Two summers ago, Joel Gratz was with his wife on a sunrise ascent of the ever-popular Summit County 14er Grays Peak.
Upon completing the picturesque trek, enjoying some time atop the ninth-highest mountain in the state and deciding to head down between 10 and 11 a.m., the couple settled on a mental diversion. They began counting the number of people still gaining ground toward the summit just as the usual afternoon storms began to form: 289.
“I chat with people a little bit,” said Gratz. “Nobody was talking about the clouds building. I’m not going to tell them not to hike, right? I don’t want to be a know-it-all, but there’s obviously an area for education.”
But actually, he is what one would call a bit of an expert. Not only is he a trained and certified meteorologist, but also the founder of the snow forecasting website OpenSnow. Often receiving the question about what he — principally a winter season predictor — does in the offseason, now he has the assets and team assembled to embark on a project he’s been hoping to do for some years: a phone application that forecasts lightning at high elevations.
Operating with a working title of TrailForecast, he hopes to release it for the iPhone early this summer to correspond with high time for 14er bagging, with an Android version most likely following down the road. While the majority of locals understand the general rule of thumb for hiking the state’s 14,000-foot peaks as returning below tree line before noon, beginners and out-of-towners are typically not as well versed.
“Most of the people hiking 14ers aren’t as experienced,” Gratz told a full conference room in Silverthorne earlier this month. “They might hear, ‘Oh, start early, so you avoid lightning,’ but they don’t really know.”
And, once you’re approaching the crest of an especially strenuous hike and suddenly you feel your hair stand up because of the static electricity in the atmosphere, it can be a terrifying experience. It’s one we can all joke about … while safely sitting in a conference center, but not quite so while in the circumstance ourselves.
“We laugh about it,” said Gratz, “but, obviously, you can die. A slight notch better than that is that you don’t get struck, but you’re really, really scared and don’t have a-whole-lot of information on how to exactly avoid that in the future, which is kind of where I am. Thankfully, I’ve not been struck by lightning. I don’t want to see that newspaper headline, that a meteorologist has been struck by lightning.”
Using present technologies and weather models, he aims to produce a personalized resource to help others avoid a potentially unlucky demise, too, offering data up to five days out for proper planning. The app will attempt to pinpoint when the risk of lightning on Colorado’s 14ers will begin, estimating based on route and hiking speed when one should head back to the trailhead before the flashes start flying. It will be most accurate 24- to 48-hours out and alert users of last-minute changes to the forecast.
Further tools to monitor and anticipate lightning, particularly with extreme exposure and altitude — where the frequency of strikes increases notably — are happily welcomed by those who commonly recreate outdoors. There are already a handful of reliable apps for the purpose such as WeatherBug’s free Spark component, but Rich Kithil, founder and CEO of the National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI) based in Louisville, Colorado, warns that nothing beats good sense and preparedness.
“Out on the trail,” he explained, “there are only degrees of safety, from absolutely none to kind of safe. Check the weather before you leave the condo. And, if you do get caught in an indefensible location and you can’t get to the trailhead, a car, clumps of shrubs or heavy forests, avoid solitary trees, avoid wet areas and isolate yourself to reduce the likelihood of multiple injuries.”
Specifically, the recommendation is a minimum of 15 meters apart for dispersal if caught above tree line. The idea, of course, is to pay attention to the signs of weather ahead of time and avoid such a scenario in the first place. And, at the first crack of thunder, a direct product of lightning, hikers need to recognize lightning is only about 6- to 8-miles away.
“The attitude outdoor hikers have had for years is, ‘It can’t happen to me,’” said Kithil. “Well, it can. Safety levels are very poor in those circumstances. If you pray, that’s a good time to pray.”
Adding this extra piece of environmental gadgetry is something Gratz and his team intend to do by mid-June to hopefully balance out some of the need for such appeals to the heavens. While it won’t offer real-time shifts in the weather — he’s waiting for Google or some other technological behemoth to figure that one out, namely up that high where there’s little-to-no cell coverage — it will help app consumers choose the best day and time for plotting their climbs, acting almost like “a meteorologist in your pocket.”
Dodging what he has termed “Arnold clouds” — an informal title for the tall, hard-bodied cumulus clouds that are prone for bringing weather and named for the former Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger — is what he desires most with the new weather instrument. And, hopefully with that, a few more lives might be saved each summer.
“Not every cloud that pops up over a mountain in the summer is out to hurt you,” said Gratz. “But some are. So we’re trying to figure out 1) How can we forecast that in advance, and 2) How can we help you diagnose that when you’re above tree line? There is zero way to travel 100-percent safely in the backcountry during lightning, but you can reduce your risk.”