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Tough Mountain Choices

Go or no-go, that is the question. You’ve been hiking and climbing for hours. You’ve gotten to treeline. Now you have a choice to make. You hate to give up after all the time, effort, and money you’ve invested so far — which might also include air fare, hotels, even your coveted vacation time — but the conditions on the mountain are what we might call “iffy” or another similar-sounding adjective. Going back is to give up, to be beaten by the mountain, but going ahead might be what is later deemed as brazen, foolish, stupid, or even tragic. It all hangs in the balance, so what do you do? How do you decide? As mountain guides, we often have to make this decision for ourselves as well as for our charges. Below is a list of some of the things we consider. These may apply to you as well if you find yourself in this situation of having to make tough mountain choices.

1. Turnaround Time

icon-dayWe always have a turnaround time in mind. In other words, if we’re not on the summit by a particular time, the attempt is aborted and we head back. This time can be a bit flexible. If the group is slow at getting started in the morning but moves quickly and efficiently on trail, for example, a later turnaround time might be chosen. Whereas if the group moves slowly on trail, the turnaround time will paradoxically be earlier. Guides and group leaders need to be able to observe the group and make these determinations. Will the group ascend quickly but descend slowly? Careful observation of the team can provide answers early on thus allowing for accurate decision making.

2. Gear at Hand

icon-gearsNever will our gear dictate staying longer than we should. The turnaround time is what it is — a sometimes variable time but inflexible practice — but having the proper gear can prevent us from having to end our adventure earlier than we would normally would. It’s essential that we are prepared, and not just for the day, but to also facilitate the survival of a single night if for some reason you have to bivouack. (Becoming lost or injured would be two likely reasons for this.) Again, though, this is an emergency situation. Having brought enough gear to survive a night does not in any way green light an impromptu deviation from the plan of the day. But not having the right gear might very well end the day early.

3. Fitness

icon-fitnessOver the years guiding groups up Mt Washington, a typical question at various points is to inquire about one’s energy level. Is the gas tank full, half-full, or is the gas light on? It’s important to know that there is plenty in reserve since a successful ascent must be followed by a equally successfull descent. Being on your last legs half way through the day should be an obvious sign to discontinue your adventure. Perhaps you’re strong, but unwell that day, or maybe you’ve been breaking trail through a foot of new snow all morning. If you’re spent or just not feeling it, going on isn’t a safe option.

4. Weather

icon-weatherThe number one reason we have to sometimes turn around on our winter Mt Washington attempts is weather, usually the wind, but sometimes the cold or riming. If we can’t stand safely, hiking is a real risk, especially in winter. The current weather often determines our successes and failures, but more importantly, the weather trend plays a huge role. If, for instance, you or your team are at the edge of the zone of comfort: the temperatures aren’t completely off the deep end and the winds are manageable, but any more might be too much. Knowing the trend over the next twenty-four hours calls for worsening conditions, moving on isn’t advisable.

5. Ground Conditions

icon-slipThe surface we’re hiking on plays a role in our decision-making. Ice, for example, can be dangerous and slow to navigate. Hiking on trails with a lot of ice will require a great allocation of time, and this can make the turnaround time loom closer. Same applies to deep snow, talus, and other tricky surfaces. Moreover, since some of these surfaces increase the possibility of injury such as twisted ankles and the like, the ground conditions are closely factored into the action taken due to the observable weather as well as the forecast weather trend. In other words, if it’s dangerous to stop for more than fifteen minutes, a simple twisted ankle could spell trouble for the entire team.

6. Experience

icon-experienceLast but not least is the experience of the group’s members — as well as its hopefully self-aware leadership. An inexperienced hiker or climber may lack confidence which can slow things down. This would be easily observable in the typical alpine areas in the White Mountains, especially the rock littered northern half of the Presidential Range or on the Mt Washington summit come. Experienced team members will be more independant, reliable, capable, and better at self care and management. This is a big consideration when deciding on whether or not you yield to the mountain or charge at it. An experienced team can manage just fine in conditions that could devastate a less-experienced team.

In The End: Judgement

Any outdoor leader should be able to tell you that their technical and interpersonal skills, while critical to the job, may be overshadowed by the importance of their judgement skills. It is that latter skill that is likely the most responsible for bringing people home in one piece. Poor judgment kills. This article offers some solid advice, but it is your ability to make the correct judgement of knowing if and when you implement it that makes the most difference. It’s your call!

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