Given enough time, tragic events have a way—perhaps once or twice in a lifetime—of turning into something good. Much is learned from the study of great disasters. Because of the Titanic sinking, today’s ships are much safer. Investigations of major air crashes have led to many improvements in air travel safety, and so on. The same is true for wilderness adventuring. But there are some tragedies where it wasn’t clear how much they influenced major events which followed, until many years later.
Such was the case regarding the horrific lightning strike on Bugaboo Spire in August of 1948 that killed two climbers and seriously injured two others. Yet, as sad and unfortunate as the accident was, it was directly responsible for one of the most famous backpacking journeys of the twentieth century.
Bugaboo Spire rises 10,400 feet in British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains. The spire itself—a near-vertical needle standing 2,000 feet above the surrounding area—has long been a climber’s destination. Lightning strikes, common on such pinnacles, have been a bane to those on mountaintops since we first began seeking the heights, but such storms have become an acceptable risk to modern climbers. On August 4, 1948, four climbers—Rudolph Pundt, 41, Robert Becker, 21, Ann “Cricket” Strong, 18, and Ian MacKinlay, 21—were just beginning their descent down the vertical rock face of the spire when an extremely powerful lightning storm blew in, forcing them to take shelter in a shallow cave just below the summit. It struck with an intensity that could not be anticipated as they sat trying to eat lunch while contemplating the truth which lurks in the back of every mountaineer’s mind: there is little one can do on a high mountaintop during a lightning storm. It is a hazard you must accept.
A bolt from the sky hit near the cave’s opening, rendering all of them unconscious. MacKinlay recovered first. Still quite dazed, badly burned, and paralyzed from the neck down, he watched helplessly as Pundt—convulsing in the opening of the cave—plunged over the precipice to his death far below. By now Cricket was regaining consciousness but was suffering from third-degree burns. Ian slowly recovered the partial use of his extremities, but his left arm hung uselessly at his side. After checking on Becker, they decided he was too injured to move and tied him to the rocks, left all their food and water, and prepared to descend.
The faces of Bugaboo Spire are sheer, dropping a couple of thousand feet to an ice field below. The known route, in 1948, was to rappel and climb down a vertical, saw-toothed knife-edge ridge. Below this is a steep ice-slope followed by the ice field crossing. Normally it’s a three hour descent, but badly burned and in shock, it was clear to them that their chances of making it at all were slim.
When they thought the worst of the storm had passed, the two finally began the painful descent, injured and terrified, toward base camp far below. About 50 feet below the cave they found a rope-sling, left by previous climbers, for the long rappel down the cliff face. But when Ian tried to tie the rope into his own harness, he couldn’t lift his left arm high enough to pass the rope over his shoulder. This was when he understood that he was more injured than he’d realized and knew then that it would take both of their climbing skills, combined, to get down alive. At the bottom of this first rappel, they saw the storm bearing down on them again. The acrid scent of ozone filled the air along with something that smelled like a hot iron scorching wet cloth. Electrical charges built from the lower parts of the spire and raced up the needle with an increasing voltage that ended in a lightning strike.
“There was a slow, inevitable rhythm about it,” Cricket said. “After each strike, we moved in silence for a while, with only the tearing wind and slashing rain. Then the rocks began a shrill humming, each on a slightly different note. The humming grew louder and louder. You could feel a charge building up in your body. Our hair stood on end. The charge increased, and the humming swelled until everything reached an unbearable climax. Then the lightning would strike again—with a crack like a gigantic rifle shot… After each strike, we would grope forward in silence. Then the humming would begin again.”
