Case study: Persimmon Pass.
We were running a group with 20 kids and 4 adults in Willmore Wilderness in September.
The nature of the trails in Willmore: At low elevations they are the remains of what used to be logging roads. Up to timberline, trails are traveled mostly by horse outfitters, and are well worn. In meadows they may scatter in multiple paths. Above timberline trails are vague. There is no signage. No bridges on creeks.
The ascent of Persimmon pass took longer than expected. This is not a regularly used pass, so the trail above tree line was non-existent. It is not difficult terrain, but is largely scree stabilized with various alpine plants. We topped the pass at about 5 p.m. Sunset is at 7:30
The weather had been sun and cloud mixed. At the top of the pass we could see a small storm coming down the Rock Creek valley.(major creek defining the SW side of the Persimmon Range) I guessed 30 to 45 minutes to it's arrival.
One of the staff with seniority over me wanted to cut straight down the other side, to get down. I persuaded him that if it's sliding scree at this slope, then further down where the gradient was steeper would mean that there were intermittent cliffs even if they didn't show on the map. (A 50 meter contour interval hides a lot...)
I knew from a previous similar trip that angling SE while descending would get us to a packed grass slope down to tree line. Of the group, I was the only one who had done this route segment.
I also knew that the senior staff would override my decision if he was worried about being caught above tree line in a storm.
My strategy was to keep the line of people as long as possible to have plausible deniability if he tried to stop us then go straight down. Above tree line, visibility was good. Keeping several hundred meters between front and back was easy to do and verify that we hadn't lost anyone.
Senior guy was staying with 2nd staff member that was having a tough day. That staff member was not nimble, and was having serious difficulty with the scree. And I lost them when they were in a dip.
We reached the top of the grass slope as the snow hit. Visibility dropped to 100 meters. I sent the remaining staff member down with a group of larger junior boys to find a spot to camp. I divided up boys as they came in into groups and sent each with a senior boy to reach the camp below. The two staff never showed up.
As expected the storm was small. Snow lasted about 15 minutes, then we could see again. Wasn't enough even to stick except in a few places of thick dry moss.
We had a whistle protocol: Two short blasts: "Where are you" One short blast "Here" Two long blasts "Come to me" Two short blasts in return, "Coming" Three long blasts, "I need help"
I sent a senior boy to go away from the camp where camp noise wouldn't distract, and once a minute blow two long blasts, then spend the rest of the minute listening.
They came in about half an hour later. In the snow they hadn't descended fast enough, and had overshot our location, coming down the next water course. That had gotten them perched above a 12 foot cliff, which they had backtrack up and around.
We reexamined our mountain protocols from this incident:
- Arriving at the top of the pass that late forced a bunch of later decisions.
- Making decisions at 8,000 feet is much like making decisions after two beer. No longer at your best.
- Rule: Establish a turn around time that allows for a return to a viable campsite at least an hour before sunset. If the go/nogo time arrives, and you aren't at the pass, you turn around and go back to a usable camp. If the other side of the pass appears on the map to be no more difficult, then you must get to the pass before go/nogo time. If the far side looks more difficult then the go/nogo time needs to be adjusted. But this time MUST be set at the start of the day when judgement is at it's peak.
- Rule: Establish rendezvous points at various locations. These should be spots that are easy to spot, and as unambiguoius as possible. Examples: Intersection of trail and timberline, shoulder of ridge, major stream crossing, trail junction.
- Rule: In case of separation, main group builds a visible fire at first opportunity.
- Rule: Ensure that all your leaders know the overall plan for the day.
- Training recommendation: When training new staff use the existing situation, run a couple of changes (different weather, different time, different ability) and game out the scenario, getting them to think and speak about it.
- Training recommendation: Involve all staff and interested senior boys in the discussion setting up the go/nogo times.
Previous existing protocols:
- whistle protocol above. (Everyone has a whistle)
- Buddy system. No one travels alone.
- Staff sweep. Last person is a staff member. By preference the tail end group has 3 people in it.
- Multiple copies of the map. Our rules say 2 copies by 2 people, with one copy with the sweep. In practice we usually ran with 3 copies, and if senior boys were interested, they also had copies. Usually this boiled down to the trip leader, the navigator, and a newish staff member learning to navigate. Anyone who had a map, also had a compass.