Leading Alpine Trips
Although the days are getting longer, there is still time to plan a winter adventure (just don’t wait too long). For some of us, this may include putting together winter trip lists with our clubs. As a mountaineering club, it could mean regular alpine trips over the snowy season; whereas for other tramping clubs, the alpine offerings may be restricted to a couple of alpine instruction courses, followed by one or two easy alpine trips. No matter how many trips a club runs, they have a responsibility to keep their members safe on their scheduled trips.
While the level of responsibility is greater than that of individuals on a private trip, who are only accountable to themselves, clubs don’t have as onerous obligations as professional guides who are required by law to be accredited and audited. Three clubs in the Wellington region recently met to discuss how this looks in practice and this article was borne from their discussion.
Below are some tips and key points to consider, which will help clubs ensure they are keeping their members safe on alpine trips.
A club environment is an ideal place to develop and hone skills; Photo credit: Pat Holland
Identifying Suitable Leaders
The trip leader is influential in the success of a trip. Not only do they need to be competent in the alpine environment, but also need to be effective in leading people. The trip leader needs to continually assess how the trip is going and their responsibilities include: acting as the decision facilitator, initiating discussion and in light of everyone’s views, making the final decision.
Some clubs are fortunate to have amazing leaders who regularly take successful trips year after year, but even these clubs will need to consider succession. What makes a suitable alpine leader and how do you identify these people in your club?
It is unreasonable to expect every club trip leader to hold a formal alpine qualification or be registered guides, but clubs need to ensure their nominated leader has the relevant skills and experience. The following are common minimum requirements for any new alpine leader:
- Must have led tramping trips
- Must have completed a snowcraft course
- Must have completed a few alpine trips
Additional experience and skills are of course desirable. Often alpine leaders are well-known members of the club. When this is the case, a chat to the candidate plus a ‘reference check’ can be conducted – informally asking around the club to confirm the member has the relevant skills and experience. If they are a newcomer to the club, then a more detailed reference check should be undertaken.
When putting together their trip lists, clubs should consider what type of trip a person leads, including how technical the trip is and how exposed the terrain will be, with newer and less experienced leaders taking easier trips. All the responsibilities of the leader don’t need to fall on one person. NZAC section trips now split the tasks and responsibilities between a trip leader in charge of risk management and a trip coordinator in charge of logistics.
The difficulty of the trip needs to mirror the experience of the leader and participants; Photo credit: Peter Laurenson
Screening Trip Participants
No one starts out as an expert. A club environment is usually an ideal place for someone with some experience and skills to be able to use, develop and hone those skills alongside more experienced members. The alpine trip leader needs to determine the trip participants are able to safely complete the planned trip – do they have the technical and physical ability, as well as the correct gear? Just as the trip programme varies club to club, the screening process for trip participants will also vary.
The first level of screening for participating in a trip is the participant themselves. A club needs to ensure potential participants know what to expect from the trip before they sign up, including the level of skills and fitness needed to participate in the trip. It is normal for a club to require participants to have completed a basic snowcraft course with the club before undertaking technical alpine trips.
Further information about the suitability of a participant can be gained by asking pointed questions about past experience, what gear they have, what terrain they have travelled through and how familiar they are with the area. Leaders should be encouraged to do a ‘reference check’ to confirm skills, fitness and experience. The alpine trip leader may require assistance from a committee member, for example Chief Guide or other senior club officer. It should also be noted that New Zealand mountain travel is uniquely challenging and even someone with considerable overseas experience might struggle with a moderate club trip.
If a potential participant does not have the necessary skill, experience and equipment to undertake the planned trip, then the trip leader needs to be able to either turn away the unsuitable participant, change the scope of the trip or cancel the trip. This can be a difficult conversation and the trip leader should approach it in a friendly and helpful manner, perhaps suggesting alternative trips more suited to the person’s current experience level. The trip may also need to be modified or canceled if the ratio of experienced versus inexperienced people is too low.
The difficulty of the trip needs to mirror the experience of the leader and participants, including the terrain, avalanche conditions and equipment taken (or not taken). Even after leaving the car park, the alpine trip leader must be willing to modify the objective of the trip to fit the group once skills and fitness levels become apparent, or if conditions are poorer than expected. This can be achieved by deliberately selecting objectives with a good Plan B and C objectives adjacent. Ensure any plan changes are communicated clearly to the whole group.
