Friday, May 12, 2017

How (and how not) to plan a successful group hike

A well planned and well executed group hike can be a ton of fun, but a poorly planned or poorly run group hike can be anywhere from frustrating or stressful to outright deadly. Some of these tips apply to hikes with your usual hiking group as well, but in this post I'm focusing on hikes with more than 3-4 people (sometimes a lot more) in a group which is made up of people who don't usually hike together, who have different experience levels, and which is planned by 1-3 core people.

Alex, Nienke, and I have planned several very successful group hikes, and the three of us have also, individually and together, participated in various group hikes organized by other people, some of which were less successful. There are a few defining characteristics that really make a group hike successful: planning, expectations, and group cohesion.

The first step, before even issuing the invitation, is planning. If you're planning a group hike, you must make a plan and communicate that plan.

DO have a core group or primary planner who is responsible for the hike plan.
DO NOT suggest or invite people to a group hike and hope the planning happens, somehow.

Somebody has to do the planning. If you don't want to do it, then don't suggest the activity. If you want to do the activity, then step up and do the planning. Sure, you might have an invitee who is good at hike planning, and who will ultimately make sure things go reasonably well, but they will probably not be happy about it and will probably choose to not hike with you again. This happened to us. We're not hiking with that group again, although we might invite some of the members on one of our group hikes in the future.

DO choose a specific trail and route.
DO NOT tell the group "we'll figure out which trail to take when we get there."
DO NOT poll people about which trail they want to do.

There are a couple of reasons for this, and the first and most important one is safety. Keep in mind that some of the best hiking has some of the worst phone service, especially in a mountainous region like BC. If you haven't chosen which trail and route you're going to take before you go, how can you tell your responsible person your itinerary before you head out, and therefore how can SAR know where to look for you if something bad happens and you don't come back at the end of the day? We've done many hikes where we lost cel phone service long before we reach the trailhead, and those are in popular parks.

The second reason is because different trails have different lengths and difficulty levels, and different people have different fitness and skill levels, and trying to negotiate all that at the trailhead is a bad idea. Some people might get railroaded into doing hikes that are beyond their ability, which can be dangerous and is no fun at all for the struggling hiker. Some people get really hung up on their first choice and spend the entire hike at some level of grumpy if their choice, which is obviously better, wasn't the one the group chose, and they don't have fun either (and neither do the people around them, even if it's a quiet level of grumpy). Polling people beforehand just moves that negotiation, and there's no way to tell if somebody you try to accommodate is even going to show up. Pick a trail right from the start and announce it when you invite people.

There will be people who don't like the trail you have chosen. That's fine! They can go on a different hike, or plan their own. Before one very successful group hike we planned, one invitee told us the trail we had chosen was no good and terrible and we wouldn't have fun. He didn't go; we had a great time.

DO choose a date.
DO NOT poll people about the date to try and find one that works for everybody.

This applies to all kinds of group activity planning, actually. It takes forever to narrow down dates, and the people causing the most trouble with settling on a date don't even come half the time anyway. Pick a date that works for you and stands a good chance of working for a reasonable number of people in the group you're planning to invite and that is preferably no less than two weeks after you invite them, and announce it when you invite people.

DO choose a specific, well defined meeting place.
DO NOT name an entire park or large general area as a meeting place.

In a group hike there are often people who only know the one person who invited them. Make it as easy as possible for them to find the group by naming a landmark or other really obvious specific thing that people can gather around. This could be the map board at the trailhead, a specific corner of a specific parking lot, or anything easily identifiable to somebody not familiar with the area.

DO research the trail; its length, elevation gain, estimated completion time, and difficulty level in particular.
DO NOT go only by the name of a popular trail that people are talking about all the time or that you saw in a list of great hikes.

The Grouse Grind is one of the worst for this in the Vancouver area: it's very popular, it seems short, and it's a lot more difficult than people who haven't hiked it realize. Sure, it's under 3km long and some fit people do it in less than an hour. But it is steep enough that most of it is effectively a staircase, and the terrain isn't exactly beginner friendly. On top of that, because there's a resort at the top, many people head up with no food or water and end up in trouble half way up because it's actually a very strenuous hike. SAR helps people off that 3km long, transit accessible trail all the time.

