Visitors walk a short trail at a scenic overlook off Trail Ridge Road, above tree-line at Rocky Mountain National Park, west of Estes Park, Colo., Monday, July 14, 2014. Lightning killed two people last weekend just miles apart in the popular park.
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DENVER — Justin Teilhet doesn’t remember hearing a boom or feeling a sting, just waking up numb on the treeless tundra high in Rocky Mountain National Park and discovering his good friend was trying to revive his wife.
It was a lightning bolt, he learned later, and it killed his wife and left him with a burn on his shoulder and scrapes on his face when he was knocked to the ground unconscious.
Lightning killed two people last weekend in the popular park, where summer storms can close in quickly with deadly results.
Both lightning strikes last weekend hit exposed areas with little cover near the heavily traveled Trail Ridge Road, which offers 360-degree views of snow-covered mountains, forested canyons and alpine lakes. The park, about 65 miles northwest of Denver, draws around 3 million people a year, and numerous signs warn visitors of lightning danger and rapidly changing weather.
Rebecca Teilhet, 42, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was killed Friday while hiking on the Ute Crossing Trail at about 11,400 feet above sea level. Justin Teilhet and six other hikers were injured.
One day later and a few miles away, lightning killed 52-year-old Gregory Cardwell of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at Rainbow Curve, a pullout on Trail Ridge Road with sweeping vistas from a vantage point about 10,800 feet above sea level. Three others were hurt by that strike.
Colorado averages three deaths and 15 injuries a year from lightning and often ranks No. 2 in the nation in lightning casualties, behind Florida, said Bob Glancy, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder.
“Part of that is because Colorado is a great place to be outside,” he said. The terrain and weather also are factors. The mountain profile and summer weather patterns create frequent thunderstorms over the Front Range, which includes Rocky Mountain National Park.
Teilhet, his wife and his friend Nick Tertel of Fort Collins, Colorado, were in a line of hikers hustling back to the trailhead parking lot on Trail Ridge Road as the weather changed.
“A storm blew in, and it came very fast,” Teilhet said today from his home in Ohio. “It started raining a little bit. We were hearing claps of thunder everywhere, but it there wasn’t any lightning.”
The next thing he remembers is struggling to lift his body from the ground, with one side numb.
“I was walking, and then I was trying to stand up,” he said, with no memory of anything in between.
“When I found Nick trying to revive my wife, I crawled to them and tried to help.”
Tertel also was injured but gave Rebecca Teilhet CPR and kept her alive until paramedics arrived, Justin Teilhet said.
“He really was a hero at that event,” Teilhet said.
Park officials said a helicopter was dispatched but Rebecca Teilhet died at the scene.
Tertel declined to comment. Cardwell’s family didn’t immediately return a phone call.
Teilhet and Cardwell were the first people killed by lightning in the park since a climber died on Longs Peak in 2000, officials said. A woman was injured by lightning last year.
Park officials don’t close Trail Ridge Road because of lightning, saying that would be impractical.
Teilhet said he saw one of the advisories about lightning at the trailhead.
“When you see a sign warning you about lightning, you just sort of file it away with the things you already know are dangerous,” he said.
Teilhet doesn’t think the National Park Service could or should have done anything more, and he praised the staff’s response.
“This is a huge, beautiful, dangerous, amazing place, and they’ve done a lot to make it accessible to the public,” he said.