Ordeal Atop Mt. Whitney -- Lightning Rains Down On Hikers

LONE PINE, Calif. - They came from throughout 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 Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, instead became a nightmare.

Fifteen hikers, traveling in five different groups, suffered through a hellish afternoon and evening when a sudden electrical storm - described by the National Weather Service as ``extremely dangerous'' - trapped them in two separate locations and rained lightning bolts down on them.

One man, Matthew Edward Nordbrock, 26, of Huntington Beach, Calif., died.

Two others, James MacLeod, 24, of Long Beach, Calif., and Terry Nabours, 32, of Laguna Hills, Calif., required emergency resuscitation to survive.

Nabours, who was struck as he huddled with his brother-in-law under a rock outcropping, declined to discuss the incident yesterday.

MacLeod, still dazed by his experience, yesterday morning showed reporters where lightning had carved bite-sized chunks of flesh from his shoulders, back and under an arm.

He was one of 13 hikers who sought refuge from the storm in an old stone hut perched on top of the 14,500-foot peak. Instead of providing shelter, the hut's corrugated steel roof attracted a lightning bolt.

The flash of energy zapped the group of hikers with varying amounts of electricity, resulting in first- and second-degree burns for all of them, temporarily paralyzing several, knocking out MacLeod and fatally injuring Nordbrock.

Morgan Milligan, 35, and Calif Tervo, 44, hiked down the mountain to seek help Saturday night. Nordbrock, James Swift, 24, and MacLeod were later removed from the summit by helicopter. The others spent the night in the hut, awaiting a daybreak helicopter rescue.

All but Swift were treated at Southern Inyo Hospital in Lone Pine, a small town at the base of Mount Whitney, and released. Swift was released yesterday afternoon.

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, 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 4-inch-diameter wound could be seen, and then 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 told reporters that he, his brother, Glen, 37,, and Tervo had driven to Lone Pine Friday night and slept in their cars at Whitney Portal, the mountain's eastern trailhead. He said they set out on the 10 1/2-mile trek to the summit at 8 a.m. in clear, hot weather. As they finished a series of 100 steep switchbacks 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 three took refuge with the other hikers.

Edward ``E.J.'' 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,'' the hiker said of the storm. ``I was figuring `Oh, it's over.' ''

Then disaster struck.

``I was sitting on the floor, my back against one of the walls,'' Wueherer said. ``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.''

Nordbrock, who was seated in the center of the hut, was thrown several feet by the charge, and lay on the ground, Wueherer said. Several others were momentarily paralyzed.

``We knew right away what had happened, and we just started dealing with it,'' Wueherer said.

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,'' his mother, Evelyn Nordbrock, a tax preparer in Tucson, Ariz., said yesterday.

It wasn't the first time her son had been hit by lightning, she added. More than a decade ago, he 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,'' said Nordbrock.

She said her son, a credit analyst with Jorgensen Steel in Los Angeles, often mentioned the incident to friends. Even as they sprinted for cover during the Saturday-afternoon squall, he told his companion, Swift, ``I've been hit by lightning before so I won't get struck,'' she said.