We called off our hike up to Mt Adams (5774′) this past Monday because conditions were just too severe. With subzero temperatures, -40 to -50 degree (f) wind chills and winds blowing over 100 miles per hour, it would have been too dangerous to climb the second highest peak in the White Mountains, which has over 1 mile of above-treeline exposure along its most protected route. I’ve heard stories about hikers crawling in winter to the summit of Adams in the wind, but I’m not prepared to take that kind of risk.
But there’s a huge grey area when it comes to calling off a hike due to bad weather and I have seen different trip leaders from a multitude of different organizations make very different decisions on the issue.
I’m not second guessing anyone and if you’re the leader for a hike, it’s your prerogative to call the shots. But I find it interesting to compare the judgments that different trip leaders leaders make about their scheduled hikes in winter, and whether they carry on as planned when conditions turn sketchy, cancel a trip outright, continue but abort part-way, or postpone their hikes. It’s not always obvious how such decisions are being made and what factors are considered, although this information would be very valuable to share with other leaders to establish best practices and learn from each others’ experience.
I realize I am opening a potential can of worms here, but I have seen many human factors issues cloud leader decision making when it comes to managing risk and participant safety on winter hikes.
By human factors, I mean:
- Participant or leader ambitions, including peak-bagging lists
- Desire by leaders not to disappoint participants
- Desire by leaders not to change plans and upset participant travel arrangements
- Participants’ blind trust in a leader’s judgement
- Leaders’ belief in the infallibility of their judgement and experience
As backcounty leaders, leadership trainers, and professional guides, it’s important to recognize when human factors cloud backcountry decision-making, particularly in winter when the consequences can be so severe. I’ll leave aside the go-no-go decisions that individuals hiking in non-organized groups make for the moment, although I think many of the same issues apply.
As a point of comparison, it’s useful to contrast the somewhat ad hoc planning methods used by winter hiking leaders with the checklist planning method that AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) teaches backcountry skiers, climbers, hikers, and mountaineers in their Level 1 Avalanche Awareness courses. Checklists are useful cognitive aids in many professions because they reinforce decision making routines and force people to document their actions rather than relying on automatic behaviors.
The AIARE checklist approach emphasizes group decision making using a structured pre-trip hazard forecast checklist that considers many inputs including avalanche danger ratings in areas where forecasts are available, snowpack assessments, weather and forecast inputs, travel plans and anticipated hazards, and an emergency response plan. All of these inputs are shared and discussed, and written up and documented before a tour commences, in addition to field observations taken throughout the day.
The AIARE checklist looks like this:
- Pre-Trip Hazard Forecast Checklist
- Avalanche Danger Rating
- What is the chance of avalanche encounters today?
- Where in the terrain?
- Which slopes could be triggered with light loads?
- Snowpack Discussion
- New / storm snow?
- Weak layer type / depth?
- Sensitivity to triggering?
- Does our trip plan allow us to avoid unstable snow?
- Weather Discussion and Forecast
- Winds and blowing snow?
- Barometric pressure?
- How will today’s weather forecast affect snow conditions?
- How will weather and conditions affect our ability to make a decision and observations?
- Travel Plan / Anticipated Hazards
- Route Option 1
- Route Option 2
- Primary Concern?
- Turnaround Time?
- Human Factors?
- Emergency Response Plan
- Gear assignments
- Communication plan
- Emergency contact#s
- Avalanche Danger Rating
While one could argue that the conditions we face in the Whites Mountains don’t warrant that level of planning intensity, anyone who’s hiked one of the 15 highest above-treeline peaks in the winter Whites should know that is absolute nonsense. Winter hikers are be exposed to all of the same dangers as skiers, climbers, and mountaineers, ranging from avalanche accidents to frostbite and hypothermia depending on the route, terrain, trail and weather conditions for a particular hike.
I have been toying with the idea of introducing AIARE style pre-hike participant planning sessions on some of the more advanced winter hikes I lead for the Appalachian Mountain Club, for a variety of reasons, partly educational and partly because I enjoy the group decision making process.
The more I think about the concept, the more I like it, because it forces a group to communicate a lot of unspoken assumptions about a route and come to a consensus decision about its risk and mitigating factors before the trip starts. This includes planning an alternate fall back hike. Designated leaders can still exert veto power, but engaging trip participants in the planning process helps educate less experienced hikers, establishes personal connections between hikers that lead to better group safety, and provides a richer experience for all involved.
There are a lot of other benefits that stem from group decision making particularly when it comes to spotting human factors issues, if people have been sensitized to look for them. Studies have also shown that group planning tends to be better and more resilient in stressful situations than the decisions of a dominant individual alone.
Calling Off a Winter Hike
When we decided to cancel our summit attempt on Mount Adams last weekend it was group decision. But we had a special group assembled for that hike made up of very experienced trip leaders and winter hikers, with nearly 100 years of combined White Mountain winter hiking experience between them. We’d also been monitoring the weather situation online all weekend, we all knew each other fairly well, we’d been sharing a cabin and hiking together all weekend, and there were no bashful lilies in the group.
But that’s not the norm on group hikes where participants and leaders frequently meet for the first time at the trail head, and where the route plan, weather impacts, and turnaround times are not discussed in advance. On most hikes, participants are happy to follow leader(s) without question.
While this often results in a perfectly good hike without dire consequences , I’ve seen group integrity and cohesion fall apart all too often when the weather turns to shit, the sun goes down before a hike is finished, trail and weather conditions worsen, or a subset of hikers fall behind and are virtually abandoned by the rest of the group. That’s when you really want everyone to be on the same page and looking out for each other.
What do you think?
I’ve covered a lot of ground here about group decision making, trip planning, outdoor leadership and the dangers of winter hiking, so let me conclude with a few specific questions:
- When should you call off a winter hike?
- What circumstances would lead you to abort a winter hike and turn around?
- Is it useful to take a more structured checklist-style approach to planning winter hiking trips?
- Do you think there is utility in making winter trip planning more of a group planning process?
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