Group management for hill walkers
Has it ever struck you that the word 'recreation' is derived from the words re and create? We go to the hills to re-create our inner spirit, recharge our batteries, or whatever it is that makes us tick. This is often done as a group. It's a social exercise and part of that re-creation process involves interaction with others sharing our mundane problems, or having an adventure. So why worry about leadership? It has nothing to do with this process - until an important decision has to be made or an incident has to be dealth with.
Most people develop a level of judgement in proportion to their experience. This experience tends to have a close relationship to the level of adventure, near misses, and epics we have had. When it comes to selecting our goals, the less the experience, the poorer the judgement.
Judgement tends to have a close relationship to the level of adventure, near misses, and epics we have had
A group of friends, or a club outing constitutes the forming a 'team'. All the members of the group have a common shared goal - to reach the top and return safely. Teams need a leader. In this scenario those leaders are often self-appointed or merely accepted by the rest of the party based on experience (situational leadership theory). The leader may change during the day, depending on who it is perceived has the most knowledge. The person who says that he knows the area might have sway over the better navigator. The one who declares he has 'done a few river crossings in my time' may become the leader at a river crossing problem on a rainy day. All this is quite natural and sensible, and it often seems that there is no leader in the party and everyone is there on equal terms, and that is an ideal situation.
I categorize hazards into three areas:
- Terrain (slopes, ridges, rivers, etc.)
- Weather (wind, precipitation, temperature, the effects of altitude, etc.)
- People (experience, judgement, planning, leadership, etc.)
The first two categories are not problems until the third is added.
Duty of care
In common law there are some basic principles. We owe a Duty of Care to our neighbour, where 'neighbour' is defined as someone who might be affected by our actions or omissions. If we are out with a group and assumed to be in a leadership role there is a duty of care owed to the rest of the party. But also each individual owes a duty of care to each other.
Club members all have a responsibility towards the club and it's reputation and you can make other connections when considering who might be affected by a particular course of action - especially if something goes wrong. You don't need to dwell on this, remember we all need to go out and recreate and actually mishaps are few and far between. Keep it in proportion, 3,500 people are killed on the UK roads every year. The journey to and from your trip is probably the most hazardous part of the adventure.
Leadership involves making decisions that affect others, and so this role alos carries a large degree of responsibility. A leader needs all sorts of skills; communication, management, negotiation and decision making, team building, etc. Yet in many cases, including those who hold formal Mountain Leadership Awards, they have little or no formal leadership training. Not only that but also they are taking on a leadership role in an ever changing and, some would perceive, a potentially hazardous environment.
Consideration of others (the group) needs to begin at the planning stage, with knowledge of who is coming on the trip, considering the minimum equipment level needed and the expected weather. A preparedness to change the objective on the day is also vital.
In a club or organised trip scenario, the leader's greatest asset is likely to be the fact that he or she has done the route before
In a club or organised trip scenario, the leader's greatest asset is likely to be the fact that he or she has done the route before. All decisions relating to turning back or changing the itinerary during the trip can be made based on the facts, not on personal ambition to achieve the summit. This is a key safety valve as it can help prevent the party splitting - so often the acrimonious ruination of a day out. The luxury of having a second leader who is also quite relaxed about the success of the trip can be another really key safety asset.
It seems many incidents occur when a relatively unknown member turns up on the day. Their fitness and experience is unquantified, they have not shared in the general assessment of the weather forecast effects at 900m and the implications on equipment, etc. One apparently trivial matter leads to another and soon it can snowball into an epic.
Probably the biggest problem for most leaders is usually not the 'slow' person, nor even the individual who wants to race ahead but more often it's the difference in speed in the group or the difference in competence and really some tough decision making before the adventure can best resolve most of these issues.