Learning to Lead: Inside AMC’s Mountain Leadership School

February 17, 2014
Learning to Lead
Ryan SmithA Mountain Leadership School group descends from Mount Adams and heads toward Thunderstorm Junction.

Paul is in trouble. Midway into our ascent of the Valley Way Trail in New Hampshire’s Northern Presidential Range, his pace slows considerably. His face, sweat-soaked and somber, maps the struggle within. He’s an experienced hiker, but the burdens of a 40-pound backpack and weary, 66-year-old thighs are conspiring against him. Nonetheless determined, he leans into his trekking poles and pushes on.

Paul has more to worry about than his quivering quadriceps. After all, he’s in charge. As our designated leader, he’s also encumbered with the responsibility of ensuring we reach our destination safely. But we’re not making it easy for him.

Early on, there were indications that our group’s nascent journey together might not go according to plan. At the trailhead, as Paul outlined the trip details, mapped out the route, and assigned roles, Gillian, a quiet 20-year-old from Edinburgh, Scotland, abruptly announced, “Um, I think I forgot me rain jacket.”

Unbelievable. We were about to embark on a four-day, three-night outing in exposed, mountainous terrain notorious for its fierce, unpredictable weather. How could she forget such an essential piece of equipment? It is a classic Backpacking 101 mistake. Fortunately, I had a spare jacket, and off we went.

The first mile or so was pleasant enough, the eight of us adjusting to our heavy packs, acclimating to the terrain, and getting to know one another. We are a diverse bunch: Four 20-something camp counselors, a couple of middle-aged professional types, and a pair of sexagenarian retirees. We’d only met the day before, and everyone was excited, if not anxious, for the challenges that lay ahead.

Sterling, Paul’s co-leader, was out front, tasked with setting a moderate pace. I tucked in behind him, accompanied by Zach and Lester, the two young bucks in our group. Paul would sweep from behind, ensuring everyone was together and accounted for. It seemed like a good plan.

But then Emily, a bubbly 21-year-old Australian, suddenly pulled up short and gingerly hobbled to the side of the path. She’d been nursing a painful hotspot on her left foot that was threatening to blister. Paul stepped in to assess. The problem would cause a delay, but everyone agreed it was best to attend to it immediately before it festered into a truly debilitating injury and potentially compromised the entire trip.

Meanwhile, Renee, a registered nurse by training, kept pausing to take photographs. Paul urged her to keep moving, but her fits of digital rapture continued, soon disrupting any semblance of pace we’d attempted to establish.

Now, by early afternoon, we have only managed to tick off a paltry 2 miles, and Lester, visibly irritated by our lackluster pace, begins to pester Paul. “I should go ahead,” he suggests—repeatedly. Zach chimes in: “Yeah, why don’t Lester and I go ahead so we can start setting up camp?” Paul gently but sternly denies the requests. “It’s important that we stay together,” he insists.

We don’t. With our tenuous cohesion unraveling, instructors Mike Jones and Michael Blair step forward and calmly announce, “End role-play.”

Learning by Doing

On the eve of my participation last June in AMC’s Mountain Leadership School, I was admittedly developing a mild bout of performance anxiety. Though eager to absorb the collective acumen of the club’s premier wilderness training program, I was also nervous about meeting the program’s expectations and validating my ability to lead.

I was not alone. Most of the other participants gathered at AMC’s Highland Center for the first day’s classroom instruction shared similar feelings. After all, we were marching eyes wide open into an intensive, five-day backcountry wilderness experience that promised to test us mentally, physically, and emotionally. During the introduction, AMC Leadership Training Manager Jessica Wilson aptly characterized the Mountain Leadership School (MLS) program as “challenge by choice.”

For nearly six decades, MLS has been challenging both aspiring and experienced outdoor leaders to discover, develop, and hone their skills. The program was founded in 1958 with a mission to reduce the number of accidents in the White Mountains by promoting safe, enjoyable hiking through responsible trip leadership.

