The Mountaineers, the Northwest’s 108-year-old outdoor education organization, has approximately 1,100 people trained to lead its excursions.
But “trip leader” is not a title the club bestows lightly. Earning this role requires months, and in some cases more than a year, of coursework and outdoor excursions. The requirements differ significantly depending on the activity.
“The most standard courses are navigation and first aid,” said Chris Williams, The Mountaineers’ leadership development manager. “Becoming a hiking leader might go pretty quickly, while an activity that is more technical and has more danger, like climbing, will take longer.”
Outside formal outings like those offered by The Mountaineers, however, the “trip leader” designation is easier to come by.
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The role might naturally fall on the group’s most experienced person, the person who organized the trip or, perhaps, even the person who is in the best shape. And the coronation of this leader might even go unsaid, the group just naturally assuming one of its members is the leader.
But those assumptions can lead to problems.
Mindy Roberts of Tacoma has led trips for The Mountaineers since 2002. In 2009 she was among those cited when the Mount Rainier National Park climbing program won the National Park Service’s highest honor for public safety.
Roberts says one of the most common traps groups fall into during outdoor trips is what’s known as the “expert halo.”
This is the assumption an expert in one thing is also expert in another.
“Assuming the fastest climber is the best rock climber, or the best skier is the best at assessing avalanche risk,” Roberts said. “When in reality those are different sets of skills.”
While a member of a group might clearly be the most expert, that doesn’t mean they are best suited to serve as the group leader.
Communication, after all, is yet another, different skill.
“Everybody has a role in leadership,” Roberts said. A diverse group, she says, can make better decisions than one expert.
Roberts deftly empowers her groups so they feel comfortable speaking up when they have concerns, whether they be about terrain, weather or going too long without a break.
Williams warns about people relying too heavily on an expert. They shouldn’t take on an activity in which they’re inexperienced with the plan of relying on somebody else without their own preparation, she said. “There are always lessons to be learned, even for people with ample outdoor histories — something that no one should take for granted.”
While a group of friends who travel regularly together into the backcountry might naturally work well as a team, that’s less likely with a group of people whose members are less familiar with one another.
So, how do you tell if this group thinks you’re the leader?
Well, if you organized the trip or you’re the one with the reputation for taking regular outdoor excursions, it might just be you.
Roberts suggests reading the group’s body language. Who are the people turning to with questions?
If the group pauses at the trailhead, waiting for you to go first, you just might be the person they think of as the trip leader.
So, what should you do?
To quickly establish the idea that everybody plays a role in leadership, Roberts said a little humor can go a long way.
“I might say, ‘I’m not getting paid today; somebody else needs to be in charge,’ ” Roberts said.
And even when she is clearly the group leader she’s likely to delegate responsibilities to everybody. These jobs could range from helping access avalanche risk to choosing a restaurant for the post-trip celebration.
Roberts and Williams say a good leader ought to know their group and any injuries or ailments that could create trouble during the trip.
“Like aging jock syndrome,” Roberts said, “bad back, bad knee, bad thumb.”
Williams, who is training to become a Mountaineers trip leader for kayaking and scrambling, said it’s important that group members feel comfortable sharing injuries and other conditions.
“You want to be prepared so you aren’t totally surprised if one of these things sneaks up on you,” Williams said.
Roberts said it’s also important to establish an expectation for the group.
“Somebody might be there for the exercise, while somebody else might want to take a lot of pictures,” Roberts said. “You should establish as a group what will be a successful day.”
Setting an expectation for leadership is a good idea too. In fact, if a group is going to designate a leader, it’s often best to decide on a leadership style first, Roberts said.
Is it going to be a democracy? Or are important decisions going to be decided by one person?
“A dictator style has a role sometimes,” Roberts said.
There are times when there is only one right decision whether the entire group realizes it or not, such as group members stopping in areas with risk of rock fall, a bear blocking your way or group members walking out onto a cornice.
These aren’t situations that don’t need a vote to determine what action is best. They are times when the group leader should feel comfortable being stern and telling the others what to do.
Might this embarrass the others a bit or hurt their feeling? Yes. “But I’d rather mend fences than write a speech for your memorial,” Roberts said.
“Good leaders (whether designated or default) prioritize safety and use a variety of tools to communicate to the group.” Roberts said. “This isn't always fun, but it's critical.”