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Groups Staying Together

Stuff recently posted a story titled “Friends leave woman behind in bush — search and rescue called [1]“. 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 [2], 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 [2] 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 [3]. 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 [4], 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.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Groups Staying Together"

#1 Comment By Amelia On 10 January, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

I concur with your suggested “staying together”.
The strict rules of “the slowest person at the front” have caused no end of trouble in groups I have been in, especially with hill climbs and the like. I much prefer the “go at your own pace, front person stops at X location or after Y time”, so that at every stopping point, EVERY member of the party is aware of the last time they saw every other member of the party – if something has gone wrong, its gone wrong since that last point.
When we did the Routeburn in December, we only walked as a group of 5 altogether for a couple of hours each day. Much of the time we were within extended shouting range of each other, even though we couldn’t see each other. At different times, different people were in front for different reasons (whether to get a head start, or to get to a bathroom, or because they had a faster uphill pace) and people were at the back for different reasons (mostly because they wanted to stop for photos, or to take it easy for a while – the absolute slowest person in the party was never left more than 3-5 minutes behind on day 1’s climb to Routeburn Falls, and was never the back marker on days 2-3).

Oddly for me, I was actually equal fastest in the group, which was completely unexpected. I’ve had several trips where I have been the slowest person and my party has left me a loooooooong way behind – including one trip where I basically saw no-one most of the way from West Sabine Hut to Sabine Hut, on a trip where I had pulled a muscle in my back on day 1. Those sorts of trips left me considering quitting tramping…

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 January, 2016 @ 10:37 pm

Thanks, Amelia. I’d forgotten about that rule some people have of pushing slow people to the front. I’ve edited and added it to my list. Maybe it works for some, but I’m struggling to think of any group I’ve been in where that wouldn’t have both embarassed whoever the slowest person is, and frustrated everyone else at the same time.

#3 Comment By Gazza On 12 January, 2016 @ 11:45 am

I will preface my comment by saying I don’t do much organised group tramping these day and haven’t for a while, I sometimes go solo and sometimes go with a small number of friends or family members.

So with that being said I don’t have an issue with splitting a group, provided that there is a reason to do so and its been well thought through, so essentially the risks have been identified and are considered acceptable (note that acceptable doesn’t mean non-existent)

As an example I don’t have an issue with someone I am tramping with going off by themself to do something, either for a short period of time or an extended period of time, but I would need to know they are sensible, well geared and what their plan is (and I would be very annoyed if they deviated from the plan).

I suppose the big difference is that in a tramping club you don’t always have a good grasp of the mindset and capabilities of the people your with and if something does go wrong you risk bring the name of the club into disrepute, so it makes sense for there to be a higher level of risk avoidance, whereby in a group of family or friends there may not be a set leader and it may be more acceptable to play things a bit more individually.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 17 January, 2016 @ 12:23 am

Hi @Gazza. Thanks for that. One key for me is certainly with everyone being complicit with the split, and being as comfortably prepared as they’d otherwise be if they’d left home on their own. eg. If someone left equipment behind because they’d assumed it was redundant with someone else carrying the same thing, it’s not very reasonble to then expect them to go without it when they had no notice. If they only came along because they were relying on another person being there, who they trust, then it’s not very fair to expect them to be separated… even if it was the trusted person who wanted to go elsewhere.

Where clubs are concerned I think it depends. I really only have my own experience to go on and I’m not sure if WTMC is typical of many clubs out there right now. With a few exceptions I normally wouldn’t be in a group larger than 5 or 6 people, and often they’re all people who know each other quite (or very) well anyway, or perhaps 1 or 2 might be slightly less known. There also seem to be enough variations of trips running on most weekends that, for the most part, people join trips with a clear expectation of ability required (or ability to be expected from others). There are certainly occasions where someone might turn up on a trip who mightn’t have been adequately equipped (mentally or otherwise). That’s really where leadership side becomes more important, I think, and being able to reach a coherent group decision to reduce the goals, if that’s what it comes down to.

#5 Comment By Gazza On 18 January, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

I don’t disagree, I may have come across as a bit more relaxed about it then I really meant to. I wouldn’t be happy with someone going “oh, i am going to split and do my own thing” out of the blue, its always planned in advanced and well considered. It might be that 2 of us are planning a few days relaxing by a river 6 hours in from a road-end and a friend wants to tag along for the walk in and out, but then wants to head out on his own adventure overnight in the middle….in which case the equipment load will be planned with that in mind.

I suppose occasionally there will be an unplanned split, in that sometimes you get to your destination and one or two people decide they still have a lot of energy and are going to head upriver for an explore for an hour or so, or climb up to the trig a few hundred meters above a hut or something, which is fine as long as they take some gear, let the people staying behind know where they are going and when they will be back roughly…which isn’t really any different to any of the club trips I did when I was younger.

Also I have been on a trip or two when someone realizes they are not up to it, fitness wise (honestly, generally me). Sometimes a flue knocks you around more than you realise or something…and as such the party has split, but only with careful consideration of the risks, even to the point of rebalancing gear load if needed.

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 25 January, 2016 @ 7:20 am

Hi @gazza. Yes, I wouldn’t argue with any of that.

#7 Comment By nzbazza On 23 January, 2016 @ 12:17 am

I agree with the general rules you’ve noted above.

A different viewpoint/philosophy came to me over the summer break. I was talking to some US hikers and I mentioned about how club trips are generally run, including that gear, such as cookers and shelter and some meals are shared across the group. The US hikers seemed surprised that each individual member of the party wasn’t self-sufficient with their own shelter, cooker and food. They felt this way allows much more flexibility in how the group travels. I should add that these US hikers mainly hiked/tramped long trails using ultralight gear, and their experience of group hiking was more of informal groups forming and breaking up with a degree of regularity.

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 25 January, 2016 @ 7:07 am

Hi @nzbazza. As you suggest I wonder if they’re really individuals who have drifted together, one way or another. That said, I’ve encountered tramping clubs in NZ where, when a group of 25 people showed up at a hut one night, everyone had their own cooker and cooked their own individual meal. I found it odd based on my own club experience, and extremely cramped and busy at dinner time, but maybe it’s not so much for others.