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Misadventures on a Winter Backpacking Trip: Following Someone Else’s Footsteps

December 1, 2017
Footsteps on a winter trail
Footsteps on a winter trail

Part 1: You are the leader on a 4-day winter backpacking trip in the White Mountains. Your group consists of seven participants of varied skill level. All have some experience winter camping. Your co-leader has Wilderness First Aid (WFA) and winter backpacking experience. This is day 3 of the trip.

Today’s plan is to summit a 3,000-ft. mountain and camp at a designated site, in a saddle, four miles away. Tomorrow the group will head down the other side of the mountain and return to basecamp. You did this trip last spring as a co-leader so you are familiar with the terrain. You recall the trail is not well marked.

The group is ready to go at 9 am. You begin the ascent, hiking up the side of a gully. It has not snowed in a while and a trail is packed down from a previous group. Your group is making good time because it does not have to break trail. The skies are overcast with a calm wind and no precipitation, although the forecast calls for snow later in the evening.

As you climb higher, you recognize your surroundings but note that you do not see any trail markers. The path of the previous group seems to be headed in the right direction so you continue your ascent up the gully towards the saddle.

Stop & Think:

  • As a leader, what are you thinking about regarding today’s itinerary and your group?
  • Any concerns about the weather and environment?
  • What are your thoughts about following the path of the previous group(s)?

Part 2: Your group pauses for a water & snack break. You have gained enough elevation that you can see the rock face of the mountain. It can’t be too far now! The group continues forward and eventually comes to a large clearing, in a hardwood forest, which looks like the camp of a previous group. A campfire ring sits in the middle of the clearing and trails lead off in all directions. This is not the designated site you plan to use for the night. It is 1pm (FYI: It gets dark around 5pm).

Stop & Think:

  • How should you proceed from here?
  • How do you know which trail to take from this spot?
  • Is the path you have been following reliable?

Part 3: You really want to get your group to the summit because you don’t often get to this section of the White Mountains. You chose the trail which seems to be the most well-traveled route. The trail narrows and begins paralleling the contours of the mountain, meaning you are heading around the mountain instead of over it. Your group begins to realize you are unsure about the trail and asks if you are lost. You decide to retrace your steps to the large clearing and reassess.

Once there, you have everyone take a break and put on layers. You consult with your co-lead, and decide to have him engage the group in a nature discussion while you scout for other possible routes. It is now almost 2 pm. You take time to backtrack and see if you missed a turn or a trail marker. You search for approximately 30 minutes but do not find any possibilities you believe will be a “sure thing.”

Stop & Think:

  • How do you proceed from here?
  • What do you know?
  • What are your options?

**Before reading further, take a moment to decide what you would do next in this situation. **

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Part 4: You ultimately decide to head back down to last night’s campsite because you are not sure you will be able to find the trail the following day with snow in the forecast (Snow will cover any tracks that may allow you to reliably backtrack). You consult with your co-lead before addressing the group and he agrees this is the best plan. You tell your group the plan and the group is excited because they really liked the previous campsite.

Debriefing the Decision:

What are some factors that influenced the decision-making in the scenario outlined above?

First, the leaders followed the tracks of an unknown group on an unmarked trail. Not a horrible idea, but you need to make sure you are paying attention and assessing the situation as you go. The sighting of the mountain seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel which caused the leader(s) to stop paying close attention.

Arriving at the clearing, with its signs of previous use, should have been a point when the leader(s) took time to assess which way to go. Because that didn’t happen, the group lost an hour of its day.

In the above scenario, the leader(s) had plenty of time for their decision-making. Taking time to scout possible routes once the group returned to the clearing was a wise idea, but unfortunately did not help the leader find the trail. Luckily, the group was in a good place and the weather was mild. The leaders didn’t have any compounding factors, complicating the decision and forcing them to act more quickly. Would this have played out differently with inclement weather or a disgruntled participant? How?

In this case, there was enough time for the group to return to the previous camp before dark. Everyone arrived without incident and doing well: physically, emotionally and mentally. For the leaders, the next consideration will be how to effectively get the group out of the backcountry on Day 4.

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Samantha Willsey

Samantha is the Leadership Training Assistant at the AMC and has enjoyed living and climbing in the White Mountains for three years. She is a Wilderness EMT and has guided in Maine and the Adirondacks and was a trail crew leader in the Pacific Northwest.