Club alpine trips are one of the highlights of an annual club trip list; Photo credit: Emma Rogers
The equipment taken or not taken needs to match the experience of the leader and participants and will be dependent on the terrain and avalanche conditions. Some equipment such as emergency shelter, first aid and a beacon will be taken on all club alpine trips, while other equipment such as ropes, transceivers and helmets is dependent on the location of the trip and the participants.
Clubs can choose to require participants to wear a helmet whilst on an alpine trip. NZAC requires helmets to be worn during their courses in situations where a fall could result in serious harm, if there is any likelihood of falling ice or rock from above, and especially when ascending or descending moraine walls.
Avalanche gear – including a 457Hz transceiver, probe and shovel – should be the default if there will be enough snow to hide ground roughness, for example, lumps from tussock. But if the snow is expected to be solidly frozen/hard for the trip duration, the leader may exercise discretion around whether to bring avalanche gear.
All personal safety equipment needs to be appropriate, adequate and in good working order, including ropes, harnesses, transceivers, bindings and attachments. Clubs should ensure trip participants know how to use any gear they are provided by the club.
Club trips can teach the skills participants need for longer alpine trips; Photo credit: Thiago Amaral
It is important to create a culture where participants are encouraged to speak out if there is an issue, problem or risk they have identified, including if they are feeling tired, cold, uncomfortable or scared. One way of supporting newer alpinists is by matching them with a more experienced buddy for the trip. All participants should have a level of awareness of the hazards faced by the group, including beginners who might not yet be able to play an active role in risk assessment and decision making.
Many club alpinists might only do a few trips per season, but still need to keep sharp on essential skills such as self-arresting. There may be opportunities early on in a trip to practice self-arrest skills, but care should be taken with run outs – New Zealand has a history of fatalities in self-arrest practice.
Don’t forget to debrief afterwards and evaluate how the trip went.
Nelson Tramping Club received a 2020 Training Grant for an alpine skills course; Photo credit: Nelson Tramping Club
Access to Training and Up-to-Date Information
Anyone who is instructing and leading others should have up-to-date knowledge pertaining to the area in which they are ‘expert.’ This is especially important for trips into an alpine environment and in particular, areas with exposed terrain and/or where roped techniques are being taught or used.
The value of taking formal courses should not be underestimated. New Zealand clubs have a proud tradition of passing on knowledge to newer members who then become the teachers of the next generation of members. Generally this is very effective; however, the risk with only using in-house training is that dangerous or out-of-date techniques could be passed down to newer club members. As a result, these members may then go on to instruct others in outdated techniques.
There are many different options for accessing training. The most cost effective options for courses are those run by mountain clubs such as Canterbury Mountaineering Club (CMC) and New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC). An added benefit is the chance of meeting future trip partners for club trips and other like minded souls.
Another option is hiring a professional instructor, for example, through NZOIA or a guiding company.
One of the biggest barriers to accessing training for many clubs is the cost. One option to help with the cost of training alpine leaders is to apply for a FMC Training Grant. These grants support FMC clubs by making training opportunities a little more accessible, and aren’t just limited to alpine skills. The grants are in cash to the club, and are made possible through the support of the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust. For more information go to: https://fmc.org.nz/members-area/fmc-training-grant/. Applications are open now, and must be received by 15 September. Grants will be awarded in October.
Examples of previous grants that have been awarded to clubs include: the North Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club (NOTMC) for a backcountry training weekend, the Nelson Tramping Club for a club snowcraft training course and the Canterbury University Tramping Club for an avalanche awareness course, as well as outdoor first aid courses and packrafting instructors courses.
Other options to fund training include applying to local charitable organisations or local service groups, as well as collaborating with other local clubs to share costs.
In addition to formal training, there are a number of manuals available, which are well illustrated, simple and current on New Zealand practice. For example, the following are available to purchase from NZAC online:
- Adventure Consultants, A Climber’s Guide
- Alpine Guides, Technical Manual
- Aspiring Guides, Technical Mountaineering
This resource was compiled with the assistance of FMC’s Executive and staff. Thank you to the following clubs who have contributed: Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, Wellington section of the NZAC, Victoria University of Wellington Tramping Club, Otago University Tramping Club and Alpine Sports Club (Auckland).