At its core, MLS is a field-based, experiential learning program designed to thoroughly engage students in scenarios reflecting typical situations encountered in the outdoors. Seasoned instructors like Blair and Jones carefully guide students toward a deeper understanding of leadership by employing a combination of traditional skills training and more dynamic tools like group and individual role-play. Throughout the course, each participant takes his or her turn leading the group, coping with problems both real and contrived that range from trivial to potentially life-threatening. Mistakes are expected, even encouraged. At the end of each scenario, the group gathers to debrief, discuss, and evaluate student reactions.

Miles to Go

Twelve hours into the field, our group had begun to find its rhythm. We’d needed most of our first day to trudge just over 3 miles to the Valley Way Campsite. But an understanding of our respective roles in a group setting had begun to emerge. Despite contending with his own real fatigue and numerous disruptions, Paul, everyone agreed, had done well to keep us on course. And together we’d managed to set up our first camp, prepare our first meal, and, with a collective sigh of exhaustion, tuck in for a good night’s sleep.

From the Valley Way Campsite, our route would take us into exposed terrain above treeline, past AMC’s Madison Spring Hut, and to the top of Mount Adams, New Hampshire’s second-highest peak. From there, we’d descend to our next campsite at The Perch, a near-treeline shelter maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club. The final leg of the journey would continue our traverse of the Presidential Range to the shoulder of Mount Washington, followed by a long descent of the Jewell Trail to a wilderness campsite of our own making.

But come morning, we have barely tightened our boots and begun to gather up camp before complications develop. And now I am in charge.

Renee is first to deliver the news. “I’m worried about Paul,” she reports with sincere urgency. “He didn’t sleep well.” Her concerned demeanor, backed up by 17 years’ experience as a nurse, suggests that this is serious. Lester echoes her, adding that Paul’s stomach is suffering from the previous night’s dinner.

My first responsibility is to assess Paul’s condition myself. Obviously, yesterday’s hike had been hard on him. And now we are facing an arduous, thigh-burner trek to our second camp.

When I approach him, Paul lets me know he’s made plans of his own. “I’m OK, but I just don’t feel up to going on,” he says with a listless, defeated tone. “I’ll rest here for a while and in a few hours head back down to the trailhead. I can take a shuttle from there back to the Highland Center.”

Paul is adamant. With a long day and steep, rocky terrain ahead of us, he doesn’t want to compromise the rest of our journey. And despite his ailment, he feels that with adequate rest he will be well enough to descend alone.

I have to make a decision. If I let him go, we’ll have no way of knowing for days if he made it safely back to the trailhead. Worse, his condition might deteriorate along the way. I can’t responsibly leave him to fend for himself. If I send a support team with him, who and how many should go? What implications would their departure have for the remaining party and the rest of the journey? For that matter, how would I know if the splinter group had made it out safely?

In my mind, I have little choice but to turn the entire group around and abandon the remainder of the trip. Paul’s welfare is our primary concern. And staying together is in everyone’s best interest, superseding our original objective and any personal ambitions to complete the journey.

“End role-play.”

Of course, Paul, Renee, and Lester had all been bluffing. But role-play or not, I had taken the scenario seriously. After all, that was the purpose of the exercise. And acting as if the situation was real made it seem so. I felt Paul’s distress, the others’ concerns. I had labored over the problem, my mind racing through options, grasping for a cogent solution, hoping everyone would agree with my decision.

Thankfully, they had. And I’d survived my first test of outdoor leadership.

After a brief stop at Madison Hut, where Jones provides a lesson in map and compass skills, we summit Mount Adams without incident. It is a jubilant moment, a brief respite from the stress of leading and a welcome reminder that the primary objective of outdoor leadership is simply to ensure that everyone enjoys the journey.

An Elusive Concept
Exactly what is leadership? Are some people born to lead, or are leaders born from circumstance and experience? What prompts individuals to follow someone to daunting heights? Are certain personality types better suited to lead than others?

