Interview with Roger Hill of Silver Lining Tours

roger hill and caryn hill

I continue with last year’s endeavour to interview tour company owners and tour guides from different storm chasing tour companies. Today, the interview is with Roger Hill, the owner and tour guide for Silver Lining Tours. He does not only run the biggest tour company in town, he is also the Guiness’ Book of Records World Record holder for most tornaodes recorded. The interview was made over email.

How’s life back home, Roger?

Things are going great! Gearing up for the 2020 chase tour season!

Which was your first tornado?

Everything for me started with the June 8, 1966 Topeka, KS F5. We lived there and it was a very intense time.

What is new with SLT this season?

We’ve got 3 new totally custom vans! Complete with speaker systems throughout the van so guests can hear what going on, and I can talk to them easily. Also each seat now has 2 high speed USB ports to charge your phones and also 2 powered outlets so you can charge camera batteries or laptops! Plus all the other things we need to chase on the go and monitor progress such as weather stations, wifi, laptops and commercial radios for van to van communication.

Along with the normal tours you offer two different type of tours: Lecture Tours and Close Encounter Tours. Could you tell a little bit more about them! 

Our Photography Tours, Lecture Tour and Close Encounter tour are all quite popular usually selling out a year in advance. The Photo tours are designed for those who want longer periods to set up tripods and small tours so there aren’t many folks to get in your way. Caryn does photo lessons in the field on everything from equipment, set up, and processing.

Our Lecture tour is a small tour designed for those who want to gain a better knowledge of severe storm formation, model forecasting, how to read surface obs/radar/skew t diagrams and such. We lecture in the mornings and chase in the afternoon.

Our Close Encounters tour is a very small tour designed to get you closer to the action. We want you to see, feel and hear a tornado, experience huge hail and high winds, all the while staying as safe as possible. All 3 of these types of tours have a large following and are a lot of fun!

Although you did not start SLT, you have grown it into the largest storm chasing tour company in the business. What are the keys to your success? 

Customer service. We feel we provide excellent customer service and are always looking for ways to improve it. We want our guests to feel like they get their money’s worth. We stay in nicer hotels, have new vans and try to cater to the needs of each person. We want everyone to feel they are getting a personal experience with us.  

With over 30 years of experience you must have seen almost everything in the field. Do you often make decisions by gut feeling based on that experience, or do you always go “by the numbers”? 

Sometimes experience is better than a model. It truly is. Although you’d like to think you have seen everything, nature has a way of humbling even the most experienced chaser. But many of those in field decisions are based on experience and gut instincts.

You and your wife Caryn are both tour guides on SLT, although she focuses more on Photography tours. How is it like chasing and running a tour business with your wife?

Amazing. We seem to compliment each other in many areas. I’m more the analytical type where she is the HR background type that knows how to deal with a human situation. I think we work fantastic together!

Being one of the top storm chasers in the business. How do you make sure you don’t get lazy? 

Funny thing is I always go back and look at chases from previous years to see what we could have done better. Nothing like a good case study to sharpen your skills and make you a better person and chaser. Every chaser in the world makes mistakes, misses tornadoes, etc. The big thing is to learn from them and find out why something happened. Then take corrective measures to hopefully not have it happen again.

You wrote the book “Hunting nature’s fury” published in 2010 about storm chasing. Why did you decide to write that book? 

That was a fun and draining project. I was doing an interview for a magazine when the writer, who was a multiple published author, asked me if I ever thought of writing a book. So we decided to jointly write it. It was fun, long and exciting to have your own book! I wanted to let folks into my world and show them what happens when a chase is conducted, and a little bit about the personal side of my life. Tough to do sometimes, but worth it in the end.

You have the Guinness World Record in the most tornadoes seen. Is that the true number of the amount of tornadoes you have seen? 

The 676 tornado number I set for the Guinness World Record is not all inclusive. You have to PROVE you saw a tornado from eye witness statements, your video/photography, prove one occurred via Storm Prediction Center reports or NWS reports. Many times, there have been tornadoes that I just did not have the proper documentation to make it “stick”. But, in reality that number is closer to 1000.

With so many tornadoes seen, do you have any painful misses that still haunts you? 

Oh gosh, there have been a few. Indeed, Chapman, KS May 25, 2016 was one. We chose to stay along the outflow boundary to the south instead of going north. Greensburg, KS May 4, 2007 would be another. We chose to play the warm front in northern Kansas. Everyone has them. No way to avoid it.

Which are your best chase days, per decade?

