Keen walkers often become group leaders by default, but they don't always do the best job. Emily Donoho has some suggestions for keeping less experienced friends safe and happy
Your friends know you're in the mountains every weekend and ask you to guide them on a group walk. You're in a mountaineering club, and because you've got some experience, you end up taking a gaggle of inexperienced members up a Munro. Or maybe your mate is doing the Three Peak Challenge and asks you to drag their group up the three mountains because they know you climb hills all the time.
Mostly, you muddle along, hoping that people enjoy themselves and that it doesn't end in a Mountain Rescue callout. But with a bit of thought about group management and route choices, you can increase the probability of the former and decrease the chances of the latter.
Some of it is what you would be doing for yourself anyway, checking weather and, if winter, avalanche forecasts, then choosing a route appropriate for the conditions. If it's going to be 60mph winds on the tops, you probably don't want to be on the Aonach Eagach. If you're taking a group that includes novices, you need to consider what they can handle, which might not necessarily be same conditions that you can handle. You might have no problems on Sharp Edge in the wet, but someone on their first scramble could have quite a different view. The route needs to be appropriate for the confidence and skills of everyone in the group.
Heather Morning, mountain safety advisor for Mountaineering Scotland, affirms:
"You need good preparation and communication before starting off. That means talking about what sort of terrain, how long the day will be, and having the right expectations."
Nick Carter, an MIC who trains student mountaineering clubs in winter skills and navigation through St. John Scotland, adds:
"Always have Plan B and C and D and ... if things don't go to plan either due to the forecast and conditions being different to expected or the group members being slower than expected, then it is important to have alternative options to fall back on."
Sometimes you get away without having those conversations; sometimes you don't.
James Newton, a relatively new member of his university mountaineering club, had set off into the Cuillin on a traverse from Sgurr a Mhadaidh to Sgurr na Banachdich as part of a group of more than ten. Jim, an older club member who had initiated the hike, had gone around the camp the night before drumming up psych but hadn't asked what people were comfortable doing nor explained how technical and exposed the Cuillin could be. He was the only person on that hike who'd been on the ridge.
Mark Brims and Sophie Quist, experienced climbers in the club who had done stuff in the Alps but not Skye, ended up hiking with the group, but they didn't see themselves as part of it, much less leading it. They had plans to climb the In Pinn, bagging the other summits on the way. Mark told me later that when they got onto the ridge, his first thought was, "Well shit, it's just like the Alps. And if it was the Alps, I wouldn't expect a bunch of newbie hillwalkers to handle that."
They didn't. Clag clung to the black crags and precipices, and James and a female club member, Catherine, fell behind somewhere between Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh and Banachdich, losing the rest of the group in the mist. Spooked, James gingerly negotiated the crux, a dizzyingly exposed step, only to turn around and find that Catherine had vanished. Not wanting to repeat the scary climb, he waited for three or four minutes, but when she did not materialize, he steeled himself, then renegotiated the bad step. She was on a ledge above the airy section, frightened and teary, in the company of a couple guides. When James reached their ledge, one of the guides called him a "stupid c***" and snapped, "Is this how you do it in the f**ing Gumclub, leaving people behind?"
"I was pretty shaken," James admitted later. "I think they thought I was in charge and not another novice."
Mark, now sucked into the group, scrambled back to look for James and Catherine.
"It was pretty obvious that we'd let the situation slip out of our control," he says. "I found James looking a bit sheepish and Catherine looking shaken."
James and Catherine descended, while Mark carried on with the rest of the group, who were now wet, cold, and a bit traumatized, and then had a mini-epic looking for the path off the summit of Banadich in deteriorating weather.
"At the time I thought it was [Jim's] group, his route, his responsibility, and me and Sophie were just coincidentally there too," Mark reflects. "So I was pissed off that he didn't know the way when he'd given the impression he was familiar with it. Looking back on it though, responsibility doesn't work like that. I hadn't been bothering at all to think about how to get the group down safely or what our options were. Because it wasn't my problem. Until it suddenly was my problem. So it's not all on Jim."
