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When Should You Call Off A Winter Hike?

Full Face Protection on a Winter Hike in the White Mountains
Full Face Protection on a Winter Hike in the White Mountains

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.

Judgment Calls

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 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’ experiences.

Human Factors

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 judgment
  • Leaders’ belief in the infallibility of their judgment and experience

As backcountry 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.

Checklist Approaches

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, 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?
      • Warming?
      • Weak layer type / depth?
      • Sensitivity to triggering?
      • Does our trip plan allow us to avoid unstable snow?
    • Weather Discussion and Forecast
      • Considerations
        • Sky/Visibility?
        • Precip?
        • Winds and blowing snow?
        • Temperatures?
        • 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

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 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.

Group Cohesion is the Key to Winter Hiking Safety
Group Cohesion is the Key to Winter Hiking Safety

Group Planning

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 fallback 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 a 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 trailhead, and where the route plan, weather impacts, and turnaround times are not discussed in advance. On most hikes, participants are happy to follow the 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:

  1. When should you call off a winter hike?
  2. What circumstances would lead you to abort a winter hike and turn around?
  3. Is it useful to take a more structured checklist-style approach to plan winter hiking trips?
  4. Do you think there is utility in making winter trip planning more of a group planning process?
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  1. As with many things the answer often is “It depends…” 1) In my book, and recognize that I have decent experience 3 season hiking but not at all in winter, putting yourself and/or others in danger isn’t what it’s about. As has been often said, “the mountain will still be there.” That said, it would be a different decision if you were leading novice winter hikers as opposed to the group you were climbing Adams with who are experienced, strong, familiar with each other, and would be fine in worse conditions. All about judgement 2) I would be inclined to abort if the weather or conditions turned out not to be what you were planning the trip around, someone in the group became unable to safely continue (Taking someone out individually isn’t as much of an option in winter I would think as the group really needs to stay together), or for any other reason there is doubt in the leaders mind that the day might turn bad. Maybe I’m timid, but the risks are so much greater in winter. 3) I think structured lists are a good thing. It isn’t unusual to leave out or gloss over some consideration even if one is an experienced planner. Structure forces you not to gloss over preparedness items. There is a reason why high risk things like flying airplanes have many check lists associated. No second chances. 4) I am always in favor of group planning, but I also agree with what you said about the leader having veto power. The more everyone knows about why things are being done the way they are the better they will know what is expected and be prepared mentally, physically and with appropriate gear and supplies. My 2 and 1/2 cents. Many, many, many years ago I led camp hiking and canoe trips with 12 – 15 year old boys and we always discussed everything with the group, but with the understanding that the leader was boss.

    • Absolutely…it depends. But let me push on that. Have you ever sat down with the other hikers on a trip, assuming that they’re peers, and spelled out exactly where peoples’ comfort levels end? I believe my risk and discomfort tolerance is probably different from others and that it would be valuable to discuss people’s limits beforehand when undertaking a potentially hazardous trip.

      For example, I’m planning a 3 day/2 night Winter Presidential Traverse that includes above treeline camping with a group of friends and we’re about to start getting into these issues. I think establishing some baselines about what the individuals on that hike think is too extreme will be useful so that we don’t push people beyond their limits and get into a situation where half the group wants to continue and the other wants to hike out. That would jeopardize everyone.Best to head off the issue up front and possibly learn or realize something you hadn’t considered before.

  2. Just a thought on the checklist/hard rules angle:

    One of the biggest issues with turning around in my experience is recognizing if you are mentally ‘compromised.’ This is especially true if you are one of the people making a decision. The strength of having a pre-set condition(checklist) is it forces a Yes/No decision. If you are trudging along in the snow for several hours and you are considering turning around there is a good chance you are tired, dehydrated, hungry, and/or cold. Any one of these can mess up your decision making process so you need to stick to a plan you created when you were at home or earlier in the day.

    A rather benign incident that illustrates the point was when I was hiking in the fells last autumn. I was doing an endurance test in which I combined a few trails into a complex route and towards the end of the day It was getting dark and I was tired. In the span of 30 minutes I got turned around twice despite paying close attention to my route. Fortunately I had planned earlier in the day if I was turned around repeatedly I would follow a preset heading back to the car. Although I felt confident in my ability to complete the original route I had to stick to the rule I set of aborting if i got turned around repeatedly.

    Short Version: Make sure you have a firmly in place trigger event to snap you out of any mental rut you get yourself into.

  3. Awesome article Phil! To answer #1 & #2 depends on the strength of the collective group. I never cancel before hitting the trail though. Turning around above tree line takes practice, and is still better than a day in an office! For #3&#4 yes and yes! But I bet you knew I would say that!

