Humming, crackling, hissing, or buzzing noises like the sounds you
heard from your ice axe, and the fact that your friend's hair was
standing on end, may indeed have meant that a lightning strike was
imminent. Sometimes even rocks make buzzing sounds in the presence of
the large amount of static electricity which accompanies an electrical
storm. The noise is caused by the rapid movement of electrons.
Here's some interesting reading on the subject:
"Electricity in the air: The discharge then goes through the air,
which is good insulating matter. Small invisible discharges advance
towards the ground in leaps of 30 to 50 m. A negatively-charged
channel is formed: its presence explains the buzzing noise which makes
the hair of mountaineers stand on end. Be careful: lightning is not
far off. "
Electricité de France: Lightning and EDF's R&D Division
"If you feel a tingling sensation, your hair stands on end or you hear
'buzzing' from nearby rocks, fences, etc., move immediately. Lightning
may be about to strike!"
"A high natural electric field would occur due to the low humidity of
Colorado and the presence of charges in clouds above you. This is what
makes your hair stand on end or your ice axe 'squeal' in the
mountains. This field can be very high and is even an precursor to
lightning discharge. You'll notice the discharges at sharp edges."
"If you find that your ice axe starts hissing and glowing, it is due
to the electrical phenomenon known through the centuries as St Elmo's
Fire. The hissing occurs because the axe attracts thousands and
thousands of volts of static electricity and this static makes its
presence felt by the hissing sound, concentrated at the uncovered
spike of an axe. Should your ice axe radiate a glow, most often
bluish-violet, this faint light is the coronal discharge of the
charged gases in the atmosphere, with an applied electrical force
transforming the gases into a glowing mixture of separate proton
clusters and electrons. This mixture is called a plasma... In theory,
its presence could mean that an electrical strike is highly possible."
Moray Mountaineering Club
"Perhaps the most dramatic weather hazard is lightning. If a storm
catches you on a high mountain slope, it is important to act quickly.
1. If you see thunderheads approaching, or see lightning strike on a
nearby peak, get off that peak or ridge fast.
2. If you feel static electricity building around you, it is a sign
that a lightning strike is imminent.
This is evidenced by a buzzing or whining sound, your hair standing on
end, or St. Elmo's fire (a bluish glow around nearby boulders)."
"Where was that humming sound coming from? When my hair began to rise
and static electricity rattled my ice axe, I quickly figured out what
was up. I barely had time to dive for cover below the 13,167-foot
summit of Cloud Peak before the bomb dropped: Volleys of hail pelted
my parka and thunder shook the mountain. I learned the hard way to
keep one eye on the weather in this rugged, remote wilderness where
storms brew quickly."
"I stood on a ledge the width of my foot as water streamed down the
cliff and heard a noise I'd never heard before inexplicably, coming
from right behind me. Startled, I spun my head around and saw, of
course, nothing but storm-lashed mountains. But when I turned back to
the cliff and the pressing business of getting out of there, I heard
the noise again and realized with a sickening feeling what it was: the
ice axe on my pack, which we'd needed for the snow couloir on the
approach and descent, was humming like a tuning fork in the charged
air. The rest of the tale is too long to elaborate on here (and
something for which I usually charge one beer), but suffice it to say
that Gerry and I got off that mountain unharmed - and our hair
eventually stopped standing upright."
Appalachian Mountain Club
"On the ski down the glacier, I notice my ice axe buzzing on my back.
James and Matt confirm their axes are doing the same. Shortly
thereafter, a flash of lightning to the south sends us hurrying down
the glacier to get back under the trees. Perhaps carrying a metal rod
on your back on a flat open glacier isn't the safest idea in a
Personal Pages of Steph Durocher
"His story, paraphrased: 'I was walking along and felt, like, ice
crystals hitting me in the face. Then, they were hitting me in the
head and on my hands, which was strange cause I was wearing a hat and
gloves. My ice axe started humming, and I thought it was like wind
whistling by it or just the altitude getting to me. So I put it
behind my leg to try to quiet it down.'
We all had a good laugh about it, even then, figuring out how serious
it could have been. This is still one of those stories that tingles
the hair on my neck when I'm sitting around over a beer with Scotty,
telling our mountain horror stories and suffer-puppy tales. Well, we
survived, but remember that blowing snow squalls can produce dangerous
static build up. When you're the only attenuator around, plasma can
build up quickly above you and give you a serious ground charge
lightning strike. And 480,000 volts is nothing to play with."
"Rocks, the ranger told me, will buzz when lightning is near. I was
planning a climbing trip to Mt. Adams, a high volcano in southern
Washington, and phoned to get the local weather report from the Mt.
Adams Ranger District. Thunderstorms were expected on the days I
wanted to climb, which made the strange information suddenly relevant.
Rocks were dangerous high on a mountain during a storm because they
attract lightning. Evidently the rocks conduct electricity and when a
lightning strike is near, they start buzzing. So when your hair is
standing on end and the rocks all around you are buzzing, it may be
time to get off the mountain. Such are the obscure joys of
Northwest Intrepretive Association
Search terms used:
"precursor to lightning"
"ice axe" + "static electricity"
"ice axe" + "buzzing"
"ice axe" + "humming"
"st elmo's fire"
I hope this information is useful. If anything is unclear, or if a
link does not function, please request clarification; I'll be glad to
offer further assistance before you rate my answer.