Backcountry group leadership
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
Backcountry skiing is a team sport that masquerades as an individual activity. It attracts strong-willed people, many who are fiercely independent, which makes the process of determining a leader in a group difficult. Most of the time, this is not an issue, but if it should become one, it may cause problems.
As backcountry skiing in the U.S. has evolved, the idea of a designated group leader has changed from being essential to almost nonexistent. In the early years of ski clubs, having a group leader for an outing was not only deemed necessary, but it was also a sign of advanced ski mountaineering experience.
In the last 20 years, however, as day trips have grown in popularity and group numbers have grown smaller, backcountry group leadership has transitioned from being basically an autocratic process to essentially a peer-to-peer situation. While this shift signaled the decline of any informal mentoring process that had previously existed, it also encouraged skiers to become more independent in the backcountry.
Today, even though it is uncommon to formally designate a group leader on day tours, they are still present and play a key role in the outcome of an outing, whether intentionally or not. Following an incident, it is usually apparent who the group leader was, even if it had not been previously agreed on by the unit. Whether formalized or not, leaders are present during day tours and, at some point in time, you may find yourself in that role.
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There are three basic criteria for determining the default group leader on a day tour; the person organizing the outing, the person suggesting the route or the most experienced skier in the party. When these roles are all filled by one person, it is clear who is leading the tour.
However, under a different scenario, one person may suggest a destination to a friend who, in turn, invites four other people, including one that is a very experienced skier. One person has defined the objective, another has determined the group members and a third has the established knowledge. This common situation can lead to confusion and potential group dynamics issues.
One sign of experience in the backcountry is the ability to spot these subtle group issues and do something proactively to address them. If a strong-willed person is suggesting a tour that is too difficult for the majority of the group, then it needs to be identified and discussed before it reaches an advanced stage.
Another factor to take into consideration is that when people feel they do not have a say in the decision making process, they can become disengaged. This creates a guide and client mindset, which can work well as long as it is mutually understood. Not everyone can break trail, but including others in the decision as to where the trail should go and where you want to ski keeps people involved.
If group members are willing to go or do whatever you suggest, then you have become the leader by default. In that case, the basic principle of guiding is to help keep people safe. One of the best ways to keep a group together is setting a sustainable pace that is comfortable for everyone.
Don’t let the group fall prey to the machismo and group think mentalities of just going along with everything, agreeing to a questionable decision just to build consensus among the group. Ask questions and back out if at any point you feel uncomfortable. The best backcountry partners will be people you trust and that listen to each other.
As the day progresses, a good leader will keep track of how everyone is doing and adjust the tour accordingly if people get tired. This is especially important in poor weather or toward the end of the day, when getting lost or hurt has much greater implications.
Accepting responsibility for yourself and others is a key component in the backcountry leadership 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 not only through years of experience, but also through simple details like checking the weather and avalanche conditions before you set out.
If there is a variety of experience in the group, then focus on those with the least amount and plan accordingly. Suggest that you ski first and set a defined track, letting the inexperienced person go next, while a more experienced person watches them from behind. Let people know that you will wave to them from the bottom when you are safe and ready for the next skier.
Groups almost always have a leader, acknowledged or not, and the sign of a good one is when everyone has a fun, safe and challenging experience, without even knowing why. It just seems to happen.