    • I was hoping you’d see this on the wire, teach! Interesting to hear that you never cancel before hitting the trail. Given the forecast, I guess I’m surprised you wouldn’t just stay home. Can you elaborate on why you’d go to the trail before cancelling?

      • Of course. It’s more about being “experience” orientated rather than “goal” orientated. By cancelling before heading up to tree-line you miss valuable experience in both harsh weather, and decision making. We learn about ourselves when we summit, and we learn about ourselves when we decide to turn back.

        I often emphasize turning back does not equate to failure in the mountains… dying does. “Life is a journey, not a destination”. If we only climb in fair weather days we don’t grow as climbers. Some examples, I’ve turned around 200 feet below the summit of Washington twice… we were definitely the highest turn-around group that day, most turned back at Lion’s Head, but we had a great time and felt we kept a solid safety margin. Those who never left PNVC probably felt like they wasted some gas…

        All that being said, this is mostly geared to day trips… multi-day trips are bigger commitments, days off from work, etc. But given a horrific weather forecast I would opt to maybe do a winter camping skills course below tree-line rather than a Presi-traverse… still getting outside and learning to deal with weather right? As you know from AIARE, it’s all about having options to fall back on when conditions are worse than expected.

        1) Presi-Traverse
        2) One-Day summit of Adams
        3) Winter Camping in Great Gulf/Osgood
        4) XC skiing in Jackson

        Always something to do in the mountains!

        • Got it. That makes a lot of sense, but really forces the need for group planning to get buy-in on before the trip starts. Not that that’s bad, but reflecting on the people I often hike with, they wouldn’t have been too keen on doing a turn around after we’d started up Adams. Crazy as that sounds, that’s just the peakbagger mentality playing out. With that “population”, it’s often easier to kill of a hike than to get consensus mid-hike for a turnaround.

          When you did the turnaround on Washington, had you discussed the conditions that might necessitate a turnaround beforehand? If so, how much detail did you go into? This is very valuable for me to understand.

        • Out of probably 75+ winter ascents I’ve probably turned around 15+ times for various reasons. I understand “peak bagging”, but Mother Nature has the final say out there (or participant lack of fitness). I use two main tools to help with clients and even recreational climbs/tours.

          1) Creating a turn around time and agreeing to it before we leave the trail-head. Given mid-winter conditions for Lion’s Head that is usually 2pm, NO MATTER WHERE WE ARE. Agreed? Later in the season that can be adjusted as there is more daylight.

          2) In the case of possible heinous weather, I am very careful to use the word “attempt” along with establishing some consolation goals… something like, “During our summit attempt today our first goal will be to reach tree-line. After that the actual Lion’s Head summit is our next objective. If we make it there we can push on with the goal of reaching Split Rock. If conditions allow and we’re all feeling good we can push on to the summit.”

          By wording it like that I have set the stage for decision making, vrs. summit at all cost mentality “summit fever”. I have said out loud that this is an “attempt”, and created multiple goals, some which are achieve-able even in the worse situation. A successful trip is therefore not defined by reaching the summit, but by everyone having a good time and coming home with all their fingers & toes still as friends…

        • I really like how you break the route into a series of decision points. That makes perfect sense in the context of AIARE when you need to take field observations but I like the way it can be applied to a difficult hike or multi-day trip too. Great discussion and very helpful David.

        • That’s what all climbing/paddling/mountaineering/BC skiing/life is isn’t it? A series of decision points. The more serious the outcome of a mistake, the more care must be given during the process. Glad to help, and hope to cross paths with you soon. Maybe AIARE 2 course for you next winter?

        • I’d love that, but I don’t use my Level 1 snow study skills very often. That might change as I do more “free range” hiking/bushwhacking in the whites, but I’m afraid that Level II would be beyond anything I could ever use. You never know though..I was planning on getting a BC skiing setup next year. :-)

  4. I love your approach about consulting participants. You’re the type of guide that I really enjoy when I go hiking… good job!
    I definitely think that it would be useful to take a more structured checklist-style approach to your planning, but you should adapt it to your particular area. Then there will be less grey areas that could lead to disaster.
    One thing I would also add to that list is to assert the level and experience of the participants. If you’re with a group of very experienced and fit hikers, the decision will certainly be different than if you’re with people on their first hike.

    • What I have in mind is a little bit more intense than consulting – it’s actively planning a trip in a group discussion in front of a map and with other supporting information, much like the AIARE trip planning process.

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