Prior to my MLS experience, I hadn’t given the subject nearly enough thought. Over the years, by wits or luck, I’d certainly gotten through enough scrapes in the backcountry to warrant a few merit badges. And, with equal measures of arrogance and naiveté, I’d always presumed myself to be a natural leader, whatever that is.

But reading through the preparation materials provided in advance of the program, especially the 80-page MLS Student Manual, I began to appreciate just how elusive and complex effective outdoor leadership is. Now in its eighth edition, the manual provides a thorough treatment of the subject, addressing diverse topics such as trip planning, decision-making, participant roles, and backcountry skills.

But the essence of the MLS program’s approach to leadership training isn’t buried in the pages of a manual. It’s out in the field, assembled from decades of experience, and thoughtfully disseminated by a dedicated staff of volunteer outdoor leaders, most of whom took the course before moving on to instruct. Veterans like Jones and Blair, for instance. Jones, a long-time member of AMC’s Worcester Chapter, has been an MLS instructor for 19 years. Blair, a former student of Jones’s, is an active leader for AMC Boston’s Hiking and Backpacking Committee.

Throughout our course, both instructors deftly nudged us toward a deeper awareness of leadership skills without judgment or reserve. They leaned in only when absolutely necessary, or in the aftermath of devised scenarios, to evaluate the outcome, provide valuable insights, and encourage our own input and assessments.

Down and Out
As the miles pass underfoot and anticipation of contrived mishap grows, Jones and Blair notch up the seriousness.

Zach admirably manages a tearful performance from Emily when, halfway down Israel Ridge, she abruptly staggers to the side of the trail with a severe ankle sprain. Lester earns kudos too, stepping in to cobble a makeshift splint from a sleeping pad and bandanas.

Emily, in turn, suffers my witless, disagreeable mischief on day three after I am furtively instructed to disrupt all attempts at time management. Well into the hike, Renee adds another wrinkle, insisting we return to The Perch campsite to retrieve a sentimental keepsake she accidentally left there. Undeterred, Emily confidently addresses each issue, leading us with a disciplined, maternal hand.

By the time we reach the Jewell Trail, we have endured a strenuous, blustery hike across open ridge, and everyone is anxious to get below treeline, find a suitable campsite, and rest up before making the short hike out to the trailhead in the morning.

That’s the plan anyway. With Lester now leading us off the ridge, we soon stumble upon an injured hiker. She has apparently taken a bad fall off a ledge and hurt her knee.

Lester manages the scene well enough, stabilizing the victim, organizing the group, and manufacturing a splint similar to the one he created for Emily. But with a long descent ahead, the sun edging toward the horizon, and only a vague idea of where we might camp, it is also clear that he is honestly losing patience and struggling to cope with the demands of leadership.

In the end, he doesn’t. When we finally reach the woods, Jones and Blair do their best to support Lester and guide him through the situation. But with the light rapidly fading and our search for a suitable wilderness campsite edging toward frantic, Lester succumbs to the stress. He abdicates his role and withdraws to the fringe of the group with tattered nerves.

The Sum of Our Parts
When we gather the following morning to debrief Lester’s performance, it is obvious that the previous day’s experience greatly affected him. During the first day’s introductions, Lester had confidently stated his primary goal from the MLS program was to “perfect [his] style.” Now, five days on, sitting on bare earth with the rest of us, humbly reflecting upon his collapse, he is clearly rethinking his position.

Indeed, we all are. By degrees, we are all Lester. Embracing the demands of leadership, we have each enjoyed small measures of success and endured the rough edges of our own limitations. More importantly, we have learned from each other, accepted our strengths and weaknesses, and gradually evolved into something more than the sum of our parts. And that, after all, is the enduring legacy of the MLS experience.

For me, the most valuable takeaway is the realization that effective leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The role of a good leader is to support the accompanying cast and to make the act of following easy. In the end, I discover that that is a role I can play for real.



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