Hikers Find Death, Terror at Summit of Mt. Whitney

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As lightning lacerated the darkening sky over Mt. Whitney and thunderclaps started a deafening roll, the 13 hikers saw the old stone hut with its corrugated metal roof as a welcome refuge from the drenching downpour.

It nearly became their tomb.

"I was sitting on the floor, my back against one of the walls," said Edward (E.J.) Wueherer, a hiker from Tehachapi. "All of a sudden I saw this flash and I felt this jolt like on my funny bone, and my toe started burning.

"The next thing I knew I was helping to untangle bodies."

The surging electrical charge threw Matthew Edward Nordbrock, who had been seated in the center of the hut, several feet, where he lay still on the ground.

As the hikers had sprinted for cover during the squall Saturday afternoon, Nordbrock, 26, of Huntington Beach, told one of his hiking buddies: "I've been hit by lightning before, so I won't get struck."

He died several hours later, after being removed from the 14,495-foot summit by helicopter.

The hikers had come from all over California, looking for a physical challenge, some scenery, fresh air and, perhaps, a touch of adventure on the rugged slopes of the eastern High Sierra.

But their carefree day trip Saturday to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, instead became a nightmare.

Traveling in five separate groups, 15 hikers suffered through a hellish afternoon and evening when a sudden electrical storm--called "extremely dangerous" by the National Weather Service--trapped them in two locations as it rained down lightning bolts.

Several others in the hut with Nordbrock were momentarily paralyzed when the lightning struck, and the bolt carved bite-sized chunks of flesh from hiker James MacLeod's shoulders, back and underarm.

MacLeod, 24, of Long Beach, required emergency resuscitation to survive, as did Terry Nabours, 32, of Laguna Hills, who was trapped on a different part of the mountain. Lightning hit Nabours as he huddled with his brother-in-law under a rock outcropping.

While the hut sheltered the hikers from the rainstorm, its corrugated steel roof was a lightning rod, attracting a bolt that can discharge as much as 100-million volts. The flash of energy left everyone in the group with first- and second-degree burns.

The lightning strike also slightly injured James MacLeod's brother, Glen, 37, of Long Beach, and their friend Calif Tervo, 44, of San Diego; Kent Kroener, 23, Steven Hellman, 23, and James Swift, 24, all of Huntington Beach; Doris Hertz, 35, and Linda Padgett, 36, of San Francisco; Morgan Milligan, 35, of Orinda; Wueherer's wife, Yoshiko Otonari, 29, and Michael Heil, 37, of California City.

Milligan and Tervo hiked down the mountain to seek help Saturday night. Nordbrock, Swift and James MacLeod were removed from the summit by helicopter. The others spent the night in the hut, and helicopters removed them at daybreak.

All were treated at Southern Inyo Hospital in Lone Pine, a small town at the base of Mt. Whitney, and released.

James MacLeod said he remembered sitting against a wall of the hut, talking with the other hikers for about 30 minutes as the storm raged outside.

His next memory, he said Sunday, was of his companions' faces staring down at him, asking him questions. His fellow hikers told him he had been unconscious for at least 20 minutes.

"Every article of clothing I have has holes in it, except my shoes," he said. "Every muscle in my body must have contracted. I'm sore all over."

MacLeod said doctors told him the electrical charge entered his right shoulder, where a four-inch-diameter wound was visible, and caused nearly a dozen smaller wounds where it exited his body.

"It's unbelievable what it did to me," he said. "It's so scary to think about how it just went right through me."

MacLeod said he, his brother, and Tervo had driven to Lone Pine on Friday night and slept in their cars at Whitney Portal, the mountain's eastern trail head.

They set out on the 10.6-mile trek to the summit at 8 a.m. in clear, hot weather. About three-quarters of the way up the mountain, the men noticed a storm brewing over distant peaks.

"We heard thunder at a distance, but we didn't think much of it," James MacLeod recalled. "When it started raining, our first thought was to get dry. I guess we should have thought about our own well-being."

