Who Needs An Experienced Leader

Two years ago three local Idaho snowboarders planned on hiking a small peaknot far from their backyard. They were all experienced in the backcountry.The problem started when a neighbor invited himself to go along, which thenattracted the attention of two 17 year old friends. The forecast predictedrain, but they left at daybreak following a familiar trail through the forest.

Reaching the summit at 5,000 feet it was still raining, but the group rodefor a couple hours before the group leader decided it was probably a goodtime for them to head for home. The younger, less-experienced group wantedto stay and hit the jump they had worked so hard at building. Since theyweren’t far from home or on a dangerous peak, the three original membersof the party probably didn’t think twice about leaving part of their group.

The rain continued to pour down all day, which ultimately must have drainedthe kids energy. When they finally decided to go home, hypothermia was beginningto set in, and darkness reduced their ability to see in the woods. They hadeaten all their food, drank their water, and had no way to build a fire.One member who was wearing cotton clothing under some snowboarding gear,kept falling behind and stopped shivering, a sign that the later stages ofhypothermia had set in. Apparently, he told them he was going to sit downfor a while and rest, then he would follow behind them, so the other twoheaded home.

Unfortunately he never got up again, and died of exposure.

This story illustrates the importance of staying together and having a groupleader, whether your hiking close to home or in extreme terrain. That personis responsible for planning the trip as well as making final decisions, whichare determined by the goals, ability level, equipment, and experience ofthe entire group. The group leader does not necessarily have the most backcountryexperience, but can communicate well with the ones who do, think clearlyat all times, and delegate the responsibilities to skilled members. He orshe must also be aware of each individuals location and performance throughoutthe day. Group members are responsible for bringing the necessary equipment,communicating ideas and abiding to the group leader decisions.

By asking the following questions you begin to gain the experience neededto travel in the mountains. Most questions can be addressed at a pre-tripmeeting, while others can be answered in your head. Does your group havethe same level of interests, riding ability, and endurance? Sure they canride all day at an area, but can they hike, climb, jump, and hike back outof the woods? Will someone whine about hiking after ten minutes? If somethingdoes go wrong will they have enough mental and physical strength to stayin the mountains for an extended time? Does anyone have diabetes, allergies,or other minor ailments, but possibly life threatening conditions? Are theygoing to be drinking or smoking pot? How will that affect their enduranceand reasoning ability? All these questions should be asked before the tripin order to plan what kind of equipment will be needed.

When traveling in snow it is essential to have the right clothing layers.Will clothes breathe or will they be soaked with sweat? One little knownfact about backcountry wear is that Gore-Tex on the outside of cotton longjohns or a cotton T-shirt can elevate hypothermia. Unless the temperaturesare below freezing everything is wet by the end of the day when the sundisappears, so bringing an extra polar fleece, hat, and gloves is a goodidea.

Plan on snacking throughout the hike as opposed to reaching the summit forlunch. This way you can take short breaks without getting chilled, allowslower members to catch up, and keep a high energy level. Candy is okay,but only in addition to more endurance foods like energy bars, fruit, andgorp. Bring additional water bottles, you can always leave then in the carif everyone has one. Should you bring a little stove to melt water for hotdrinks and soup? A stove can be invaluable in many emergency situations,besides it is lighter than carrying enough water to replenish your systemthrough a strenuous day.

Traveling to an area usually takes a lot longer than people estimate, especiallyin deep snow. Will you travel by foot, with snowshoes or ski’s? Does everyonehave the same gear? If one member gets far behind the group or an incidentoccurs do you have radio equipment? Will the cell phone work in the ravineyou are traversing?

If you are traveling on snow with slopes steep enough to ride, there is avalanchedanger. Does everyone have transceivers, shovels, and probes that are compatible?Have they practiced with this equipment? Will the group leader make the callon the slopes stability or is there another member with more avalancheexperience?

Find out who has the most knowledge with first aid, rescue and radiocommunication. Who will you call for help and how will they get to you? Theavalanche conditions will change throughout the day? Will you bring forecastnumbers to hear updates or continue to monitor as a group? If no one in yourgroup has backcountry experience, you need to change your goals dramaticallyto suit their interests and ability level.

A good leader encourages the group to make decisions together, but steersthem through the process rationally. Taking on the responsibility of a groupcan be a difficult job, but the rewards of pulling off a safe trip in thebackcountry is better than the sickest cliff you’ve ever dropped! Use thesequestions as a starting point to plan day trips and build up your experiencewith realistic goals. Get to know other people in your area that have backcountryskills. Take mountaineering classes and figure out all the essential detailsbefore racing up to Devil’s Tooth Peak. If you don’t take these precautionsyou or your best friend may not return