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Though the climbing was going well, the skies were darkening, and over the next half hour just about everyone wondered if it was time to turn back—except for Kline, who determined that it would actually be faster and safer for his crew to summit and quickly descend by the Owen-Spalding route than to backtrack.
By 11:30 a.m. the Tyler party had turned around. Mike set up a rappel—an anchored rope to descend on—through the Owen Chimney. He reached the bottom easily, and Dan had just started down the 80-foot chute when the first pulse of electricity coursed down over the wet rock.
The Sparks group, 150 to 200 feet below the Tyler party, also felt it. "I really don't know what you'd call it—it wasn't lightning like you've seen lightning," Vogelaar said. "It zinged down our rope. I felt it leave from my elbow. But I didn't see a flash. There was no boom that first time, either." Other climbers near Vogelaar saw blue sparks and arcs around their shoes, and the jolt lifted Cameron Johnson, another member of the Sparks group from Worthington, Minn., off the rock a few inches before setting him down, unscorched. For an instant most of the Tyler party climbers were more amazed than panicked, "but that's when we all agreed we should go down, now," Vogelaar said.
The Tyler party was mostly unaffected by that first bolt, save for Appleton. His right leg was numb. Dan Tyler, hearing Appleton cry out, "I can't feel my leg! I can't feel my leg!" stopped rappelling down and started back up the rope to help. He wouldn't get there.
Out on the Exum Ridge things were even more dire. Thunder sounded in the clouds that had engulfed them, and Kline told his three Bozeman group partners to toss into a pile as much of their metal as possible: carabiners, cameras, pocket knives. Unfortunately Smith forgot to remove her metal-plated wristwatch. From the clouds there came a low buzzing sound. Kline suggested that they step apart from each other—not that there was far for any of them to go. There were huge drops on both sides. Then they stood on their climbing ropes as insulation as their pile of gear vibrated, popped and sparked.
"When we got struck, it was like slow motion," Smith said. "I was watching Alan and [Walker] fall, and I was thinking, They're falling, but not realizing I was falling too." Though the lightning probably struck within 50 yards of them, electricity buckled their legs, leaving Smith's and Walker's completely numb. They lay on the rock where they had been standing. The charge also entered Smith's and Kline's bodies. "It was the most painful thing," Smith said. "I've been through childbirth, and that was zero compared to this. It was like someone injected hot oil directly into my veins. I was screaming." When she came to a moment later, she could see the cuff on the sleeve of her parka smoking and smell burned hair and flesh—her own.
And then, for the moment, it was almost peaceful: clouds rushing past, wind and rain hissing on the dense rock. The climbers were still in pain, but it was subsiding, and they looked at one another with anxious relief: Hey, maybe that was it?
Then the low buzzing began to build again.
Some fierce storms on the Grand Teton barely register down in the valley, but not this one. This was not the afternoon shower that frequently arrives at altitude in the Rockies and blows out an hour later, leaving blue skies in its wake. This storm was monsoonal, and it featured cells that built along a pressure front like a line of freight cars. Worst of all, these cells regenerated themselves.
That morning Jim (Woody) Woodmencey had been at his computer, toggling back and forth between the blotchy radar maps familiar to anyone with an AccuWeather App and the more sophisticated infrared data from the National Weather Service. Woody operates MountainWeather.com, a go-to site for climbers and skiers in the Rockies. On Monday he had gone with a 70% chance of thunderstorms for Wednesday morning. By his 7 a.m. breakfast report on Wednesday he'd bumped it to 80%. And by 9 a.m. both of his computer screens were crowded with the bright colors that signified tall, leaden clouds—and danger. Lightning struck not only the Grand but also all over the valley. It hit the Snake River, briefly knocked out power at Jackson Hospital and fried a cellphone tower. Grand Teton National Park fire monitor Ron Steffens says the most powerful lightning strikes on the Grand occurred at 12:05 and 12:09 p.m., part of a relentless barrage that lasted 90 minutes. For the Tyler and Sparks parties, though, it was the second major strike that changed everything.