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Man dies in Wyoming backcountry following lightning strike

Mark Frost
Mark Frost

A 22-year old man died while in camp in the Absaroka Mountains this week after lightning struck a tent. According to a press release following the incident, the student went immediately into cardiac arrest, and was unable to be resuscitated using CPR.

The student was on a trip with the Lander, Wyo.-based National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS. The case is the first fatality caused by a lightning strike in Wyoming in more than ten years.

Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers responded and arrived on the scene via helicopter. KC Bess, who was managing operations for the organization when it received word of the lightning strike Tuesday evening, called the case an “anomaly” because it occurred in a valley and inside a shelter.

“We all like to think that there's something we can do, that we can improve or get rid of risks completely, but I don't think that's the case, especially when we're outside.” Bess said. “It's always a small chance of something happening.”

The NOLS group was camping at a site near Enos Lake in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which rests at about 7,800 feet.

Another student was injured during the strike. Bess said the patient exhibited “some burns and some numbness and tingling going on and kind of nerve issues happening.”

That student was transported to Jackson that evening and survived. Other volunteers spent the night with the “shell shocked” group, Bess said, and the majority of the students were able to hike out the next day.

Bess said the student who survived was about 25 yards away from the student who died, and thinks the shock traveled through the ground to affect others in the group.

Reflecting on takeaways from this “freak accident,” Bess reminded people who find themselves in a storm to stay low, spread out, and minimize contact with the ground.

Parents of the deceased student have been notified, and he was identified as Boston resident John “Jack” Murphy. In a statement released Wednesday, NOLS asked for folks to “respect the privacy of friends and family.”

“This is a sad day for NOLS, our students and our families. We extend our deepest condolences to the family of our student who passed away on this course and are focused on supporting the family through this difficult process,” said NOLS president Terri Watson.

This case is among the most tragic in a busy summer for Teton County Search and Rescue. They’ve responded to their most incidents in a decade, and Bess attributes that to increased recreation on public lands.

“It isn't necessarily that there's an increase in irresponsible behavior or risk taking,” Bess said. “It's just that there's more people doing these activities.”

Several other search and rescue organizations across the West have reported increased call volumes since 2020.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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