Stormy Weather (Part Three)
The worst case scenario I’ve come personally to a general storm disaster was in the summer of 2007. In June of the year the British isles were enveloped in a series of catastrophic storms and massive flooding as a result of torrential downpour. The city I lived in was one of the worst hit. On the 25th of June the skies opened and dropped an incredible 3.9 inches of rain on the city in the space of a few hours. The result was cataclysmic.
I was teaching in a local school that morning and myself and my pupils were f***ed to abandon one classroom after another as the rain leaked through the ceilings. By mid morning the head teacher finally abandoned the effort to keep the school open and ordered the immediate closure and evacuation. It was very nearly too late. The whole of the grounds of the school were under water and staff cars had to plough through flood water above the axles as they tried to vacate the car park. I had to wade through water up to my knees to get out of the school and I was soaked to the skin within a minute of leaving shelter. And still the rain came down.
I have known rain as heavy as that we had that day or even heavier but never for so long and so persistently. It just fell in a continual torrent all day long in such a driving sheet that it would saturate every item of clothing you were wearing in less than a minute. The massive rainfall was compounded by the high tidal surge for the city is a low lying coastal city. The drainage system was completely overwhelmed and, by the afternoon, huge swathes of the city were under water. Over ten thousand homes were abandoned in the face of the rising flood water forcing some 35,000 people to seek shelter elsewhere. Of the city’s 88 schools 76 were closed down and the repair bill for the catastrophe came to over 200 million pounds.
Mercifully (although not for the person involved) only one life was lost but the toll in hardship was enormous and for nearly a year afterwards many people were still unable to return to their ruined homes. As storms go though the actual danger to life was relatively small and, although I got a very severe soaking, I never felt that my own life was in danger. That has not always been the case during stormy weather.
The times when my own life has been in serious danger during stormy weather has most frequently been in the mountains where I have spent the happiest days of my life. Mountains are bad places for storms. Anybody who has hiked a lot in the high mountains will know full well how a storm can appear from nowhere. They are most common in the late afternoon on hot summer days. You can be hiking in your shorts and camisole in blazing temperatures and then a few clouds appear. Within minutes the whole mountainside is engulfed under a raging thunderstorm, you are being drenched by torrential rain and in mortal danger of your life.
So dangerous is the sudden emergence of these thunderstorms that hikers in the mountains are always advised to start their hike towards their destinations early in the day and be in shelter there by the latter part of the afternoon when the storms are likely to occur. It goes without saying that the last place you would want to be caught in a thunderstorm is an exposed mountainside. On one mountain I regularly hiked on there was a grim reminder of this.
The mountain was the 2970 metre high peak of the Schilthorn in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland. The mountain is famous for the revolving restaurant perched on the summit which featured in the James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” On a ridge just below the summit however is a sombre memorial that is rarely seen by the tourists who visit the mountain by way of the cable car. It is a little memorial standing alone among the tufts of Glacier Crowfoot and the little clumps of the beautiful and rare Mt Cenis Bellflowers that bears the name of a lady hiker who was killed on this very spot by lightning in the early years of the twentieth century. It is a sober warning of the dangers posed by storms in the mountains.
The trouble is on the mountains that you don’t just risk being under a thunderstorm as it were but you face the all too likely prospect of ending up INSIDE one! You may take it from me that the inside of a thunderstorm on a lonely mountain ridge is one very scary and dangerous place to be. In just such a situation on my beloved Mount Santis in East Switzerland I witnessed lightning striking the ground within twenty yards of the hole under a boulder in which I was cowering! I was very frightened that day!
I think the time that I was most terrified however was on another peak in the Bernese Alps. The Faulhorn is a mountain of 2,681 metres in altitude. It’s not a particularly challenging mountain to climb but it’s a lovely hike up and, crowning the summit, is a cosy little mountain hostel where you can find food, drink and a bed for the night after a hard day’s hike. It was on the final approach to the mountain where I ran into trouble. I was accompanied by two friends who were relatively new to the alps and although the hike was not a challenging one it is true that they had dawdled somewhat along the way. By the time it came to make the last ascent to the summit we were dangerously behind schedule.
We had come up out of a small cleft, called the Hunhertal, and traversed a long and broad shoulder of the mountain, where the ptarmigan were croaking and a flock of snowfinches graced us with their presence. The final climb was up the large conical centre of the mountain and we were just beginning the long slog up it when danger struck. Knowing that we were running late I had been chivvying my friends along but, as newcomers on the mountains, they were unaware of any need for urgency. But I was becoming worried. Clouds were closing around ominously. My two friends were keen ornithologists and stopped to admire a handsome and characteristically tame Alpine Accentor striding unconcernedly a few feet from us. I was hopping about from one foot to the other in nervousness. I could feel the thunder in the air and we were still a good way short of the shelter of the hostel on the summit.
The inevitable happened. As we looked back an awful great black thundercloud seemed to boil up out the valley below and roll over the shoulder of the mountain below us. Like a living malignant entity flashing with lightning it began to stride purposefully toward us, towering ever higher as it grew in malevolence. It was a terrifying sight and nothing more was needed to stir my companions into action.
The trouble was that our scope for action was now limited. In normal circumstances when faced with a thunderstorm in the mountains your first reaction is to lose altitude as quickly as possible; to seek haven in the relative safety of the valley below. On this occasion that simply wasn’t an option. The thundercloud had effectively cut off our retreat down the mountain. It was now encroaching closer and closer; the lightning striking the trail we had left less than half an hour before. The only way was up. It was the first time I have ever been chased UP a mountain by a thunderstorm.
We flew up that mountainside while that petrifying apparition rolled towards us relentlessly. By the end of the climb with the monster almost on top of us we were literally running and the atmosphere had taken on almost Wagnerian properties of impending doom and Gotterdammerung. We flung ourselves into the hostel with literally seconds to spare. We were barely through the door gasping for breath when the storm unleashed itself on the summit in tormented fury rattling the windows with continual crashes of thunder and howling manically around the low buildings in frustrated wrath. I remember somebody pushing a small tumbler of strong plum schnapps into my hand. I needed a drink right then!
Yet for all that storms may frighten us and threaten us there is still a huge fascination with them. Terrifying though they may be there is still nevertheless a sort of untamed majesty about them; an awe inspiring grandeur and magnificence. They may smash our property, cut our electricity, flood our homes and threaten even our lives yet still we can look at them in wonder and, incredibly, find beauty in their fearsomeness.
It is that beauty that we can find in the power of the storm that perhaps is the most telling thing about the whole thing and, even over a storm as dreadful as Hurricane Sandy, is the greatest victory. It is the final recognition that however powerful and majestic the storm may be, it is ultimately humbled by a f***e of nature more powerful than it; the stubborn and obdurate persistence of life itself. For the storm is after all ephemeral and short lived. It may rage in fury about our heads yet it is doomed; doomed to drift away squandering its energy wastefully until it has died away into a breeze to stir the grasses far away while behind it the business of life carries on regardless with barely a blip in its continuity. And if we even pause to admire the beauty of the storm as it passes then we have simply stated that we are life and a f***e more elemental and strong than anything it could unleash upon our heads in all its futile rage.