A lucky strike: Evergreen man survives lightning strike during hike on Quandary Peak

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By Vicky Gits

It was a freak lightning strike that involved no thunder, rain or warning, except for some dark clouds. It was a cold day in the 30s, and snow began falling on the 14,000-foot peak after noon. Others in the vicinity said there was a single, terrifying bolt of lightning.

“I was the only person there who wasn’t traumatized by the events. I couldn’t remember anything,” said T.J. Carroll, an oil and gas attorney with Kinder Morgan in Lakewood. “Everybody else was totally freaked out.”

Carroll was transported by ambulance from Breckenridge to Frisco for a CAT scan.

“Fortunately, I had on sunglasses, which had a deep dent — there was a rock headed into my eye,” he said.

With his Tibetan terrier, Zenji, Carroll had reached the Quandary trailhead about 9:30 a.m., with a goal of summiting by noon. The weather was partly cloudy — not a blue-sky day, but there was some sun.

“If I had seen any thunder or lightning, I would have turned around,” Carroll said.

It took him only two hours to reach the 14,265-foot peak on a trail that gains 3,765 feet in about 3 miles — a strenuous climb but still one of the easier fourteeneers. The trail up the popular east ridge route starts at about 10,500 feet.

Carroll has no melted shoes or charred clothing to remind him of the ordeal, only a dime-size burn mark on his head and a fleece hat with a hole the size of a pencil in it. The theory is the lightning hit somewhere near Carroll, traveled through his feet and out his skull.

He was lucky. Lightning can cause immediate cardiac arrest. Other consequences include memory loss, attention deficit disorder, sleep disorder, numbness, dizziness, fatigue and inability to sit for long, according to the National Weather Service. So far in 2009, 27 people have been killed by lightning in the U.S.

Strange experiences

Carroll reached the top about 11:30 a.m., he said. It started snowing lightly sometime after noon, and the clouds got somewhat darker. In retrospect, Carroll said, perhaps he should have left sooner, but he was detained by a couple of strange, almost mystical experiences.

First was a group of 10 college-age men singing a beautiful, low-pitched hymn in Latin. They turned out to be students from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Carroll spent some time listening to them sing, and one of them later took his picture near the top.

Then he stopped to have some hot tea. And he found himself face to face with a mountain goat family.

“It starts snowing, and I stand up and look around behind me and I see a pure white mountain goat. He’s walking toward me. And then there’s another one. And three baby goats. I’m snapping pictures and the goat came up within 2 feet, and I’m starting to get a little concerned because it’s a pretty narrow ridge, and it’s steep.

“He just sidesteps me. I could reach out and touch him. The others follow in its path.”

About 12:15 p.m., he gathered his belongings to start down.

“As I step off, I feel some electrical charges in my head.”

Carroll could smell something odd, “like ozone.” When he touched his head, “it felt like static electricity.” So he picked up the pace.

Carroll remembers being about 15 minutes from the top of the peak, well above timberline, and thinking about getting down to where it was safer.

“That’s the last thing I remember. In my head, I was going through this dream. I had gotten down the mountain and was heading toward Loveland Pass. I (dreamed) I was hiking on Loveland Pass, and when I woke up, these people were with me,” Carroll said.

By the time he regained consciousness, some of the blood on his face had dried, so he thinks he could have been unconscious for about 15 minutes.

It was snowing, and it was cold. A young man found him and put a bandanna around his head. Then a couple caught up.

“They thought (the lightning) had struck them. They were really terrified by it,” he said.

“They said I was asking questions. I have no memory of them finding me. My memory came back about halfway down, and then I came out of my dream.

“Monday I had some doctors’ appointments, but I felt fine, except my eye had swollen up. I wasn’t really in enough pain for painkillers,” he said stoically. “As the doctor put it, I was lucky, then I was (more) lucky — first, surviving the lightning, then surviving the crash into the rocks.”

After the accident, he was able to walk two hours down the mountain and received 30 stitches at the clinic in Breckenridge.

And his dog Zenji?

The loyal canine was unscathed by the lightning strike and stayed by Carroll’s side the whole time.

Fit and prepared

Carroll had some advantages over the average hiker who goes up so high on exposed terrain in the mountains. He is an extremely fit 57, being a long-distance bicyclist and triathlete.

He was dressed warmly and was wearing a fleece hat and down jacket, which he kept in his pack even for a late July hike. Carroll also carries a handheld Spot satellite tracking device that allows him to signal friends or rescuers in case of an emergency.

Although new to the sport of mountain climbing, Carroll always carries a full pack, including a small stove to make tea, energy bars, a lightweight sleeping bag and cover.

He was lucky there were other people nearby to wake him up and make sure he made it to the bottom. Good Samaritan hikers Carrie Larson and Tom Dayton from the Front Range and Jimmie Brazell of Dallas, Texas, accompanied him all the way down the mountain.

Carroll’s wife, Judy, and younger son, Jay, who attends Evergreen High School, met up with him in Frisco after Carroll rode the ambulance. Chelsea, his daughter, didn’t see him until he got back to Evergreen.

“He seemed a little out of it. … He was talking about a group singing in Latin, and we weren’t sure whether to believe him. His face looked pretty bad, and you could see where the bones were indented,” Chelsea Carroll said.

Undaunted in his fourteener quest, Carroll went out the very next weekend and climbed the famous fourteener cluster near Breckenridge: Lincoln, Democrat, Cameron and Bross mountains.

Recommended precautions

Rich McAdams, former director of the Wilderness Trekking School of the Colorado Mountain Club in Golden, said the best precaution is to avoid being within striking distance of lightning.

McAdams has climbed all over the world for 30 years and has bagged 21 peaks over 15,000 feet, and all the fourteeners in the U.S., including Denali. He was also a director of the CMC Basic Mountaineering School.

“From my point of view, the first rule is to get down below the treeline. The second (rule) is not to panic in the process of doing that,” McAdams said. “If you are in a group, you want to space yourself out 50 feet or so apart, so someone can be there to do CPR if necessary.”

The bottom line is simple: “You want to get up on the summit and back down to treeline before the weather comes in,” McAdams said.


Lightning numbers

(Source: National Weather Service website)

• Number killed so far in 2009: 27

• Number killed in 2008: 28

Of the victims who were killed by lightning in 2008:

• All were outside

• 79 percent were male

• 36 percent were males ages 20 to 25

• 32 percent were under a tree

• 29 percent were on or near the water