An Ironic Epic And Daring Rescue

·11 min read

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Over 20 years ago a team of climbers headed up the infamous Lightning Bolt Cracks on North Six Shooter Peak in the Canyonlands region of Utah, when a fast-building storm sent a bolt of lightning that blew a chunk of the rock off the tower’s summit. The current travelled down the crack striking one of the climbers, Pat Kent. What followed was a nerve-wracking rescue, an epic as retold here by Kent and fellow climber Eric Husted.

Eric Husted: In January 1988, I drove my VW bus west from Minnesota to attend Prescott College in Arizona. That spring, I started working for Pacific Crest Outward Bound School (PCOBS), and met Pat Kent at staff training. I was instantly in awe because Pat had been climbing for a decade, and I desperately wanted to be able to tell potential climbing partners I'd been climbing that long. That first summer in the Sierra Nevada created a durable and productive relationship in the mountains, guiding and climbing together.

Climber ascending rope in lighting storm, north six shooter peak, Utah.
Eric Husted prussiks into the danger zone, 2001. (Photo: Kelly rich )

I met Eric Malone, who like Pat was from Santa Cruz, the next spring. We three teamed up in summer 1990 on an ascent of the Direct on Half Dome through several thunderstorms--with waterfalls, and lightning hitting the summit--and assisting two Germans we met on Big Sandy Ledge at the end of day two of their "one-day ascent."

Peter Carrick came to PCOBS in 1990, and he and I worked a course together in Courtright, climbed on remote domes, and hiked students deep into the John Muir Wilderness. We knew then that it was the best job we would ever have. Summers in the Sierra, winters in school or Joshua Tree, and climbing during the shoulder seasons and between courses.

In 1994, I moved to Southwest Colorado to start a family and a homestead. My friends' and my paths and careers diversified, but we stayed in touch, and Malone (as two Erics, we go by our last names) and I met up for climbing trips to Red Rock and Cochise Stronghold, while Pat and Peter climbed together regularly around Santa Cruz.

In April 2001, Pat hatched a plan to get us all together in Southeastern Utah. I picked Malone up in Moab, and we met Pat and Peter, along with two more Santa Cruzers, Kelly Rich and Joe McIntosh, in Indian Creek. We cragged for two days, reuniting the Outward Bound crew and rollicking around with Kelly and Joe. On the second evening, over beers after a great day at Cat Wall, we decided to climb the Lightning Bolt Cracks (5.11-, three pitches) on North Six Shooter Peak the next day.

In the morning, warmed by the hour-long approach, we arrived at the tower at 10:30 and watched another party pull the intimidating eight-foot roof on pitch three. I remember thinking that they must have hiked up to Six Shooter in the dark.

April in Indian Creek was playing Jekyll and Hyde on us. Day one had been down-jacket cold and blustery; day two T-shirt warm, with calm blue skies. Day three had started out blue, but as we racked up, the wind and clouds increased and temps dipped into the 30s.

Peter led the first pitch, an ever-widening crack from fingers to an awkward slot to a belay ledge, and Pat followed. The second pitch starts with steep fists and ends below the huge roof, tucked out of the wind. As Pat led that pitch, I started up the first, with Malone to follow. Kelly and Joe stayed on the ground, deterred by the idea of sticking their digits in the cold cracks.

ALSO READ: ONE CLIMBER’S SHOCKING STORY OF LIGHTING STRIKES

At the first belay, I leaned back and watched as, across the desert to the south, the Bears Ears disappeared behind an approaching wall of clouds and blowing snow. When Malone reached my stance, we decided without regret to retreat. I rigged a rappel while he shouted up to Peter and Pat, tucked under the roof atop the second pitch, "There's a storm. We're gonna bail!"

"We're right behind you," came a faint reply.

Five minutes later, I was on the ground changing shoes while Malone stood 10 feet away coiling the rope. Suddenly, a flash-bang exploded all around us. I felt the concussion even as the crack blasted my ears; the earth vibrated. We looked up as a football-sized rock flew off the summit. In the resounding silence as the thunder rolled away, even the blowing snow seemed eerily quiet.

"Pat, Peter, are you OK?" Malone yelled. No response. "Pat, Peter, are you OK?!"

From above: "No, Peter's unconscious, and I can't move my arm--we need help!"

Malone and I stared at each other. The snow was coming harder, blowing horizontally. I assembled an ascending rig: a Tibloc, a prussik, and slings for stirrups. Two people from the other party of four, who had descended the route and had just been leaving, stayed to help, and the other two headed out for the ranger station in Canyonlands National Park to call an ambulance.

"Can you fix your green rope?" I yelled at Pat. One of us needed to jug up there. He shouted something, but the wind drowned it out.

Climber receiving first aid after being struck by lightning.
(L to R): Chris Chitty, from the other party; Peter Carrick, KO'ed; Billy Beckwith, other party; Eric Malone, assessing. Nick Martino and Jason Lakey also helped with the rescue. (Photo: Kelly rich)

Pat Kent: I heard a sound like a loud gunshot, and immediately felt intense pain in my right arm. I couldn't move it.

Peter was unconscious, hanging from the anchor, his body limp and his head bent all the way forward, arms dangling. I saw blood, mucus, charred and melted clothing; smelled something burnt. Panic built in me as I realized I could not give Peter proper CPR because I had only one arm and no horizontal ground to work with, only about a 16-inch-wide ledge. The swirling snow and wind made it difficult to communicate, and I feared a second strike. Our friends called out from below, and I yelled for help.

I leaned over to Peter. As I fumbled to raise his head, he took a breath. He started to mumble and wobble around at the end of the rope, his feet barely on the narrow ledge.

Using one hand and my teeth, I tied a knot and yelled that the green rope was fixed, saying, "Hurry!"

