Backcountry Group Dynamics: Making it Work

An often overlooked, but extremely important factor in any ski trip, is backcountry group dynamics. Last week the Whistler Museum hosted a talk as part of its Speaker Series titled “Group Dynamics in the Wild.” Two Sea to Sky expedition skiers; Bridget McClarty and Holly Walker gave presentations about their own experiences of backcountry group dynamics on trips both big and small.

Research has shown that groups of four or more skiers in a backcountry group are at higher risk of causing avalanches. We also know that “Human Factors” play a significant part in how decisions are made in the backcountry regardless of group size. But when backcountry skiers choose to embark on longer expeditions measured in weeks and not days, the personalities of party members and how they mesh can make or break the trip.
The event at the museum ran for approximately two hours, so I won’t be covering the entirety of Bridget and Holly’s insights. But to those who were unable to attend, here’s a summary of some of the points covered.

group dynamics in the backcountry
Bridget McClarty joined core members Ryan Bougie, Erica Madison and Michael Burmeister for 28 days of their five-month Traverse the Coast expedition from Vancouver to Skagway, Alaska

Bridget: “Trust your intuition”

As much as mountain travelers like to analyze the facts, when it comes to joining an already established party or accepting members into your own party, gut feelings can not and should not be ignored. Bridget recalled a time where she was invited by three Alaskan ski tourers who were heading up to ski around Cerise Creek on the Duffey Lake Road after a 50 centimeter storm. She declined the invitation because:

  1. She didn’t want to ski for three days with a group of guys she didn’t know
  2. Bridget wanted to be in town for when her friends arrived from their Vancouver-to-Whistler leg of their Traverse the Coast journey
  3. She had a friend who had died in an avalanche few years ago in similar weather conditions in the Duffey.

Bridget was nice enough to drive the crew up to the Duffey and later heard that an avalanche had injured one of the members, who ended up hitchhiking back to Pemberton with a broken scapula – on his own. Suffice to say she was glad she trusted her intuition to not join that trip.

group dynamics in the backcountry
Time in camp can be just as important for group cohesion as time spent in the field.

Holly: “Travelling with a team versus travelling solo”

In the summer of 2015 Holly lived and worked near Kluane National Park in Yukon. During that season she embarked on several solo trips, hiking, camping and route finding all on her own.
“Doing solo trips you have to be really conscious of what you know and more importantly, what you don’t know. It’s understanding what your risk tolerance is what you may need to come back for with a partner next time.”
When choosing group members for a longer expedition, Holly has learned with jher experience of backcountry group dynamics that members need to be able to communicate and have a certain level of kindness and compassion towards one another. You also should be aware of your physical strength. Some of the party may not be able to haul their allotted share of the group load in their packs and the rest of the group needs to be aware of that ahead of time.

group dynamics in the backcountry
Balancing trip goals with the fitness levels of all team members is not easy.

Bridget: “A tolerance for adversity is vital”

When embarking on a 28-day long ski traverse, the trip is going to have its challenging days. Finding icicles stuck your toes inside your ski boot, barely having the energy to eat before collapsing into a sleeping bag or pushing through a crevasse field in a complete whiteout are just some of the obstacles that Bridget and her team overcame during their expedition. There’s no point in complaining. Just accepting the situation for what it is and you’ll be in a better position to deal with the next challenge.

backcountry group dynamics
Route choice can often be the topic of debate among team members

Holly: “Individual differences, weather changes or unanticipated events can bring the group together in a cohesive, loyal unit or divide the members into uncommunicative cliques.”

When travelling during the arduous entry and exit sections during her expedition to cross the Fedchenko Glacier, Holly found that the hiking pace of some members was forming a division within the group. With faster people up the front and slower ones lagging behind, it wasn’t long before one of the faster members expressed openly as to how they thought the slower members didn’t belong. The rift formed late in the trip, but the team did pull together in order to reach the pick up point on time.

Stay proactive for successful backcountry group dynamics

Backcountry group dynamics is as apparent when skiing near country areas close to the resort  as it is when travelling n a multi-week expedition. Communication, acceptance and empathy all play a part in the group’s hopeful success. When gathering a crew for that next trip, trust your gut and keep everything in the open. Not doing so could cause your trip to fail before it has even begun.

Thanks to Holly Walker, Bridget McClarty,  Jeff Slack and the team at the Whistler Museum for hosting this insightful event.

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