I'm sure you've heard it a thousand times right? The weather can change in an instant. During hot summers in California's high Sierra, afternoon thunderstorms can appear in a flash. Late in the day hot air rises quickly, and then BOOM! Unstable air, full of energy, appears over the mountains.
Let me share what happened to me.
I went for a ten-mile hike last weekend on the Tahoe Rim Trail, starting at Willow Creek Road and passing by Freel Saddle on my way to Freel Peak at 10,800ft. It's worth noting that on this entire portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail, you cannot see east over the ridge.....at all.
The sky looks nice right? A few mountain bikers passed me around Armstrong Pass. What a nice blue sky that is.
It was a fantastic day for wildflowers near the soothing springs that cross the TRT on their way to Fountain Place, which was once a stop on the Pony Express mail route.
Another mountain biker navigates the TRT switchbacks. My wide-angle lens barely sees her as she climbs into the distance.
What a great spot for a rest along Freel Saddle at 9,500ft. OBOZ shoes and SALOMON gaiters take a much needed break, and nothing but blue skies wait ahead. Did I mention that I still cannot see towards the east? I'm sure it's fine.
Lonely flowers appear on the final approach to Freel Peak. The skies are a little white, the air is still, and the temperature is nice and warm. What a great day, although maybe it would be nice to be able to see over Freel Peak to the east.
Little did I know, thunderstorms were appearing on the other side of the hill, obstructed from view. I'm the blue dot, and Freel Peak is in the dreaded red blob.
There is so much for me to explain.
I walked up to the Summit of Freel Peak, and this is what I found; the vertical lines of unstable and electrified air. There was another hiker on the summit, I said something like "Oh Sh#t", and then CRACK.........CRACK! Two lightening strikes came down on the peak as the air went white and crispy. We RAN down the mountain, and I turned around long enough to take this photo of the ridge we just descended in a panic.
This is what I unknowingly walked into. They just popped up on the east side of Freel, waiting for us to get to the top.
I've spent twenty-five years staying away from these cells while in the backcountry, but today they got me; I was caught. The two flashes of lightening occurred simultaneously with their thunder, there was no delay. I have no idea how close they were, but my life flashed before my eyes and I kept thinking; "at least I died doing what I love".
The temperature dropped twenty degrees, and then came the hail. Compared to being at 10,000 ft during a lightening strike, the hail seemed like a birthday party.
Now the secret is out, and the afternoon thunderstorms are there for all to see. As the clouds fly over me from behind while scurrying down the trail, I can't help but wonder; HOW THE HELL DID THESE THINGS APPEAR SO FAST!
I spent about thirty minutes huddled under these trees, jumping up and down to stay warm, waiting for the storms to pass. The hail didn't carpet the entire landscape, but instead occurred in patches, totally hit-or-miss. Unless of course you're standing on a 10,800 ft peak with a summit the size of a classroom. In that case, there was no miss, only hit.
The photographer in me wishes I had rolled some video during the minute or so I was on Freel Peak to catch some flashes. The hiker in me however, is glad I ran down the side of the mountain. I don't know if I learned any lessons really, other than to just automatically assume we're going to have afternoon thunderstorms during heat waves in the high Sierra.
I also learned that nearly being struck by lightening didn't affect my appetite. It's a tradition to stop at The Burger Lounge after becoming a dirtball for a day.
Area map, Freel Peak upper right. Parking on Willow Creek Road near Armstrong Pass.