Now the ridge dropped away leaving them on the edge of a terrifying open space at their feet. So, Cricket fixed a rope—Ian’s left arm was still dangling uselessly—and climbed down after Ian’s one-handed descent. She noted that electricity was humming along the wet nylon. As they worked their way down, the route grew a little easier and the storm seemed to diminish somewhat. But they both fell a couple of times and when they finally reached the ice-slope, Cricket slipped and plunged down the steep ice on her back. Just before losing her grip, her ice-ax slowed her fall. But it dislodged snow, ice, and rocks which hurtled down on top of her. Ian watched, horrified and unable to help, as she slid, 40 miles per hour, down onto the dark, crevasse-sliced glacier. He was certain she was dead. Then, miraculously, she came to a halt a few hundred feet down, and directly below a rock avalanche poised to crash into the chute she was in. So, she crawled to the edge of the glacier and waited for Ian who found her sitting against a rock and grinning.
They were both bloody and covered in cuts but walked arm in arm down the glacier to base camp just as darkness began to blanket the area. It had been seven hours since the strike, which was again blasting the spire’s summit. Even so, two climbers left immediately to rescue Bob Becker.
The team’s first-aid expert saw that the left side of Cricket’s long johns was burned away leaving 3rd -degree burns along her charred leg. Coins in Ian’s pockets, and his zippers, were fused. His sweat-soaked T-shirt was torn and tattered. When the medic removed the shirt, the source of the scorching smell was discovered: the back half of his shirt was gone—burned into his flesh. The medic later said, “It was as if somebody had been at Ian’s back with an arc-welder or had pressed in red-hot golf balls and then wrenched them out.”
For two days the storm continued to blast overhead, sending each rescue attempt scurrying for cover. Eventually, two brave men climbed up to the cave and found Becker dead; the food and water untouched. He was still tied in but when they undid the ropes, his body slipped over the precipice at the cave’s mouth and tumbled away. Neither Probst’s nor Becker’s bodies were ever recovered.
Three days passed before MacKinlay and Strong received professional medical attention. With two dead and two badly injured climbers, this trek could only be declared a tragedy.
Until… 1962, when it became the catalyst for something quite good.
By then Colin Fletcher was nearly finished writing The Thousand-Mile Summer, the chronicle of his legendary solo walk through the deserts and mountains that make up California’s eastern spine. He’d finally returned to the US West after his disastrous second marriage had derailed, stranding him at Starve Crow in Devon, England, for a couple of years. It was on this return trip to the west coast when he caught his first glimpse of the Grand Canyon.
He was still an obscure author and made his living penning nature articles for Field and Stream, Readers Digest, and other periodicals. Fletcher, while searching for story ideas, came across an old Saturday Evening Post clipping regarding the accident on Bugaboo Spire, fifteen years earlier. He was then planning what would become his celebrated first Grand Canyon journey and tucked the clipping into a folder he kept for future writing projects.
The fall of 1962 and early winter of 1963 were slow for Fletcher and he became financially stressed. He needed to sell more articles to finance this first thru-canyon solo trip, so he wrote three stories and submitted them to Readers Digest. These were D-Day Twenty Years After, Rattlesnakes – Fact and Fancy, and Lightning Strikes on Bugaboo Spire. The Digest published all three articles. The first one published was the story of Bugaboo Spire and it was the money earned from this piece that funded the famous solo canyon trek.
Without the Bugaboo article, he would not have had the means to undertake the journey. The Man Who Walked Through Time and The Complete Walker might not have been written, Fletcher would have remained an obscure writer, and someone else might have become the Grandfather of Modern Backpacking. Without Fletcher’s enormous fame, most of those people in the 60s who took to the road with their backpacks, or embraced the back to the land movement, would not have learned of these ideas when they did had Fletcher not made his game-changing Grand Canyon trek; which, in turn, would not have been possible without the Bugaboo Spire story.
As for the survivors of the Bugaboo Lighting disaster, Ian and Ann “Cricket” MacKinlay spent the rest of their lives raising five children and downhill skiing in their free time. And that is a happy ending!
Robert Wehrman is a composer, explorer, and the author of six books. His latest, Walking Man – The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher is the biography of the famous walker and was a finalist in the Banff Mountain and Book Festival.