My first exposure to thunder and lightning on the AT occurred in the Roan Mountains of Tennessee on May 3. After nearly a month on the trail, I’m afraid I got cocky. I felt like nothing the trail could throw at me would stop my northerly progress. I made an uninformed and rash decision to leave Overmountain Shelter during the late afternoon to continue northward along an exposed ridge top over Little Hump and Hump Mountains even though other hikers had warned me a storm was approaching. When reading “how-to” books about hiking the AT, I had often run across the adage “respect the trail.” I never really thought about what that phrase meant. In hind sight, I can think of no better explanation for my decision to continue hiking that afternoon than the fact that I didn’t respect the trail. I figured that because I was in such great shape, I could reach cover in the forest on the far side of the ridge before any serious weather developed. I didn’t even stop to check how long the exposed ridgeline was.
Well, the storm ended up catching me before I was halfway across the ridge. Believe me…walking through a raging thunderstorm on a barren ridgeline is nothing you want to experience first hand if you can help it. I was so certain that the next flash of lightning would fry me, that in order to keep walking, I had to adopt the attitude that if it was my time, so be it. I concentrated on the full and rich life I had led during the last 51 years as I staggered through the turbulent wind and hail over the seeming endless false summits of Hump Mountain. Luckily, through no action of my own, I survived to adopt a humbler attitude towards the trail.
I experienced dozens of thunderstorms during the rest of my hike. I noticed that the severity of the storm seemed to correlate with how hot the weather was. During the late spring and summer, the mountains seemed to adopt a pattern of rising temperature and humidity over the course of several days, followed by a cold front arriving from the south west. The heat seemed to fuel thunderstorms as the cold front crossed the mountains. I can’t remember an occasion when distant, approaching thunder failed to provide me with at least four hours of warning. When I heard distant thunder, I stopped to consult my trail guide. If I was approaching an exposed summit, bald, or ridgeline, I would find shelter before I reached them. Shelters offered the best protection; however, if none were near, I would seek a tent site. I avoided pitching my tent in depressions in the ground that might collect water, or near large trees that might attract lightning or be blown over. Sometimes, the storm would pass over quickly, allowing me to resume hiking during the evening. Other times, slower moving fronts would pin me in my tent until the next morning. A couple of days of ideal hiking weather usually followed the storms. Then, the days would start getting hotter and more humid again.
So, basically, after scaring myself silly in the Roans, I brilliantly deduced that hiking through thunderstorms is a bad idea. Lightning and falling trees are scary and dangerous. Steep, rocky, rooty trails become slick. Vision is impaired. You get cold and wet. Lost forward progress amounts to nothing compared to the total length of the hike. There are better ways to get religion. Please forgive me if this seems obvious, but some people, like me, have to learn the hard way.