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Are you prepared to lead your team in winter’s worst?

November 1, 2017
Leading in winter
Chris Lang/Alpine Angles PhotographyLeading in winter offers unique challenges and incredible rewards. Photo courtesy of Chris Lang/Alpine Angles Photography.

Leading teams of hikers and climbers on the snow and ice poses many of the same challenges as a three-season adventure, but the stakes are raised considerably. Shorter days make turn-around times more critical, surviving an unplanned night out requires more know-how, and a white-out blizzard can quickly disorient even a seasoned navigator. Below are four winter-specific outdoor leadership issues which build on fundamentals from three-season outings.

  1. Screening Participants: Beyond fitness, skills, and equipment, you’ll need to screen potential team members for cold-related conditions such as Raynaud’s Syndrome or prior instances of frostbite. If traveling over 8,000 feet in elevation, you’ll also want to screen for altitude-related illnesses. None of these concerns are necessarily disqualifying, but they will require extra management. You’ll also want to know about the lowest temperatures and/or highest elevations participants have experienced – this will let you know who might need a little more attention dealing with the physiological and psychological challenges of operating in cold, high places.
  2. Watch those sharps! Winter and alpine mountaineering equipment such as ice axes, snow shoes, and crampons can easily damage your soft goods or cause bodily injury. Be sure to model and enforce safe handling of all technical gear. At the ADK’s Winter Mountaineering School protectors for ice axes and crampons are mandatory items on our gear list, and we encourage our backpackers to establish a single cache of all sharps near the camp entrance.
  3. Keep moving! When temperatures drop, long breaks simply aren’t feasible. You’ll need to anticipate group stops and keep them as short as possible. At Winter Mountaineering School, we use a travel technique called the “rolling lead” so people get shorter individual breaks on a regular, predictable schedule, and no one is stuck breaking trail for hours on end.
  4. The “Doc” and the “Clock”: While in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru with the School for International Expedition Training, we designated a “Doc” and a “Clock” in addition to employing a “Leader of the Day” learning model. At elevations close to 20,000 feet on glaciated mountains, the health of each team member, and the timetable, were such high priorities they warranted delegation to a point-person – one to keep track of our pace, and one to survey the team hourly as to general health, headaches, and digestive issues. As leaders, we’ve got a lot to deal with, and delegating important, compartmentalized responsibilities like these can free up critical bandwidth.

If you’re an experienced three-season hiker who’s interested in gaining the skills and knowledge to take your adventures onto the snow and ice in the northeast and beyond, consider checking out one of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Winter Mountaineering School Day-Hike, Backpacking, or “Combo” programs. It’s especially helpful for trip leaders and is a terrific way for graduates of the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School to augment their leadership skills with more technical training. With a low student-to-instructor ratio, and a learn-by-doing approach, you’ll come away with a full set of winter skills, and be able to pass them on to others. Programs run annually and are based out of the Adirondak Loj near Lake Placid, NY.

Richard Murray is an instructor for the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Winter Mountaineering School, and a graduate of both the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School and the School for International Expedition Training.

Please note: If your schedule doesn’t permit you to participate in the ADK’s Winter Mountaineering School, don’t despair! Our AMC Chapters offer a wide range of winter activities & programs. Please visit the AMC’s Activities Database to explore additional options.

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Richard Murray

Richard Murray is an instructor for the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Winter Mountaineering School, and a graduate of both the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School and the School for International Expedition Training.