I never considered that I’d ever be caught in a lightning storm in the wilderness. When seeking shelter was impossible, I realized the forest was our only option.
MacIntyre Bluff is an iconic, picturesque rock face that rises above Vaseux Lake in the Southern Okanagan Valley. I set out (with two of my daughters and Peter) on a Sunday morning, to explore a hiking trial that climbs to the very top of the bluff. The hike begins on private land: one must pass through Covert Farms Vineyard to reach the trailhead.
It was a typical Sunday in early September in the Southern Okanagan Desert. The sun was bright and warm and the hills bone dry. We hiked through Ponderosa forests and past Rattlesnake Lake. The area is home to the western diamond back rattlesnake; though, sadly, they are becoming more rare as agriculture in the region grows.
The hike was unique in that although we were continually climbing in elevation, the hike itself was varied with pockets of valleys (that we’d climb in out of) so we never felt that we were climbing as high as we actually were.
As we began to reach the upper elevations, we passed a few hikers who assured us that the views were definitely worth it. We stopped at Rattlesnake Lake for a quick picnic lunch.
Dark grey storm clouds began to gather in the south. Tabs had mentioned that a possible thunder storm was predicted for the region that afternoon; however, we expected to be well beyond the higher elevations by late afternoon and thus, assumed we’d avoid any storm threats.
The higher we climbed, the darker the sky grew and the wind picked up.
We decide to run to the end of the trail, take a few quick pictures from the high cliff’s edge, then run back down—we were pretty sure we could out run the storm; as, so far, there was no rain to be felt nor any thunder to be heard.
The wind grew stronger and stronger and we felt the first drops of rain—the top of the bluff always seemed just beyond reach! Every time we emerged from the forest, onto a high top, we were sure we’d be able to see the top of the bluff but the top of the bluff seemed to be an illusive promise, like the end of the rainbow.
Tabitha and I decide to run ahead, to attempt to final reach the cliff’s edge, and then run back and let Peter and Pip how far they still had to hike and if the views were truly worth it. As Tabs and I ran, we heard the first cracks of thunder—they were 10 km away. We made the decision to keep going: we’d come so far and to not make it to the top at that point would be very disappointing! I told Tabs that we’d stop for only a moment, on the cliff edge, just to take a pics of the valley views and then sprint all the way down the mountain (believing we could still out run the storm before the heavy rain and lightning reached us).
After another 20 minutes of full-on sprinting, we finally made it to the edge of the bluff, high above the Southern Okanagan Valley.
The views were unbelievable and a little terrifying: in the heavy wind, it seemed one storm gust might blow us straight off cliff’s edge! Our photo opportunity was cut short by a sudden flash of lightning, followed by rain falling in heavy globs.
I Knew, at that moment, that the risk we took to get here (to reach the top, despite the threatening storm), was real and probably a mistake: there was no way we could outrun the storm. It was there, on top of the bluff, threatening to blow us away with it.
Through yelling aimlessly into the wind, we miraculously found Peter and Pip, who had also reached the top but were admiring views from the southeast side of the bluff. Pip was sobbing, she was afraid for us when she could not find us on top of the bluff—afraid we’d been blown over the edge!
The rain flowed like a creek: we were soaked. The lightning was closing in: we were surrounded by close strikes and earth-shaking thunder. There was no where to run. It was over an hour’s run down the bluff, even at top speed. We were the storm: trapped on top of the highest peak in the valley, amongst sparsely treed ponderosa forest and large boulders.
I know a little about lightning; its power tattooed on my brain from a young age. My grandmother talked of her youth on the prairie—how the neighbour’s daughter was out riding a horse in a lightning storm. They found their mud-soaked bodies once the storm has passed. My grandmother was a part of the team who had to clean the girl’s lifeless body for burial. A friend of mine was also struck by lightning as a teen but was wearing rubber boots; the bolt knocked her off her feet but she lived, unscathed—saved by her boots.
I instructed everyone to get low and run until the lightning was within 2 km and then at that point we’d look for some kind of shelter. We ran, hunched over, through the thinly forested bluff apex. We darted past boulders and trees, counting the distance between the flash of lightening and the crack of thunder. The lightning was gaining on us—flashes of light surrounded us, with no time between the brightness and the crack of thunder.
We had to get down, we darted to beneath an overhang of rock—some sort of a shallow cave—and crouched under it for a moment. I asked Peter to use his phone to see if a cave was a safe option during the lightening; it was not: the information said caves were not safe (rocks are great conductors of electricity). The best bet was to find a shorter tree amongst many taller ones and lay near it until the lightning passed. Being without any type of shelter was new to me—there was no where safe to run—our only hope was to respect the power of nature, get low, and wait it out.
The girls and I crawled toward a short tree and lay down near its base. We lay still in the pouring rain, as lightning zapped around us—terrified to move, terrified that somehow our short tree would be hit and send electricity through us all.
I kept calm and assured my girls that we’d be fine, we must respect the power of nature and lay low until the lightning passed.
Lying in the pouring rain and wind was cold. I made the decision that we’d wait until the lightning strikes were five minutes apart and at that moment, we’d make a break for it and run, top speed down the mountain. We lay, in the icy rain and wind for over 1/2 an hour. I began to wonder if the lightning would ever ease up or if we’d be forced to lay still until dusk! We were drenched and icy-cold. Pippi was beginning to shake. I lay behind her, trying to warm her back. If the lightning didn’t let up soon, we’d be in serious trouble; the sun would be going down and our body temperatures were starting to become an issue—hypothermia was setting in.
Finally, Tabs counted down five minutes between lightning strikes; we bolted to our feet! With chattering teeth and a mascara streaked face, I stripped Pippi’s soaked top from her back and replaced it with a dry t-shirt from Peter’s back pack and then we ran down the mountain. We had to run: our body temperatures were on the cusp of hypothermia. Running was not easy in drenched clothing. My pants were so heavy with water that they and would not stay up and would pool at my ankles!
The last fifteen minutes were tense as a second storm was moving into the valley and more lightning could be seen approaching from the south. We finally made it back to our vehicle—the only one remaining in the parking lot—and stripped off all our clothes, cranked up the heat and drove home in our underwear.
We were hungry (as it was now supper time) so we pulled into a Taco Time drive-threw in Penticton—sitting in our wet underwear. Burritos never tasted so good!