Tony Vagneur: Close calls tell story of shocking reality when it comes to lightning | AspenTimes.com
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Tony Vagneur: Close calls tell story of shocking reality when it comes to lightning

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We left cow camp fairly early, packing cattle salt to the west of the cabin, down in the Sloan’s Peak area, a long distance away. It was very cool, a midsummer dip in temperatures, with dark skies overhead and a slow drizzle of rain coming down.

My young horse, Donald, danced around underneath me, still not convinced he was fully broke, and the solid and seasoned pack horse, Reid, hauling five blocks of salt, followed quietly behind. We were off for whatever the day might bring.

We topped the ridge at Twin Oaks, appropriately named, and stopped to throw off the first salt block. That done, as I approached Donald to mount up, there was an ear-splitting crack of thunder out of the sky, a huge flash and a puff of dirt rising about six feet out of the earth directly behind Reid, knocking her to the ground.

Immediately, I knew it was lightning. Donald took a leap into the air, catching one of my fingers between the saddle horn and Reid’s lead rope.

Reid got up, I untangled my broken finger, climbed in the saddle and we headed to the safety of a low-lying gulley at a full-on gallop. The top of my head felt as though it had been blown off, but my hat was still there so no time to worry about it. It was a close call, and we survived. How long would it have taken the stench of two dead horses and a wide-eyed cowboy to lead curiosity seekers, bears or rescuers to our location?

It should be said that although the sky was fully overcast and oozing rain, at no time during the two or so hours prior to that event had there been any thunder or lightning. Our presence apparently was just enough to pique the destructive tendencies of Thor and Zeus who, in their sparring over who had the authority to kill us, missed the target completely.

You think you know lightning? You might think you do, but no one can be certain. Bubby Light’s uncle Ray was killed by lightning, standing between two of his sisters in the basement of the house. Ray died; the sisters escaped unscathed. If you didn’t know Bubby, famous Capitol Creek rancher, think Light Hill, or simply one helluva fun and hard-working cowboy.

Lightning kills about 47 people per year in the United States. Colorado ranks third among states with the highest annual death rates. Wyoming and Utah rank first and second, respectively.

Peaks above timberline pose a serious threat to hikers, horseback riders or others in the outdoors. When informed that my daughter and friends would be hiking Mount Sopris last week, my only two admonitions were: “Have fun and be sure to watch the weather.”

My daughter made it off Sopris safely, but just the other day, lightning struck her and my son-in-law’s place out in Woody Creek. No, it didn’t hit a tall tree, nor a fence. It was drawn to the earth by a PVC irrigation pipe, buried underground. The water in the pipe enticed the strike. How safe does that make you feel? Interestingly, the reach of the strike fried the controls to the ranch gate, about 75 yards distant and put an end to their land line a quarter of a mile away.

In close proximity to the irrigation pipe was a small herd of horses; had they been standing much closer, they would likely have been electrocuted, as well as any person, ranch hand, child or other living creature who was in the neighborhood. There is a hole in the ground, as well as melted pipe, striking testament to the instantaneous power of natural electrical currents.

The National Lightning Safety Institute recommends the following tips for those caught outdoors in lightning storms: Avoid water. Avoid high ground. Avoid open spaces. Avoid all metal objects, including electric wires, fences, machinery, motors and power tools. Unsafe places include underneath canopies, small picnic or rain shelters and near trees. Crouch down. Allow 15 feet between people. Where possible, find shelter in a substantial building or in a fully enclosed metal vehicle such as a car, truck or a van with the windows completely shut.

Lightning strikes don’t always kill. They sometimes leave survivors with compromised mental capacities; limited physical abilities, or other debilitating issues. Take care on your summer adventures.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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