What in the World?
St. Elmo’s Fire
“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the final analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”
~ Max Planck
In early June of 1982, three men sat side by side on a narrow ledge, on a sheer mountain face, and in the middle of a fierce storm. At that moment, their immediate futures looked as dark as the clouds overhead.
The climb of the Petzoldt Route on the Grand Teton had begun on the previous day. After hiking from Jenny Lake, where we left our cars, we set up camp on the Lower Saddle, a ridge that stretches between the Grand Teton and Middle Teton.
After a nearly sleepless night at 11,600 feet above sea level, Jim, Tad and I started for the base of the Petzoldt Route at 4 a.m. We arrived a couple hours later after working our way across a steep snowfield and a gaping crevasse.
We intended to climb the remaining 2,200 feet to the summit and return to our base camp on the Lower Saddle by late afternoon. That was not to be the case; fate and nature had other plans for us.
The route was a mix of steep faces and ridges, punctuated with equally steep ice couloirs. We were constantly putting on and removing our crampons, plus the route offered little in the way of protection.
And to make matters worse, Jim had taken a fall on the Devil’s Tower three days previous, and his right ankle was swollen and painful. Unfortunately, it was not possible to retreat because of the meandering nature of the route.
We had no choice but to keep pushing for the summit, but with each new pitch, Jim’s ankle injury was slowing us down. By 5 p.m., it was clear that we would not make the summit before dark. And to make matters worse, threatening clouds were rolling in from the north side of the mountain.
There was no way we would make the summit before the storm hit or darkness overtook us. A near-vertical rock wall lay above us, so we opted to bivouac on the first ledge we came upon. That ledge turned out to be no more than 24 inches wide and just a body length of room to sit.
Nevertheless, it would have to do for three grown men and their climbing gear.
Since we didn’t intend to bivouac, we had no sleeping bags or tent, nor any room on that ledge for anything that offered comfort. We did the only thing we could do – we hung our gear from an existing piton, driven into a crack, and the three of us sat side-by-side with our legs dangling down over the void below.
We put our legs in our empty packs to protect our feet and wrapped a single space blanket over the three of us. We had to wait out the impending storm with minimal protection.
The storm hit hard just after darkness fell. The ominous clouds looked close enough to reach out and touch. At first, the lightning was contained within the clouds. But soon, there were frequent exchanges of lightning between the angry clouds and the summit, just 300 feet above us.
Often, the lightning bolts appeared to originate from the rock rather than the clouds. We wondered aloud if this was an optical illusion.
There was nothing we could do but sit on our ledge and enjoy the show.
Sleep seemed out of the question. Not only because of the raucous storm, but we all feared that dozing off, even for a moment, might mean slipping off the edge into nothingness.
Notwithstanding our oath to stay awake, we nodded off despite the electric storm raging all around us. Suddenly, Jim and I were roused by Tad shouting, “What in the world is that?” (which is not exactly how he worded his inquiry), pointing to our gear rack hanging from a piton. All the metal objects, the ice axes, carabiners, protection and crampons, had a blue glow that flickered like a flame.
While marveling at the sight of our electrified climbing gear, we failed to notice what was happening on the surface of the space blanket covering our laps and legs.
Tiny sprites of blue light were rising from the aluminized surface of the blanket. As if alive, they scrambled about, rising into peaks of light. We were captivated by this beautiful but frightening phenomenon happening right on our laps.
Finally, when the peaks of light reached a crescendo, a blinding flash of lightning followed. Immediately afterward, the space blanket and our metal gear resumed their normal states. The heavy static in the air combined with the smell of ozone was gone.
Gone for a bit, that is, until the entire scenario played out again and again until the storm finally passed over the Grand Teton, revealing the myriad of stars overhead.
We could look down into Jackson Hole and see the lights of Jackson. Relieved, we waited for the first light of dawn and resumed our climb to the summit.
Despite the many theories we proposed on our descent to base camp, we still did not know the nature of the blue sprites. That wouldn’t happen until we made it down to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station the next day.
We checked in at the ranger station to let them know we were off the mountain. The uniformed ranger behind the counter commented, “I hope you guys were down on the Lower Saddle during last night’s storm – it was a doozy.”
“Well, actually,” we replied, “we were a few hundred feet below the summit.” That took the ranger back a bit, and he said something to the effect of “So, you guys were right in the middle of the fireworks, huh?”
We told him we were, and he chuckled, saying, “You can count yourself lucky. There were a half-dozen climbing parties on the mountain yesterday. We figured that if any of them were on the summit during the storm, the only thing our rescue personnel would have found were some crispy climbers.”
“So, I take it that the weird blue lights we saw on our gear were dangerous, huh?” replied Tad.
The ranger thought a moment and said, “You’re probably talking about St. Elmo’s Fire, and that’s not hurt anyone that I know of. It’s the lightning I’m talking about; it could have fried you guys. From down here, it looked like a non-stop tangle of lightning on the summit that went on for several hours.”
I asked the ranger, “What exactly is St. Elmo’s Fire?” At that, he led us down a hallway where an attractive uniformed woman sat at a desk in a spacious office. The room was packed with sun-bleached turtle shells, a complete skeleton of a marmot, and aquarium tanks containing midget faded rattlesnakes.
“You can talk to our naturalist, she studied meteorology, and atmospheric phenomenon is her long suit.” The ranger said as he returned to the front counter.
The naturalist, Ms. Iron Crow, seemed quite happy to talk about something related to her expertise, and she had our rapt attention.
Ms. Iron Crow explained that St. Elmo’s Fire is not truly a form of fire. She said it was something called a luminous plasma caused by the ionization of the air in an electrical storm.
She compared it to a neon sign, saying that it emits an orange-red light when an intense electrical field stimulates the neon gas. In St. Elmo’s Fire, the gasses available in the air are oxygen and nitrogen, hence the blue light.
“You know, she said, you fellows are lucky to have seen St. Elmo’s Fire up close.” She added, “I have only seen it once before, and that was from quite a distance. You’re also lucky you weren’t struck by lightning up there at ground zero.”
With a barely audible voice, Jim asked, “Why do they call it St. Elmo’s Fire?” Jim was shy, to be sure, and I suspected that he just wanted to say something to the beautiful and intelligent woman.
“Good question,” she said smiling, “St. Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, and it was common during electrical storms for St. Elmo’s Fire to appear on tips of the masts. They regarded it as a good omen.” Jim looked pleased with Ms. Iron Crow’s answer and her comment that it was a good question.
She said that ranchers in the area report seeing ghostly blue light coming from the horns of their cattle during storms. The cattle get excited; perhaps they sense the static in the air but otherwise come to no harm from the experience.
I had one more question for Ms. Iron Crow, then we were headed to the Silver Dollar Bar in Jackson to celebrate our exciting ascent of the Grand Teton. “Just what is this ‘ball lightning’ I have heard about?”
Once again, we were the grateful recipients of her charming smile, “We don’t know, at least not yet. There is very little credible data on ball lightning; nearly every experience with it has been anecdotal. Ball lightning is like ghosts; some people believe in them; others need more evidence that they exist.”
Well, dear readers, what do you think? Is ball lightning real or just a figment of one’s imagination?
Many thanks to the dedicated and knowledgeable folks of the National Park Service. Their wisdom and advice has saved me grief on many occasions.