Lightning Encounter | Local Essays
Posted by Minko Nikolov on 22nd May 2023
First published in Rocky Mountain National Park Bouldering in 2023.
As I open my eyes from the darkness to fill them with light from what felt to be a long sleep, I didn’t see my room as usual, I saw nothing but rocks and mud in front of me. It was strange and shocking— where I was?
I raised my head, water and blood drained down my face, dropping to the ground, filling a puddle with blood. I had no feelings or emotions, I didn’t know what was going on, my brain was a little foggy and I thought I might still be sleeping. A dream within the dream! I will wake up again and I will be home.
Lifting my head a little higher, I was in a familiar place—a trail that I know very well. I turned my head to the right and there was Longs Peak. I was in RMNP, but it was April, I thought, and there is no snow on the ground. I didn’t know what was happening to me, why I was there. I wanted to move, but I couldn’t. Something strange was happening that had never happened before. I couldn’t feel my body below the waist.
Everything around me was slow, peaceful and quiet. It was raining and I was getting rained on and I wanted to move. I wanted to get up and to go home, but I couldn’t.
I tried to lift my body with my left arm as much as I could, so I could start crawling. I just wanted to move and go home, but I didn’t get too far. My legs were dangling behind me, but I couldn’t feel them. I’ve been shot, I thought. It seemed no different from a soldier dying after being shot, doing his last moves before he dies.
I did one more move with my arm and I landed on my back and now I was stuck. I was getting rained on, couldn’t move, and I start feeling cold. I saw my right arm on my chest, but I couldn’t move it. I couldn’t feel it. I lifted it with my left arm, but I touch a cold piece of a human that wasn’t me. I felt nothing in my arm. I could touch my cold fingers, but I couldn’t feel them. I dropped my right arm and I felt it dropping on chest. It was heavy. It didn’t feel like mine. I had one thought—I lost my arm.
I wasn’t sure what was happening to me, but I had a thought, I was going to die. I looked up the trail and 15 feet away from me was a girl and a guy. They spoke at me: “Don’t move, you got struck by lighting.”
I was shocked! I didn’t know what that was or what was going to happen to me. I never thought that this could happen to me.
“Can you help me to get up?” I asked. “Sorry, I can’t touch you, you might be still charged,” the girl replied.
I looked at my legs, they were still smoking; I was getting burned alive. The weird and unusual smell in the air was the scent of my own burning flesh. I though my leg was a burning charcoal. Nothing was left from it. I felt nothing of it. Things were getting worse with every moment and thought.
A sense of guilt arises in my mind. I was the only child; my mom was going to be buried after I die, and I did that to her. I start remembering that it wasn’t April, it was August, August the 17th, 2019. I was going on a quick session to RMNP to chase a boulder problem that had been constantly wet. It was Saturday, my mom and dad were waiting for me at home, so we could go on a family vacation for my mom’s birthday, but I had nowhere to go, I couldn’t even move.
Everything was slow and peaceful. I could hear the guy on his phone, talking to 911. Telling them about me and where I was. I was surprisingly calm. I had no feelings or emotions. I rested my head on my side. I was watching Longs Peak. It was raining. Everything was slow, my breaths were very slow, I could feel my heart pounding very slowly. My eyes felt heavy, and I had a hard time keeping them open. I was aware of everything that I could see, but I had emptied my mind. I had no thoughts, but I had the feeling that I was watching my last minutes or seconds. Every view was a gift. I was dying. I knew it.
I never thought this moment would come so early in my life. I never had a deep thought of what it would be or how I wanted to see it. I just went climbing. Having a good weekend. Nothing unexpended, nothing extraordinary. All of a sudden, I was lying down in the mud, living my last pieces of life.
I wasn’t scared, I didn’t feel sad or anxious. I took every moment as it was happening, I couldn’t do anything about it. I was watching everything happing, slowly and peacefully.
I felt no regrets for anything that I had done. Didn’t want to change anything. I went climbing, I wanted to go to a place that I love, doing what I love. It just happened to be this way. I didn’t do anything different from what I’ve done in the past. I didn’t take any extra risk, the risk was probably always there, but I never felt it.
I don’t know how long this went on. I was coming in and out of being present and having memories. I don’t remember the conversations with all the people around me. They were watching me, and I glanced at them from time to time, but I was in my own world. Things were changing quickly.
More and more sensations and feelings started to come back. As the adrenalin began to fade away, my shoulder started to hurt—pain that I hadn’t experienced in the past or assumed was possible for me to sustain. Pain so sharp that you can’t scream out from it. It hurt so much that I could feel it in my stomach. I thought that I dislocated my shoulder from the fall. At this time, I wasn’t aware of what was ahead of me and what was truly happening to my body. A journey that I never thought that I could sustain.
The lightning struck through my right shoulder, burning all the layers of my skin, burning my muscles all the way to the bones. I didn’t know that I would spend the next 25 days in a hospital, with nine days in critical condition, and requiring six surgeries. Waking up from my first surgery, I was told that 50% of my shoulder muscles were removed because the tissues were dead. I didn’t even feel sad about it; I was happy because I wanted to live life. I knew that life would never be the same as before, but I wanted to fight as much as I could, so I could see it. Things were bad, I broke my jaw when I fell to the ground. I had to have my jaw wired shut with screws that I thought only a carpenter would use. I couldn’t eat normally. I hadn’t thought that I could be 23 pounds lighter and still be alive. I had my thigh skin removed to cover the burned skin on my right shoulder, leg, and back. When I get out of the shower and see my outer body in the mirror, I know I don't look the same. I never thought that I would be able to go home not being able to lift my arm above my head for days. I had doubts whether my life could be the same as before. I am a person who wants more and more. I couldn’t leave what was out there for me, things that were once easy to get and were given. I had to go ahead and get them—working much harder than ever before but being much happier than I ever was.
More and more people gathered around me. They were watching me. Watching me struggle, trying to get up, trying to move, but no one dragged me out of the rain. I didn’t even know what I looked like. Why were they afraid to move me and help me? I was helpless. I was surrounded by people, but I was alone.
I was there with my thoughts, wondering if I was going to survive or not, or if I survived, if I was going to have my left leg removed and my right arm back. I was able to reconcile to myself that even if I lose a limb, life was worth living.
There was not much hope until the first ranger arrived, a blond girl that I had never seen before. She was the first person to give me first aid and then two more rangers arrived, Jonah and Phillip Magistro, who I know very well from climbing in the park. Not only did I know them well from all of the years I’ve spent climbing in the park, but I saw them on the trail going up this very day. We exchanged a few words and they warned me about the storm coming in, so I tried to make a joke about it, but no one was laughing. I saw that Jonah had a hard time looking at me, and I started to realize that beneath my clothes, I was in worse condition then I thought.
I started feeling safer and safer, and more and more people started to gather. The search and rescue team arrived, and I was moved to the parking lot. I was transported by ambulance to a helicopter and then the ER, where I was told that I was very lucky to be alive and I might live. It took many more days to realize that I would live.