Nuts and bolts at the Grand Canyon

Gary Hart Photography: Too Close, Parallel Lightning Bolts, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Too Close, Twin Lightning Bolts, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
24-105L
1/8 second
F/18
ISO 100

The bolts started around 1:15; the nuts showed up about ten minutes later. There were 14 of us. We were stationed on the outside viewing deck of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, tripods, cameras, and lightning triggers poised and ready for action. The “action” we were ready for was lightning, and more specifically, the opportunity to photograph it.

The storm had started fairly benignly, poking at South Rim a comfortable distance away, far enough in fact that we heard no thunder. But as often happens, we became so caught up in the intensifying pyrotechnics that we failed to appreciate how much our sky was darkening and that the bolts were in fact landing closer. We continued in exhilarated ignorance until a tripod-rattling thunderclap and simultaneous white flash returned us to the reality of the moment. Hmmm.

By the time the raindrops started plopping, the lightning show had reached such a crescendo that we found all kinds of rationalizations for persistence in the face of potential death: “I think it’s moving west of us,” or, “The lodge’s lightning rods will protect us,” or, “If it were really that dangerous, the hotel staff would make us leave.” (Ummm: When the strikes are that close, it doesn’t matter where the storm is heading; lightning rods are to protect the (smart) people inside the lodge; the hotel staff isn’t paid enough to go outside for anything that risky.) I wish I could say it was common sense that eventually drove us all inside, but the reality is that when the heavy rain finally arrived, it became impossible to keep the front of our lenses dry.

So what is it about danger that brings out the stupid in photographers? I used to be able to use the “I’m from California and we don’t get lightning so I don’t know any better,” defense, but that won’t fly anymore because I do know better: I know a lightning strike can be fatal, and those who survive are often left with a life-long disability; I know that lightning can hit 10 miles from its last strike; I know that if you can hear the thunder, you’re too close.

And it’s not just lightning that brings out the stupid. While chasing potential shots, I know of a photographer who scaled a cliff far beyond my his skill level, drove without hesitation into (but not out of) a raging creek, and became hopelessly mired in mud on a narrow jungle track. And we’ve all read news reports about the photographer plummeting to her death while angling for a better view, or of the partial remains of a photographer discovered in the stomach of an unfortunate grizzly?

We each have our own safety threshold, a comfort zone beyond which we won’t venture. I have a really tough time getting within three feet of any vertical drop greater than 50 feet, but I know photographers who can spit into the Colorado River from the 1,000 foot vertical rim at Horseshoe Bend. On the other hand, I’ve lived in California my entire life and am always disappointed when I miss an earthquake, but I’ve had people tell me they’ll never set foot in the Golden State for fear of a fault slipping.

But back to this lightning thing. It’s not as if I stand on a peak shaking my fist at the sky and dodging bolts like Bowfinger crossing the highway. I will go inside when lightning gets too close—I just think I probably don’t do it quite as soon as I should, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll be sorry (or worse). But I’m happy to report that the score on this particular afternoon was: Photographers—250-ish (the number of images with lightning), Lightning—0 (the number of photographers lost). Next year? Tornados.


A Grand Canyon lightning gallery

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