The mother of all Tasers.
That’s how Don Harrington describes the moment he and fellow hiker Bruce Ponder were struck by lightning in the Jemez Mountains last weekend.
“The first lightning bolt that reached into the canyon was the one that touched us,” the 63-year-old New Mexico native said. “All of a sudden I had this sensation of flying through the air.”
Both men are lucky to be alive but did not escape nature’s fury unscathed.
The lightning tore an inch-wide hole in Harrington’s shirt, leaving scorches across his body and Ponder was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital with a nasty head injury after both men were thrown off the ledge by the jolt on the Guadalupe Mesa.
“It’s a fascinating and beautiful area,” Harrington, a longtime hiker, said of the historic spot where the Native Americans fled the Spanish following the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.
“It always called to me,” he said. “When I was a kid, I remember hiking back there and wondering how you get up there.”
So Harrington, Ponder, both from Albuquerque, and two friends set out to summit the Guadalupe Mesa around 7:30 Saturday morning. The group stopped for lunch at the top but decided to bypass further exploration when they saw a storm brewing.
“We left immediately because, you know, you don’t want to be out in the open during lightning,” Harrington said. “We were going as fast as we can.”
But the lightning was faster.
As the group stood on a 12-foot ledge, only a mile from the car, a bolt struck Harrington in his back and passed to Ponder in a “willow tree of electricity.”
“I didn’t feel a thing,” Harrington said. There was no pain, just a “percussive force” on his entire body and loud boom.
The men were thrown off the ledge – Ponder hit his head on a rock and Harrington landed in a tree, totally paralyzed.
“I couldn’t move but I could hear and I could see,” Harrington said. “I can’t even blink but I can hear them screaming up on the ledge above us.”
One of Harrington’s friends thought the worst after finding him motionless, eyes wide open, and went to assist Ponder who was bleeding from a head wound and had to be revived twice when he stopped breathing.
Soon Harrington heard his friend say, “Go check Don’s pulse, I think he’s dead.”
“By then I could speak and I said, very slowly, ‘I’m not dead,’ ” he said.
From there the others went to meet emergency crews at the parking area as Harrington regained feeling in his fingers and toes. Eventually he was able to get up and descend the hill, wade through the Jemez River and reach the road.
“I’m standing there in the rain, with cars whizzing by, so I stuck out my thumb and of course nobody is going to pick up someone that’s bleeding from the head,” Harrington said.
Mountain rescue crews found him, and he was taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where doctors ran tests before eventually releasing him. Ponder was not so lucky, moving through the trauma, to intensive care and burn unit before being released.