Originally created 06/20/03

Climber survives lightning strike, dies in second hit an hour later



CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- A college student survived a lightning strike while mountain climbing, but was killed in a second strike about an hour later as he and his girlfriend waited out the storm, authorities said.

The body of Ryan Sayers, 20, of Colorado Springs, Colo., was recovered Tuesday, the day after he was killed on Steeple Peak in the Wind River mountain range in central Wyoming.

He and Katrin Birmann, 24, of Munich, Germany, were climbing a cliff on the 12,000-foot peak Monday afternoon when lightning first hit them 1,500 feet from the summit.

Removing their equipment, the couple decided to sit out the storm. But about an hour later they were hit by another lightning strike, and Sayers fell about 300 feet into a ravine.

Birmann, who suffered minor burns, found her boyfriend dead when she rappelled down to him. She spent the night at the base of the mountain and hiked out the next day, calling authorities on a cell phone she borrowed from two hikers.

"She is amazingly tough," said Sayers' father, Tom Sayers. "She had to spend the night with him. God, I don't know how she did it."

A rescue team recovered Sayers' body. An examination determined he died from the lightning strikes, not the fall, Sublette County Sheriff Hank Ruland said Thursday.

The elder Sayers said his son never took a chance on a mountain and often held friends back from ascents in bad weather.

"Ryan was always touted as too safe a climber on all these expeditions. ... It's very unusual," Sayers said in a telephone interview Thursday. He said both his son and Birmann were expert climbers.

Sayers' biggest passion in life was climbing, but mathematics was his real talent, his father said.

Sayers earned a perfect score on the math section of the SAT, the college entrance exam, while still in eighth grade, his family said. He was one year away from completing a double major in math and physics at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, Colo., where he met Birmann.

"He used to tell me he always did his homework in pen so he wouldn't make mistakes," the elder Sayers said. "That was the kind of thought pattern he had. He was a great guy. I miss him very badly."

Birmann was en route to Colorado Springs and not immediately available for comment Thursday.