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Case Study: Group Management in the Alpine

January 2, 2017
Group travel in the Alpine requires active group management strategies.
Ryan SmithGroup travel in the Alpine requires active group management strategies.

Leadership Case Study: Group Management in the Alpine

This case study was featured at Mountain Leadership School’s annual Instructor Post School Debrief in September 2016.  A vigorous discussion produced the conclusion points illuminated below.

Join these experienced volunteer instructors at the oldest leadership training program in the nation for the 59th annual Mountain Leadership School in June 2017.

Reader’s Note: Mountain Leadership School Instructors facilitate a participant leader of the day rotation.  The case study below assumes this role is part of the group experience with MLS volunteer instructor staff ghosting or migrating between participant roles.

The Group

You have a group of relatively inexperienced, though physically fit hikers. They are all new to leading groups. Everyone has the appropriate gear for the day.

The Scenario

The planned hike is strenuous, nine miles total, involving two miles of hiking above tree line. The forecast calls for abundant sunshine with a steady 10mph wind, occasionally gusting at 15-20mph. The group reaches tree line ahead of schedule. The leader, upon experiencing the wind, decides that it is too windy and dangerous to spend two miles above tree line. After a quick discussion with the co-leader, the leader announces that the group must turn around and head back down the trail. He does not open this decision up to discussion. One person begins to question the decision, but a quick glare from the leader stops the other person before she can say much. The group dutifully begins to head back.

Questions to Consider:

  • What opportunities for teaching does this scenario present?
  • What reasons are there to intervene at this moment?
  • What reasons are there to NOT intervene at this moment?
  • What earlier opportunities might you have had to provide instruction or guidance to avoid this scenario?
  • Assume that you DO intervene at this moment. How do you do it? What do you say?
  • Assuming that you DO NOT intervene at this moment. What do you say, and when, to provide instruction and feedback to your group?

Concluding Thoughts

  • Conflicting priorities: Affirm leader’s decisions concerning risk vs. provide opportunity to gain above-tree line experience.
  • Instructor could allow the group to turn around and head down. Engage them in a conversation later and point out that the wind was not prohibitive.
    • Perhaps the missed opportunity creates deeper learning.
    • The trade-off is that the group comes away without gaining experience above tree line.
  • Try to pull another student aside and have them question leader’s decision.
  • Because the group is changing its plan, instructor can probe with questions such as:
    • “You’ve arrived at a new plan. How did you arrive at that plan?”
    • Probe: “What makes you believe that it is unsafe to travel above tree line here?”
  • Debrief can include a conversation about leadership style: Why directive instead of consulting?
  • It is possible for the instructor to have the group hike above tree line without undermining the leader (or group).
    • Praise leader for prioritizing group safety but articulate the opportunity for learning and increased experience.
    • Have group move a small distance and then evaluate safety / comfort levels. Repeat until everyone agrees that the wind is not unsafe.

As outlined in an earlier blog entry, Case Study: A River Trip,

Remember there are many way to manage risk when traveling outdoors.

  1. Proceed with the activity as planned.
  2. Modify the activity in order to reduce risk.
  3. Avoid the risk by not doing it.
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Eric Nguyen

After participating in MLS in 2010, Eric began instructing with the MLS Day Hike Program in 2015. He teaches middle and high school math, coaches soccer and wrestling, and leads outdoor and service-learning trips for students during weekends and vacations. Eric spends as much time as possible in the outdoors, and has hiked all 48 4,000-footers in New Hampshire. He enjoys rock climbing, trail running, hiking, backpacking, bird watching, and photography. Eric is a Wilderness First Responder.