VIVA LA THUNDERBIRD

This story is not about flying per se, but mountaintops share some obvious relation, and any pilot who’s not curious about lightning… should be. It happened at the Cliff House, tucked up against vertical rocks below Vermont’s highest summit. Visualize steel cable more than an inch thick (longest continuous one in the world when built) running a mile and a half up and down the mountainside, suspended by twenty-some tall steel towers. Visualize also, up from three directions, pairs of snow-making pipes eight inches in diameter, one for water and one for air, barely covered by cracked rock. Think of all those big steel arrows converging at the top, right where we stood admiring a storm…

Who knows, maybe such minutiae mean little to the lightning god(s) in choosing which tree to split. And what if the aim is pinpoint – we are dealing with the Almighty after all – but interfered with by some unknown ‘factor’? Perhaps a Brazilian butterfly.

Anyway, we were standing on the concrete platform where gondola cars come in and out, counting a strike or two each minute in the few square miles still visible. We’d been at it awhile, and being terminally lazy I leaned against a solid object to help keep me upright. Immediately the nearest crew mate looked over and stepped away, drawling, “Wouldn’t be touchin’ that if I was you.”

What he thought I shouldn’t touch was part of a stanchion guiding the cable around a ten ton bull wheel above the giant electric motor that drove this whole contraption. (Oh yes, nearly forgot about the bigass power cable running up there too!) Those steel beams I stood between at the console when starting the lift and shutting it down every day seemed so benign, not much taller than me and in under the roof for goodness sake — despite their being sunk into a mountaintop and painted bright red! I stepped back feeling like a fool, and seconds later lightning struck that top tower twenty feet out the door.

True fact. My arms happened to be crossed at that moment, and fingernails of one hand dug blood from the other bicep. Better than burns I suppose.

And then… one autumn afternoon I was down in the woods trimming limbs for off-piste ski terrain and listening to the approach of a storm like a ball game on radio. At that same time the crew were somewhere up the line in their bizarre two-level work car lubing sheaves. When lightning finally struck on the mountain itself I heard the emergency diesel crank up to hurry them down SAP. Time to hide the axe and head on in myself… Then a terrific bolt engulfed the whole mountainside, spreading out like roots of a tree and striking many places at once. The lift abruptly stopped.

Momentary power outage? Seeing the guys afterward, I forgot to ask. They all displayed singed hands from where they’d been touching the work car’s steel frame — and the look in their eyes was even crazier than usual.

The storm persisted and there was beer in someone’s trunk, so that was it for the day, which meant I’d have to take the jeep back up. Got home just as the clouds parted, and with a fat moon out it was just plain old heavenly. Don’t miss skiing a bit, honest, but I do miss those storms! As for the Almighty, nothing to do but wait in good faith… for her shocking next memorandum.