How even this wilderness expert got caught in a sudden, violent storm near Moab

The man said he was lucky to escape the microburst in the La Sal Mountains with his life.

Graham Meador, a trained wilderness first responder and experienced outdoorsperson, has a message for Utah recreationists: Even experts can be caught off guard.

The 38-year-old found himself stuck in a severe weather event last month in the La Sal Mountains near Moab. Later revealed to be a “microburst,” a brief storm that combines all forms of precipitation — including hail, rain, fog and mist — with hurricane-strength winds, there is nothing Meador could have done, he said, other than “hope” to make it out OK.

Thankfully, Meador did make it out OK, but his truck was not so lucky. Two weeks after the June 21 storm, it was still stuck amid the fallen trees and destruction left in the storm’s wake.

Visiting from Grand Junction, Colorado, Meador said he was scouting the southeastern Utah mountain range before hunting season. He parked at an elevation of about 10,200 feet, ready with camping equipment and rain gear.

But when the storm suddenly struck, he was on foot, and quickly lost sight of his feet through the rain and wind. He noticed “the incredibly fresh smell of pine,” the sound of trees crashing down around him and pain from the hail pelting him. He hunkered down behind a giant pine. The storm lasted approximately five minutes.

After, Meador hiked over and under storm debris back to his truck. Amazingly, it had not been crushed, but it was blocked off from the road.

Meador next reached friends and family using a satellite communicator. He abandoned his truck and headed down the mountain to meet them.

“I am alive today,” he said. “I’ve got the knowledge, the skills, the hubris, the gear to put all of this together. And I just came out of it thinking, you know, literally other than just staying home, yeah — not much you can do.”

Microbursts are common in Utah during the heat of summer. “Just about all of our summer thunderstorms have the potential for microbursts. It’s just a feature of having very hot and dry air,” said climatologist John Meyer, with Utah State University’s College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences.

The quick-forming weather events start from downdrafts out of the base of thunderstorms. The rain evaporates and cools the air, operating much like a swamp cooler, said Meyer. That makes the air more dense, accelerating and resulting in strong gusts of wind like Meador felt in the La Sals.

According to Meyer, the higher the thunderstorm is in the atmosphere, the more likely it will turn into a microburst, because there is more time and distance for the air to cool.

Microburst frequency increases from late June to late August, corresponding with monsoon season, Meyer said.

(Mark Elkins, vis Graham Meador) A screenshot from a video that documented damage from a microburst in the La Sal Mountains on June 21, 2024, as filmed by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources investigator Mark Elkins, provided to Graham Meador.

Mountain thunderstorms like the one Meador felt are not only dangerous because of microburst potential but also because of possible lightning and flash flooding. These weather events can occur without warning.

“Oftentimes, you can see blue sky, fairly nice sunny weather, and all of a sudden, strong winds hit you,” said Meyer.

Both flash flooding and microbursts can be felt far from the center of the storm, even “many tens of miles away,” Meyer added.

He encouraged mountain visitors to check the weather before leaving, and to be aware that sudden changes are possible.

Meador was able to return to the La Sal Mountains last weekend to retrieve his truck, with help from a forest resources manager with the Utah Trust Lands Administration. He brought the standard food, water, shelter, satellite communication and tools — and a heightened awareness of Utah’s potentially volatile weather.

Correction • July 12, 12:35 p.m.: The story has been updated to correct the date of the microburst near Moab.