LOL that’s a tough question. I didn’t chase a ton in the 80s due to military commitments, but probably a 7 landspout fest near Denver in June 1985. In the 90s, I’d have to say either the May 30, 1996 stunning tornadic supercell near Elba, CO or the June 3, 1999 with one isolated slow moving gorgeous and tornadic supercell near Almena,, KS.

In the 2000s probably May 11, 2000 warm front tornadic monster in northeast Iowa that dropped 13 tornadoes. Also the June 24, 2003 South Dakota tornadofest that leveled the town of Manchester. We saw 16 tornado that day and it was Caryns’ first adventure with SLT! In the 2010s, actually a 2 day period from June 16 and 17 in South Dakota and Minnesota where we saw 40 tornadoes in two days. There’s so many very memorable ones!

What is the weirdest/most impressive tornado impacts you have seen (either live, or in aftermath)? 

Probably from the Hoisington, Kansas F4 on April 21, 2001 where I saw a truck perched on top of a stripped tree and a circular saw blade impaled ¾ of the way THROUGH that same tree underneath the truck. How that happened and how the tree didn’t topple at the time still baffles me.

Have you ever been really close to a lightning strike?

Yes! In 35 years of chasing, I have never directly been struck by a lightning bolt. However in July, 2018 we were chasing a tornadic supercell in northeast Montana that was VERY electrified! We stayed our distance away from the updraft, however as we were retreating away from the storm to get into a safer spot, our van was directly struck by a bolt! It fried all electronics and killed the van as a tornado was descending above us! Fortunately we were able to get everyone into our second van and get out of the way. The storm produced 118 mph winds in the town of Plentywood, MT, an EF1 tornado and hail the size of softballs. Very fluke experience!

What is the worst scenario for you on a tour (not including un-safe events)?

May 2006. After an active start to the season, a strong upper low dropped over the US from the Pacific northwest into the central Rockies and adjacent plains. It produced a very strong tornado near Dallas, Texas and unfortunately a polar air mass intrusion all the way into the gulf of Mexico. This stayed in place till mid June and basically shut down the weather. During down periods, we often go to state and national parks, visit NWS offices, do lectures and even visit historic tornado sights. I’ve never seen such a bad weather pattern since then.

Is there still anything you haven’t seen, but want to see, in terms of a storm event? 

Not really. There’s not much that I haven’t experienced, but would love to see some events happen again, like a stationary tornadic supercell out in the open that drops dozens of tornadoes, or hail the size of soccer balls again. Or just a stunningly gorgeous storm by itself where you can sit for hours and enjoy it.

Which is the laziest month for you in the year? What do you usually work with (or do) during that month?

Probably November and February (tied). We also run monsoon storm lightning photo workshops in late summer and slot canyon hiking tours, but November is basically the first month of no tours of any kind. We use that month for photo/video processing and marketing, as well as preparing for the next year’s tours. Sometimes we take our 5th wheel and Ford F350 and head out with the dogs to enjoy some R&R. We also do that in late winter. It’s a fun time to get out with nature and enjoy some peace and quiet.

What was the reason you and Tim Samaras started ChaserCon – the annual storm chasing convention?

Chasercon, the National Storm Chaser Convention was started by the late Tim Samaras and I as a way to get folks together during the winter down periods. Storm Deprivation Syndrome is real. And by the dead in winter it has set in HARD. So, we developed it to get chasers, spotters, forecaster together and talk about storms, share videos, have some good food and drink! It’s been a great 22 years of the convention and 2020 is the final one forever. Time to retire it and move on to other things.

Do you keep track of the weather every day, even off-season – or do you let it go when you are not actively chasing?

HAHAHA, yes I do. It drives Caryn nuts sometimes. Other than thunderstorms, I love a good high plains blizzard where we get 1-3 feet of snow and winds 80-100 mph blowing things around and shutting things down. She gets tired of my day to day forecasts so I have to tempter it a bit and not get carried away.

Which part of the country is your favorite place to go off-season?

I’m a southwestern US nut. I love to red rock country, slot canyons, canyonlands and cactus. And Caryn does too. So we spend a lot of time there when not chasing.

Living in Denver, how often do you get to go on random chases in the area searching for Denver convergence zone magic?

Very often! We bought our property right on the DCVZ. We’ve had huge hail, several tornadoes and intense lightning at the house more times than I can count! Caryn shows quarter horses, so we bought a place with some acreage and built a couple barns for her and also on that magical spot where we get some crazy storms. All is good at the ranch!

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