An Austrian man hiking 9,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada was on a peak taking a photo when he was struck by a lightning bolt that blasted away his clothes, burned a hole in one of his shoes and left him with severe burns. Mathias Steinhuber, who was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with his girlfriend and their friend, had an entry wound on his head and an exit wound on his foot.
“It was like in a dream,” Steinhuber told The Associated Press in an interview at the University of California, Davis Hospital Burn Center. “I woke up. I had blood everywhere, my clothes were ripped apart. At some distance I heard my girlfriend scream my name. My first conclusion was that I probably fell down the mountain.” Steinhuber said he doesn’t remember being struck. While he could see a thunderstorm far in the distance, he said there was no rain or lightning nearby.
Steinhuber had burns throughout his body and was struggling to walk when a helicopter crew rescued him Tuesday from an exposed peak among the rugged mountains near Donner Summit, the California Highway Patrol Valley Air Operations said. The couple from Innsbruck, Austria was visiting a friend, Carla Elvidge, in Truckee, California, near Lake Tahoe. Elvidge said she, Steinhuber and his girlfriend, Kathrin Klausner, were hiking from Donner Summit to Squaw Valley and that all are avid hikers.
Steinhuber was hiking ahead of his friends and had reached the top of Tinkers Knob, a bare peak with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the forests below. “He was taking a picture and the next thing I know, I see this white flash, like an explosion,” Elvidge told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Fairfield, California.
Steinhuber was thrown away and his shoes and all his clothes, including his underwear, were ripped off from his body. The lightning bolt singed his clothes and burned a gaping hole through one of his tennis shoes. A second lightning bolt struck next to Klausner, who felt the electricity in her body, and the two decided to take shelter and call for help, Elvidge said.
A helicopter landed on Tinker Knob, which is at an elevation of 8,949 feet, and dropped off a paramedic who tended to Steinhuber. He was taken to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee and then flown to the University of California, Davis Hospital Burn Center, where he was listed in fair condition on Thursday. Elvidge and Klausner hiked out, uncertain whether Steinhuber would survive or endure debilitating injuries, Klausner said.
Steinhuber and Klausner said they feel extraordinarily lucky that he survived and are grateful for the quick response from rescuers. “Somebody told me the odds are higher winning the lottery than getting struck by lightning,” Steinhuber said. “I would’ve rather won the lottery.”