I’ll be honest… I was a little worried going into this year’s storm chase. Last year it was an item on my bucket list, a reward for suffering a shitty year before. I had an amazing time, lived through experiences that made me feel more alive than I’d ever felt in my life, and vowed to go back.
Problem is, as we all know, sequels aren’t always as good. I knew a lot of the people I’d chased with in 2014 would not be returning this year, and I worried about the group dynamic. I worried that it wouldn’t be as good.
To be fair, the guides we’d got lined up ranked as some of the world’s best so I wasn’t afraid of us finding storms, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Our first good day came a few days in. We’d travelled all the way up to North West Nebraska for only a funnel the day before so I’d not been expecting much as we drove down to the Texas Oklahoma border. We sat in a farmer’s yard near Elmer, Oklahoma overlooking fields and watched as a another storm firmed up.
It was the absolute perfect spot, and we watched as not only the tornado touched down but as multiple funnels formed and danced round in absolute majesty. It reminded me of videos I’d seen of the genesis of the infamous El Reno tornado and I knew enough to know that multiple vortices meant it was strong.
Within a few seconds we were fleeing, yelling at the farmer on his porch to get underground. This wasn’t a tornado to be messed with. We drove along arriving at a gas station filled with chasers, pulling in as the tornado drew alongside. Then, just as we arrived, it seemed to just pop out of the rain. I’ll not forget just how fast the base of that storm was wrapping around. Others must have seen it to, as a procession of chasers started to dash north out the way. This wasn’t a tornado you’d even want to be in outer circulation of.
A friend later asked our van what we’d learned from the El Reno tornado. That had taken the lives of some of the storm chasing communities most cautious and level-headed chasers. The answer we all came back with was to respect the storm. Just because you know that storms tend to head in one direction, doesn’t mean it couldn’t wobble and go in another. Nature is unforgiving. You have one thing go bad, you should be able to execute plan B as hairy as that might be. You find yourself out of position when something goes unexpectedly bad, you’re screwed.
Case in point at Elmer. The tornado seemed to veering a little more north than we expected. Our position was good so there was time to flee. But we drove into the hail core and got trapped by a panicked chaser who decided to drive at 20 mph from a storm that was doing closer to 50mph.
We get hail in the UK. Usually it’s about the size of grit and makes a hell of a noise. With tornado producing storms you get hail a lot bigger. I got photos of me holding golf ball sized hail when we were in the farmer’s yard. One of those hits you, you’ll have a nasty bruise. What we ran into as we fled north from the Elmer tornado, however, was softball sized hail. One of those to the back of the head could kill you.
The tornado was so violent and sucking in air from all around it that the hail came in sideways. Windscreens in our vans were decimated, and when we finally got to our East turning, they pounded the vans with such force that not only did they leave massive dents in the side panelling but they took out windows.
Half-inch thick windows and hail larger than my fist just pounded through it at 100mph.
And this is the moment when you KNOW how good you are in a genuine crisis. I had a few seconds warning which gave me time to put on my sunglasses. They were windsurfing ones with a foam seal which I picked up especially for this reason. When my window went, whilst I got a few cuts and a thump to the side of the head from a piece of glass or ice strong enough to snap the arm of the sunglasses, I had my eyes protected.
Even better, I was in a van full of people who stay calm under pressure. The person beside me grabbed my head and curled it into them, whilst people in the back, grabbed some of the covers used to stop the perspex roof cooking us, and threw them over all of us.
It was a couple of minutes of high octane terror but everyone in the van stayed calm and thought clearly. Just another reason why you respect the storm and don’t take silly chances. These things can happen, although I found the experience rated as #2 in some experience chasers most hair-raising moments. Seeing as it was less intense than last year, I would say I now have good experience of hairy situations.
But it’s easy to see how people get addicited to the thrill of chasing. You come out of something like that and you feel alive, you feel you’ve just smackdowned gods, you feel invincible. You let that feeling sucker you in then one day you’ll find yourself in a bad position when things go south.
As a result, we engaged in some heavy drinking the next couple of nights whilst we waited for the vans to be repaired. I found myself on the roof of a hotel at 2am. Don’t ask, I remember little. That said, I think blowing off steam after an experience like that is important.
As a result when we chased a couple of days later, we’d come down from that adrenaline rush. Just as well as we found ourselves chasing a tornado completely wrapped in rain. I’m not a big fan of those. Some chasers call it hunting ghosts, because it can be impossible to see the tornado in the torrential rain shielding it. I’d prefer to see what’s about to kill me.
But again, we were professionals and armed with radar and a knowledge of winds they could pinpoint where the tornado was even if we couldn’t see it.
The day wasn’t a loss though. We went on to see a half dozen or so more tornadoes near Ryan, Oklahoma, with three on the ground at one point. Not as photogenic as Elmer, but I got some good shots.
That’s one thing I learned on this trip. Whilst they wouldn’t call themselves pros, I did get some invaluable lessons on storm photography from people who do it. A lot of people think it’s just landscape photography but it’s not because you want to capture the detail in the clouds. Over the course of the ten days chasing, I went from taking automatic shots, to going fully manual, creating incredible pictures like the one above. I still have a lot to learn and ways I could improve but there was a marked jump in the quality fo my images over the ten days.
But despite the eight tornadoes we got to see, the real highlight of the trip was spending time with some incredible people. I’d been worried about the group dynamic after last year was so great, but it was even better this year. We all gelled despite coming from different walks of life and I very much want to chase with them all again.
I find these trips are always a good time for me to do a bit of soul searching. As corny as it might sound, these experiences change your life. You realise just how little you matter to the universe, you learn how precious life is, and for ten days you live completely aware of your mortality. It’s intoxicating and you come away forever changed. I’m not saying that a tornado holds the answer to all life’s questions but it’s only when being confronted by the power of nature and its total indifference to you that you see yourself in total focus.
It was an amazing experience and I was sad when we all left to go home. I left with some incredible new friends, some wonderful experiences and a vow that I will be returning again next year.