By late afternoon Wednesday, Brandon Baker had reached the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak, highest in Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Boulder, Colo.
The sun was bright, the view exhilarating. But then clouds rolled in and enveloped the peak. Suddenly so much static was in the air that he could feel his hair standing on end. It began to pour.
"I saw a couple of lightning bolts," said Baker, 31, of Princeton, Minn. "I crawled up under a rock ledge."
He planned to ride out the storm, take in the dramatic natural fireworks and then hike back down. Those thoughts are the last thing he remembers.
"The next thing I knew, I woke up the next morning," Baker said.
Lightning had struck Baker, who talked about the experience Thursday by phone from his bed at a Denver hospital, where medical staffers told him he was lucky to be alive.
Mysterious head wound
Baker said that when he woke up on the mountaintop, he didn't know what had happened. His legs were sore, his toes and fingers were "kind of numb" and he wobbled as he walked, but he chalked up those things to hiking a long distance and sleeping outdoors in a light jacket. He started hobbling down the mountain.
Along the way, he met a camper who was climbing up to find him. Baker had earlier left his backpack with the man at a campground, to make his climb easier. When Baker did not return, the man had sent his son to find park rangers, while he ascended to find Baker.
"Have you seen your head?" the camper asked Baker.
Baker reached up. He had a wound about the size of his fist on the back of his scalp. Surprised, he thought he must have hit his head on the ledge.
Farther down, he met a park trail crew coming to look for him. They sized it up almost immediately: They told him he had been hit by lightning.
"I'm pretty sure it knocked me out completely," said Baker, who was given emergency medical care by the crew. They helped him down to the base of the mountain, where he got more medical care. Early Wednesday evening, a helicopter brought him to St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver.
From his bed in the trauma unit, Baker said that he felt pretty good -- considering.
"I have a mark on each foot, a mark on each elbow, [and] I have a mark on my left shoulder blade," said Baker. "It looks like I was hit by one blast."
Eager to return
His fingers and toes were still numb, his legs were still weak, and he still had trouble walking on his own. He was hooked up to an IV and a blood pressure monitor, he said.
Baker, a divorced father of two, is a self-employed contractor who repairs televisions and appliances. He drove to Colorado as part of an undergraduate course he's taking for a degree in earth science at St. Cloud State University. He was accompanied by an instructor and eight other students. He hopes to become a high school teacher.
Tuesday was to be the culmination of five days of field study, and while the rest of the group had chosen one place to hike, Baker decided to scale Longs Peak alone.
Medical staff members said Baker might be released from the hospital Sunday. They say the tingling in his toes and fingers may go away, but he may have trouble with memory. "Right now, everything is normal," he said.
As for more mountain climbing, Baker has no hesitation.
"I would go right back up there tomorrow if my legs didn't feel bad," he said. "It's amazing once you get up there. You just don't understand until you get to the top of a 14,000-foot peak."
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382