Guide for a Day
by Andrew McLean
The Dynamics of Accidental Leadership
See no evil, Hear
no evil, Speak no evil might be an effective strategy for avoiding
conflict and bad situations in some aspects of life, just not
on backcountry ski tours.
As American ski mountaineering
has evolved, the
idea of a designated group leader has changed from being essential
to almost nonexistent. In the early years of skiing clubs and
mountaineering groups, leading an outing was a sign of advanced
ski mountaineering competence. The 1962 fourth edition of The
Sierra Club Manual of Ski Mountaineering included a five page
test devoted to the skills necessary to lead a group, such as
navigation, first aid, winter camping and skiing ability.
In the last two decades,
as day trips gained popularity and group sizes went down, leadership
evolved from being autocratic to essentially peer-to-peer. While
this was the demise of an informal mentorship process, it also
encouraged skiers to become more independent in the backcountry.
Today, even though it is
rare to formally assign group leaders on day tours, they are
still present and play a large roll in the outcome of a tour,
intentionally or not. After an accident, it is almost always
clear in retrospect who the group leader was, even if it had
not been discussed beforehand.
Whether formalized or not,
leaders exist during day tours and they may be you.
Who is in Charge Here?
There are three main clues
to determine the default group leader on day tour; (1) the person
organizing the outing, (2) the person suggesting the objective,
or (3) the most experienced skier in the party. When these roles
are all filled by one personan experienced skier organizes
a group of friends and suggests a specific peak, it is clear
who is leading the tour. In another scenario, one person may
suggest a peak to a friend who in turn invites four other people,
including one who is a very experienced skier.
One person has established
the objective, another has established the team members and a
third has the established knowledge. This common situation can
lead to confusion, poor group dynamics and possibly accidents.
Aside from an awkward discussion
among friends as to who is the designated leader, what can be
done in this situation? First and foremost is to acknowledge
your own role in the tour. If you are perceived as the default
leader, accept responsibility for it, or make it clear that you
are deferring decisions to someone else. One indicator of expertise
in the backcountry is the ability to identify subtle group dynamics
issues and do something proactively about them. If a strong willed
person is suggesting a tour that too difficult for the majority
of the group, it needs to be identified and discussed before
it reaches the crisis stage.
Another factor to take
into consideration is that when people are left out of the decision
making process, a disengaged group mindset takes over. This creates
a guide and client mentality, which can work well as long as
it is mutually understood. Not everyone can break trail, but
by including people in the decision as to where the trail should
go and where you want to ski, it keeps people involved.
If group members have no
opinions and are willing to go and do whatever you suggest, you
have become the guide and leader by default. In that case, the
basic tenet of guiding is to help people avoid danger, not to
expose them to it.
One of the best ways to
keep a group together is through setting a sustainable pace that
is comfortable for everyone. As the day progresses, a good leader
will keep a running mental account of how everyone is doing and
adjust the tour accordingly if people get tired. This is essential
in poor weather and towards the end of the day when getting lost
or hurt has much greater consequences.
for yourself and others is a crucial step in the ski mountaineering
learning process. One of the best ways to do this is to educate
and prepare yourself so that you can make good decisions. This
can be achieved through years of experience, but also through
simple details like checking the weather and avalanche conditions
before you head out. It is much easier to act responsibility
if you feel confident in your decisions, or at least have a rationale
for making them. Being informed also makes it easier to alert
others of risky situations, such as jumping off of cornices or
skiing loaded slopes.
Being a good group leader,
whether by accident or design, is a function of accepting responsibility
and communicating clearly. At the top of a slope, voicing your
thoughts on the snow stability, what line looks the best, what
order people might ski it in, where everyone should stop at the
bottom and how to signal for the next skier, are all good topics
for discussion. This is a guides meeting in its most basic form
and should be kept short, simple and in positive terms.
Even if people do not agree
on the strategy, it will open the door for discussion and perhaps
ideas that had not been thought of.
If the group has a mix
of experience, focus on those with the least amount and cater
your plans accordingly. Propose that you ski first and set a
defining left or right hand track (do not cross over this), then
the inexperienced person goes next, while a more experienced
person watches them from behind and only shouts "left"
or "right" in the case of an avalanche. Let people
know you will wave or whistle to them from the bottom when you
are safe and ready for the next skier. Scenarios like this engage
the entire group and open up the opportunity for questions or
On an informal tour, it
is especially problematic when a skier challenges the group decisions,
as there may be no acknowledged leader or authority to begin
with. This issue develops when a plan has been discussed and
agreed on by the group, then one skier violates it for their
own reasons. Such actions are dangerous and disruptive, as most
of the time nothing happens and there are no consequences to
their unsafe actions. This sets a precedent, undermines the group
morale and endangers others. If skiers can not follow the agreed
plan and insist on dangerous practices such as skiing two at
a time or stopping above others, get them to formulate their
safety strategy and then go first. If their plan seems dangerous,
it can be discussed beforehand and if they insist on it, at least
they will be doing it knowingly and endangering less people.
A common situation is to
have one or more skiers in the group who are willing to expose
themselves to more risk than others. This is a personal decision
that can usually be accommodated by the group. If a skier wants
to ski a steep, avalanche prone slope, ask him how he plans to
do it and arrange people in such a way that you can keep an eye
on him and yet not be endangered by his actions. It is impossible
to always control the situation when skiing. Developing cooperation
rather than expecting obedience is essential for group harmony.
Being informed is another
great tool to combat challenges. If someone wants to ski a line
that seems dangerous that day, knowing the current avalanche
conditions and explaining why you think it is a bad idea has
much more credence than just saying "no" for no specific
As a group, or as the default
group leader, it is important to let skiers know if they are
They may be doing it unwittingly,
in which case they can improve, or, if they just do not care,
then you will not want to keep skiing with them. Posing yes or
no questions, such as "Do you remember we agreed to ski
this one at a time?" can be a succinct way of determining
their intentions. Another option is to openly acknowledge a person
who has done it correctly, which leaves the obvious negative
comments unspoken, but hopefully self evident.
Backcountry skiing is a
team sport that masquerades as an individual activity. It attracts
strong willed people, many of whom are fiercely independent and
antiauthority, which makes assigning a leader difficult. Most
of the time, this is not an issue, but when it is, it can cause
major problems. Parties almost always have an unacknowledged
leader, and the sign of a good one is when everybody has a fun,
safe, challenging outing, without really even knowing why. It
just seems to happen.