Seeing the hut through the rain and hail, the trio took refuge with the other hikers.

Wueherer, 32, said the group began discussing whether the hut would be safe in a thunderstorm, shortly before the bolt scored an apparent direct hit.

"It actually seemed to be abating," Wueherer said of the storm. "I was figuring 'Oh, it's over.' "

But the disaster had just begun.

"We knew right away what had happened, and we just started dealing with it," Wueherer said of the lightning strike.

Hikers who knew how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation immediately began assisting MacLeod and Nordbrock. The group worked on Nordbrock for more than five hours before rescuers arrived by helicopter to take him to the hospital where he died.

"The doctor told us they thought the lightning probably had the worst effect on Matt because he was wearing metal-rimmed glasses," the dead man's mother, Evelyn Nordbrock, a tax preparer in Tucson, Ariz., said Sunday.

More than a decade ago, Nordbrock and his younger brother and two other boys were in a rowboat on a lake in Arizona's White Mountains when lightning struck during a sudden storm, she said.

"Matt was temporarily stunned, but one of the other boys was pretty badly hurt. . . . That boy was wearing metal-rimmed glasses, too."

Nordbrock, a credit analyst with Jorgensen Steel in Los Angeles, often mentioned the incident to friends, his mother said.

Milligan and Tervo decided immediately after the lightning strike to head down the trail for help.

"My legs were numb and were hurting, so I couldn't keep up," Tervo said Sunday.

Milligan raced on, arriving at Whitney Portal at 6:30 p.m., about three hours after the accident.

Meanwhile, Tervo said he found some Girl Scouts part way down the mountain, who used a radio they were carrying to call for help. Their Mayday, picked up by a passing jetliner, was relayed to Inyo County sheriff's deputies by Los Angeles air traffic control officials at about 6:15 p.m., Sheriff's Lt. Jack Goodrich said.

After the first helicopter rescue Saturday night, the remaining eight hikers huddled in the hut, awaiting help as temperatures dipped below freezing and a light snow dusted the summit.

Meanwhile, about a half-mile below them, two other day hikers, brothers-in-law Nabours and Michael Wasson, 33, of Los Angeles, huddled beneath a stone outcropping, trying to stay dry when lightning struck.

Steve Walker, a member of the China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, said the men told him their experience as they waited for a rescue helicopter Sunday morning.

They told Walker the air around them suddenly became charged as two lightning bolts in rapid succession zipped through the rock, stunning them.

The jolts sent Nabours into convulsions, Walker said. Wasson, who was slightly burned and numbed by the charge, performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for several minutes to revive his brother-in-law.

Dressed only in T-shirts and shorts in the 50-degree temperatures, the two men rested only briefly before deciding to attempt to find help farther down the mountain, Walker said. They hiked three miles before coming across two women backpackers at a resting point called Trail Camp.

The women gave the men hot drinks, food and warm clothes. Walker and a team of nine rescuers reached the camp shortly before midnight. Nabours was flown off the mountain at about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, and was hospitalized in good condition.

Wasson insisted on hiking back down. "He said, 'We climbed up this mountain and I want to climb down it,' " Walker said.

Considering the intensity of the storm and the number of weekend hikers on the peak, authorities said it was fortunate that there was only one fatality.

The hikers agreed.

"We flogged on (Nordbrock) for five hours, trying to make him live," said Glen MacLeod. "That tore us apart. But we looked around and realized that it could have been all 13 of us that didn't make it. We were very lucky."

Others, like Wueherer, felt nagging regret.

"It all makes sense in retrospect," he said. "We were asking for trouble. We were on the highest mountain, in a metal-roofed cabin, at the peak, in the middle of a rainstorm.

"What did we think was going to happen? I know now. We probably shouldn't have pushed for the top."

Rae-Dupree reported from Lone Pine. Boyer reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Bob Schwartz in Los Angeles and George Frank in Orange County contributed to this story.

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