Losing people and letting a group get too strung out is a common pitfall. At least one experienced walker should stay near the back and make sure no one is getting into trouble, but this only works if the people in the front keep an eye on the rear, because the slow hikers aren't likely to speed up, but fast ones can slow down.
Heather also suggests pairing people up – experienced with less experienced. She advises: "Manage expectations and physical abilities – you might have to split the group or change plans. And sometimes you have to read people the riot act." Ideally though, you don't want it to get to that state.
It can. Easily. On a freshers' walk, two experienced members of their university club led a dozen freshers up the Ballachulish Horseshoe on a wet and windy day. The group spread thinly across the slope before the summit of Sgorr Dearg, and Sarah, one of the older members, found herself separated from everyone with a fresher who was struggling and starting to show signs of hypothermia. It was too windy for any shouting to be heard, and the group was now out of sight. Sarah didn't want to leave the fresher alone while she ran ahead to catch up to everyone else, nor did she think it prudent to wait around for the others to figure out they were absent. The fresher needed to keep moving and get off the mountain as quickly as possible. Sarah would bring her down.
Eventually, the people in the front of the group figured out that two walkers were missing. They waited, then retraced their steps, but by that point Sarah and the fresher were long gone. Panicked about their two lost compatriots, the others descended as well, rushing back to the village hall to find the two of them already there.
Needless to say, keeping people from getting hypothermia in the first place is preferable to bailing off a mountain. That means making sure everyone has appropriate clothing for the route and the weather. No matter how many times you write in emails or on Facebook announcements that participants need hiking boots, hats, gloves, waterproofs, and clothing that isn't made of cotton, someone will inevitably fail to read the messages and show up in trainers and jeans.
Nick stresses, "Check their kit before going on the hill." Don't wait until you're on it, and don't be afraid of telling people they can't come on your walk, or changing your plans.
In the winter, the skills, equipment, and fitness of the participants are of even more consequence. Do they have enough warm clothes? A headtorch? Do they know how to kick steps, do an ice axe arrest, and use crampons? Do they even have an ice axe and crampons that fit? You won't get away with trainers so easily. There are mountains like Ben Chonzie or Schiehallion, what Heather calls "Roly-poly hills," which are harder to fall off and as they are short, they make good introductory mountains to winter. Heather suggests not taking people on serious terrain until they have some experience on straightforward mountains. Most clubs offer winter skills courses and so do Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin – people new to winter should be strongly encouraged to take these courses. On a day with agreeable enough weather for playing around, you can show your friends the basics, provided you can find a safe slope with a good run-out to practice ice axe arrests on.
When you're on a snowy mountain with a group, you need to not only be tuned into your surroundings, but cognizant of what everyone else is doing. Heather emphasizes, "You have to communicate and read people, which is hard when the weather is bad and everyone is covered up, so you have to talk to them. Ensure they are taking enough food and drink, and bring a group shelter."
Things can change quickly, which is why communication at all times is critical. Along with a few others, I was leading a group of about 15 up Beinn Eighe in full winter nick. Except I wasn't actually leading – I was near the back of the group with several other experienced mountaineers because some of the new guys were faster in deep snow than we were. We climbed up the headwall of Coire an Laoigh on consolidated snow, so I wasn't worried until I saw a couple of novice club members, much further ahead, aiming for cornices and slopes streaked by avalanche debris. I shouted at them to traverse to the right, away from the cornices. Then as we got higher up the headwall, the snow conditions turned harrowing, powder on top of hardpack. By now, the group was spread all over the corrie and several had topped out or were about to. Turning everyone around would have been more faff and required spending more time on that headwall. We nervously agreed to keep going and hope for the best, because sometimes that's all you can do. Nothing happened and everyone had a great day, but we wished we had noticed or talked about cornices and unconsolidated snow beforehand.
It always comes back round to managing expectations and communication. Nick advises, "What they want to get out of the day will make a big difference to your route choice. If they are extremely fit and the weather is set fair then you will be more likely to achieve a bigger objective or have a longer walk. You can ask the group what their experience is and assess their fitness prior to the day out but you will not know what they are really like until you are on the hill itself."
And when you are on the hill, Heather counsels, "Make sure everyone is engaged, about weather, navigation, avalanche assessment, and not just being led into a situation."