Groups Staying Together

Stuff recently posted a story titled “Friends leave woman behind in bush — search and rescue called“. It refers to an incident in the Wairere Falls area near Matamata, suggesting that a group of friends selfishly left someone behind because she was too slow, resulting in both a SAR call-out, and prompting a particularly nasty comment thread below the article. More recently there’s been another odd-sounding case, of a group leaving a sick person behind having activated a PLB.

I’ll state outright that I don’t consider it acceptable to consciously, or through negligence, leave someone behind because they can’t keep up, unless that person is complicit with splitting the group, remains well looked after, that both resulting new groups remain fully self-sufficient, and that each knows the other’s intentions. Being in a group means having a mutual responsibility to each other. Particularly if there’s enough of an emergency to set off a PLB, I’m struggling to rationalise splitting a group at all, unless the reason relates to the emergency, such as having part of the group attempt to walk out and get help independently.

For various reasons I think the full context of the first event probably hasn’t been represented in the report, and the second case I’m struggling to justify from provided info, though a later report suggests they might have misunderstood certain things. I’m wary of judging people’s decisions under often-stressful circumstances based on terse media reports and I don’t care to dwell on either, but resulting discussion has veered towards tramping clubs and groups generally, and group safety techniques. It’s caused me to consider my own view of tramping in groups.

It’s generally accepted tramping lore, at least within the club scene as it’s evolved through the decades, that groups should stay together when tramping, though there’s also some subjective inconsistency in what “staying together” actually means.

When “staying together” how far apart is it acceptable to be? Must each person to be two-steps behind the person in front? Must everyone always be able to see each other? Should the slowest person always be at the front? Must there always be a person designated to always stay behind everyone else, also known as tail-end Charlie? Are there circumstances by which it’s acceptable for a group to split?

I’ve met people with very strict, non-negotiable rules, and could collect a diverse range of answers to all of the above questions. I think my own response to all of these group mechanisms would be that it usually depends on circumstance.

When a group is established, what does “staying together” entail for me? Well, I enjoy going tramping with others and usually appreciate the company over several days, but don’t feel the need to walk in a close cluster of people all the time. There’s more to it than this, though.

Before everything else, it’s crucial to define who’s in the group before the group can be split. Everyone who’s in the group needs to clearly understand that they’re in the group, and exactly who else is in it. The composition of a group defines mutual obligation and reliance on each other. If it’s not clear and understood by every member from the beginning, then something’s wrong.

It might seem an absurdly simple thing to start with, but some serious back-country accidents have occurred due to confusion between people about whether they were relying on each other or not. One recent example, but by no means the only one, has been the tragedy on Mount Taranaki in 2013. A coroner’s inquest, and also an internal NZ Alpine Club inquiry, identified that among many other factors there was substantial confusion about who was meant to be with whom. It was unclear who was in charge or taking responsibility for decisions with each collection of people as they drifted apart.

When I’m in a group, I have a few basic principles, irrespective of whether I’m considered in charge. I like to know exactly who’s in the group. I like to know (roughly) where everyone in the group is… or at least how to rapidly and reliably find them. I like to feel confident that I could get attention and help from others, if necessary, within reasonable time. I also want to be comfortable that everyone else can do the same, and that I’d either be directly involved or would naturally converge back on the incident within a similarly reasonable time. If someone stops, and anyone else simply keeps going perpetually without looking back, then something’s wrong.

For achieving the above principles, I have a few rules which I tend to apply. As part of the mutual responsibility, I also generally expect that others who I’m with would do the same. I might occasionally break a rule as circumstances suggest, but only if I feel comfortable that the principles aren’t being significantly compromised. I’ve been in groups which may well, at times, have been spread out over a kilometre, yet without feeling that the ability to identify problems and re-group has been hindered.

On a track, at any significant junction or place where there could be confusion, I’ll stop to ensure the person behind has clearly seen and acknowledged where I’ve gone, and that they know to follow, even if intended destinations are clearly signposted. Similarly I’d expect anyone in front of me to wait to make sure I’ve seen where they’ve gone. This way if someone goes the wrong way, everyone goes the wrong way and the group remains together.

I also like everyone to stop and re-group periodically, probably hourly at the longest, but sooner if someone needs to stop. Doing so helps to identify if anyone’s struggling, or not showing up at all, while there’s still time for everyone to assess where they might be and (if necessary) back-track to search. Occasionally I’ll get some distance ahead, but not without an expectation that I might need to double-back to where I most recently saw the person behind.

At a significant obstacle, like a river crossing, I won’t go beyond it until I can see that those behind me have also negotiated the obstacle, and assist if necessary.

I also like people to be periodically in communication with each other. This doesn’t mean having to be close enough to talk all the time. But if I haven’t seen someone behind me for a while, I’d generally stop and wait until I can at least see they’re coming, in case there’s a message being passed forward. I’d expect the person behind me to also watch out for those behind them.

If leaving a track that’s being followed, for whatever reason, I’d expect anyone within the group to leave something (like a pack) clearly visible so that those behind know they’ve left, and I’d not go beyond a marker like that until there’s a way to notify the person of who’s now ahead of them. Maybe it’s possible to continue if multiple people have caught up, and someone stays within reach to inform them upon their return. If they don’t return, there’s a definite clear ad-hoc search starting point where it’s known they left the main route.

When off-track and navigating, or if there’s simply low visibility where it’s easier to lose sight of each other, similar principles apply except with considerably less elasticity in spreading out. When it’s so easy to get lost, the group really needs to remain near enough together so that everyone has regular visual contact, and enough communication for everyone to be clear about what’s happening with the navigation. If anyone runs away to scout ahead, there needs to be a clear plan made with others about how far they’re going, where they’re going and when to expect them back.

The application of these rules, towards achieving the principles, varies with the make-up of the group. Having fit and skilled people who trust each other doesn’t make it okay for a group to disintegrate, but it does sometimes make it possible to apply the principles in more flexible ways than might occur when people are less confident, or more likely to be relying directly on others for their immediate safety and decisions.

These are my general thoughts, anyway, and I’m more than happy to hear about alternative views. My perspectives have been shaped during my time with Tongue and Meats, and I’m fortunate that the culture of that club means that many of the trips in which I’ve taken part have been composed such that most if not all of people present would foster a similar attitude.

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