoid gullies, crevices, chimneys, caves or other cavities
  • Stay away from climbers routes that contain cables and metal rung ladders (“vie ferrate”) – if you happen to be in such an area when a storm hits, leave as quickly as possible
  • Avoid groups of people or herds of animals
  • Move away from sheer rock faces and find a place to sit with your feet together and knees bent up against the body.

Hiking and climbing the Dolomites is a truly unforgettable experience, but along with the natural beauty and breathtaking scenery comes the risk of nature’s fury.  By preparing ahead of time and taking the above precautions, you can ensure that even if you happen to encounter a storm your trip will be memorable and safe.