Eric H: Ascending the rope into the snow, I kept waiting for the next bolt of lightning to come sizzling down the line. Snow stung my face and stuck to the cord. I wanted to go more quickly, but I was maxing out. I heard Pat shouting down to hurry. Unable to reply,
I heaved upward.

Moments later, I hauled myself onto the belay ledge, smelling burned polypro and flesh. I fought the urge to hurl from the stench and exertion. Peter hung slumped at the belay, literally smoking, but breathing. Pat stood on the ledge, holding his right bicep with his left hand; he looked stunned but spoke calmly.

"My arm won't work," he said. "I thought it got blown off."

I clipped in and surveyed the situation. When I spoke to Peter, he rolled his head up, confused and grimacing, singed hair framing the charred skin on his left cheek. "I fell, I fell, I'm sorry .... "

"Dude, you got hit by lightning. I'm gonna get you out of here, but I'll need your help," I said.

I set up a lowering system, wrapped Peter's hands around the rope, and said, "Hold on. I'm going to lower you." He nodded and pressed his forehead to the rope.

The mark on the rock matches the faint scar now on Peter's cheek: Evidently current passed from his face into the rock, melting it. When lightning struck, Peter had been placing a back-up nut.

I basically pushed him off the ledge, but he held on and stayed upright. The steepness of the route now became our friend, and with only a few scrapes and bumps Peter was delivered into Malone's arms at the base, about 150 feet below (the route zigzags, hence the name). I set up another lower, for Pat. He balanced over the edge and was soon on the ground.

The squall was almost past by now, the wind dying. As I cleaned the anchor and prepped a rappel, I saw a 2.5-inch circular black scar on the rock at face height, as if a handhold had broken off and then someone blowtorched the spot. The mark on the rock matches the faint scar now on Peter's cheek: Evidently current passed from his face into the rock, melting it.

When the lightning struck the summit, Peter had been placing a back-up nut for the rappel, and the current traveled down the crack system and into his hand. It exited out his cheek and elbows, blowing three layers of clothing to shreds, melting his polypro to his skin, and causing second-degree burns over 15 percent of his body. Later, at the hospital in Monticello, a doctor would find the imprint of a braided Stopper cable burned into Peter's hand.

By the time I got to the ground, Malone, a Wilderness First Responder, was assessing Peter. Since Peter seemed able to walk with assistance, we put him on a short rope with two people behind and someone on either side under his arms. Others spotted, cleared obstacles, and traded out the side positions.

Reunion of climbers decades later after lightning strike and rescue.
Indian Creek reunion (left to right): Eric Malone, Peter Carrick, Eric Husted. Says Carrick, "Best parts for me are that we're all still kickin' and in fair shape, considering, and the rescue and evac were a champion effort by all my homies." (Photo: Pat Kent)

Eric Malone: Peter's limp body spun slowly in space as he was lowered. We settled him on the ground, propped up against a boulder, and I began to take vitals and assess his level of consciousness. He mumbled, "I took a big whipper."

"No," I corrected him, "you were struck by lightning." As we short-roped Peter down the talus cone, I peppered him with questions, to check his level of consciousness.

"Who did the first ascent of El Cap?" After several seconds to muster the answer, he squeezed out, "Wa-war-r-ren Harding!"

Cheers erupted from the rescue party.

After about two hours, we reached the car, eased Peter into the front seat, and started for the highway.

"I'm cold," he said over and over, leaning against the door, held upright by the seat belt.

Sweating, I cranked the heater. We stopped once to help Peter out so he could vomit. After the slow four-wheel drive out, we climbed the last steep slope and were elated to see an ambulance just parking by the turnoff on Highway 211.

<span class="article__caption">The remote North Six Shooter Peak, at right</span> (Photo: Getty Images)
The remote North Six Shooter Peak, at right (Photo: Getty Images)

Peter Carrick: I had no idea how I got to the ground or what had happened to me.

"Dude!" This is the first word that registered. Many more dudes were barked in my direction: "Dude, where are you? What's your name? What time is it? What day is it? Do you know what happened?"

The questions sounded so familiar. As the fog cleared, I realized: That's patient assessment from Wilderness First Responder training. Then I thought, Shit! You're the patient.

I recall asking to stop the car to be sick. In the ambulance, I entered a medicated haze as we drove to Monticello. My main recollection from that point is that catheters hurt more than burns.

Eric H: Within four hours of being hit, Peter was in San Juan Hospital in Monticello. He was flown from there to the burn center at the University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City, where he spent a week. Burn debridement and retinal operations followed by rehab occupied Peter for eight months. He returned to the rocks and found that, though his relationship with climbing had evolved, it was still as strong as ever. Since 2010, a group of former and current PCOBS instructors has met every fall for a week of climbing. From that first time, Peter showed up ready to climb.

Feeling returned to Pat's arm three or four hours after the strike. He awoke the next day with it feeling normal enough that he could climb.

The 2016 "Old Dogs" reunion, 15 years later, turned out to have only four attendees: Peter, Pat, Malone, and myself. We went to Indian Creek and the Bridger Jacks, choosing Thunderbolts (5.10) on Easter Island. We napped on the summit without a breath of wind or a cloud in the sky.

Eric Husted practices sustainable forestry, natural building, and fatherhood near Durango, Colorado. Pat Kent is a retired educator and neighborly wood-fired pizzaiolo/baker who lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, dog, and cat. Eric Malone lives west of Durango and enjoys practicing yoga, climbing, and sharing with those he loves. Peter Carrick lives with his wife and two terrier mutts on California's Central Coast. He works as a carpenter and takes every opportunity for a day off. Overall, he has healed well, though damage to his retina restricts his peripheral vision. The four still climb together every year.

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