Lightning and the Mt. Whitney Trail
by Ron Chester ★ Saturday, July 17, 2021

I got started in ham radio in my home town in Central Illinois. I got my Novice and Conditional licenses and was pretty active in ham radio during my early high school years. I should have learned about protecting my station from lightning, because we get a fair amount of it in the summer, but I didn't. One time my Viking Valiant AM transmitter got damaged from some lightning and my dad managed to get it repaired by way of his homeowner's insurance.  We boxed up the rig and sent it off to the E. F. Johnson Co., the manufacturer, and sometime later it came back, as good as new. I should have learned a lesson from that, but I didn't. I remained largely oblivious about the dangers of lightning.  

In the fall of 1963 I went off to college at Oberlin College near Cleveland, Ohio. I didn't take any ham gear with me, which was probably smart, as I had to spend most of my time with my studies. Once I finished college, I was off to California for grad school at UC, Berkeley in August 1967. I lived in California for the next fifty years and then returned to my home town in October 2017.

Most of my time in California I lived in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. Neither place got much rain and even less lightning. I've never had a tower or a beam antenna, always using wire and/or vertical antennas, up 30 feet or so max. In the 21st century I got very active in QRP, which often involved portable operation in good weather, never with rain. So for all of that operating, I never worried about lightning.   

But now I'm back in the Midwest. Both my brother and I, as well as another friend who grew up in the Midwest, missed the excitement of the booms and cracks of lightning in the Midwest while we lived in California. Since returning home, I have been using a Norcal doublet antenna in our third floor attic with the antenna disconnected from the radio when I am not operating and never operating during thunderstorms. But I've been thinking about getting up some outdoor antennas, including some wire antennas suspended from our very tallest tree, up maybe 70 feet or more.  I know I must learn how to protect my station from lightning activity.  

Google recommended an article about the dangers of lightning strikes.  I learned that lightning strikes are far more common & dreadful than I ever imagined!!  It's a pretty long and graphic article. I found it difficult to read.  I thought about the time in 1967 when I hiked up Mt. Whitney with my college roommate on the spur of the moment. Once we were above the tree line, we met a hiker who was coming down, having hiked over with his dog from the other side of the monster mountain.  The only advice he gave us was to NOT be on the summit in mid to late afternoon, when lightning strikes can be very common.  This possibility had not occurred to us even once!  We thanked him and proceeded on our way up a long section of 99 (or so) switchback trails that very gradually took us up some pretty steep elevation gain.  The temperature began to drop quite a bit. By the time we reached Trail Crest (at 13,600 ft elevation), which is the point when you can first see over to the other side of the mountain, we were getting cold and when we looked up we saw dark clouds gathering. The trail is not as steep from there, maybe another two miles or so to the summit. So we were already close to the elevation at the summit (14,505 feet).  The air is thin there and we had already been breathing hard for a long time on the way up the switchback trail. We looked up again at those gathering clouds, it was mid afternoon and we began to get a light sprinkle of rain. We discussed what the hiker had told us about lightning, there was a long quiet pause and then we realized we had gotten cold feet too. The view was fantastic from there and it was not going to get much better in the remaining elevation gain we would have to the summit from there. We decided to turn back and I'm glad we did!  

Many decades later I still look back on that as one of the most unique and memorable experiences in my lifetime.  I plan to encourage young people I know to make that hike! I have now collected over thirty articles about the Mt. Whitney Trail and this article has the best collection of pictures of the trail, as well as a nice video at the end of the piece.