Likewise, make sure the trail descriptions you're using for planning have all four stats listed above, plus a detailed description. Some trails show up on "hikes to do in [region]" lists together when they are extremely, dangerously different, with only a passing comment about how much they differ from the easy hikes on the list. For example, this article starts with 5 hikes in the 2-hr range then drops in Hanes Valley right after them. Hanes Valley is a long, hard, full day (on the order of 10 hours) in very challenging terrain, is only open in summer and early autumn, is a one-way uphill hike because it's not really safe to go down the steep boulder field, and people get lost there regularly. The article simply says "scenic, but extremely difficult."

DO have a map for the hike area and a compass.
DO NOT assume the trail is so well-marked that you won't need a map.

The trail may well be well-marked. There may also be trail junctions, and if you take a wrong turn you may end up doing a much different well-marked hike than you had planned.

Best is to have a 1:50,000 or 1:20,000 scale topographic map with hiking trails marked. If one of those is not available for your hike area, government topo maps are always available but do not have hiking trails marked. Parks will often have trail maps on their pamphlets, but those may or may not have topographic information and their usefulness varies widely. The pamphlet holder attached to the trailhead map board may or may not be empty, if it exists at all, so you can't count on picking up a map when you get there.

So that's planning. The second factor in a successful group hike is expectation. This means that the hikers should know in advance what they've signed up for.

DO be specific in your invitation, especially about the length and difficulty of the trail.
DO NOT assume everybody in the group is familiar with the trail you're planning.
DO NOT surprise people on hike day by not telling them what the trail is ahead of time.

This is where you give people enough information to opt in or out, for schedule, interest, travel, or ability reasons. In order to do this, you can use the packing list and introduction we wrote for one of our group hikes. Feel free to copy this document, fill in your hike details, and share it with your group.

Hike organizers should pay special attention to the things the document says they will do during the hike, and make sure they do those things.

One of those things is the third factor in a successful group hike: group cohesion.

DO take steps to make sure the group stays together or regroups frequently.
DO NOT assume somebody lagging will catch up when you take a break.
DO NOT assume somebody hurrying on ahead will be at the lunch spot waiting for you.
DO NOT take an optional side trip or extension that is beyond the skill level of one of the members of the group, and leave that one person alone.

This means actively monitoring how spread out the group is, and calling on the fastest members of the group to stop periodically and let the slower members catch up and have a rest before moving on. This means regularly making sure the entire group is present and accounted for. This might mean that one of the organizers hikes at the very back of the group to make sure the slowest person isn't left behind—without rushing them beyond their ability or shaming them for being slow. This means even if a person says they'll be ok alone, you still keep the group together. Your group is only as fast as its slowest member.

This is about the safety of each person in your hiking group.

In the news article linked at the top of this post (and from other articles about the same search), a group hike had split into a faster and slower group. Fine so far, if not ideal. One member of the faster group was unable to keep up, and they left her behind, assuming she would meet the slower group and rejoin them at the top. She was never found. Either the faster group should have slowed down so they could stay together, or the faster group should have split into two safe size groups, so that nobody was left hiking alone. Splitting a group isn't fundamentally unsafe provided each group has enough experienced hikers committed to keeping those groups together. However, since group hikes are often social events, keeping the entire group together is the best option. If you want a faster group hike, invite people who you know have a faster pace so the entire group can do a faster hike.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Snow / No Snow

Less than a week before first snowfall on Mount Seymour, we hiked to the top of Mount Seymour Peak. It was a challenging hike, featuring the sort of terrain where less than 1km on the map can take over an hour, but also a short hike, the sort suitable for the shorter daylight hours of November.

While returning from the summit, we encountered a hiker heading toward the peak who appeared stressed, and asked us which way to the parking lot. We quickly got the directions sorted out, and invited the (no longer lost) hiker to join us for the hike out. Even without leaving the marked trail, it's easy to get lost around here, and if you miss a marker, it's easy to leave the trail and get really lost. The week before our hike, SAR had rescued a hiker who had taken a wrong turn, went off trail, and got stuck in a gully. The hiker was rescued safely, but the SAR folks have mentioned on other occasions that Mt. Seymour is one of their frequently visited locations.

The very beginning of the trail to the first peak (First Pump Peak) is clear and easy, but it isn't long before the trail becomes much less obvious and the terrain much steeper. Trail and not-trail started to require more skill to distinguish, and we realized why Mount Seymour is a popular place to get lost and require SAR help.

Photo of two people on a root ladder, (a section of tangled exposed roots on a nearly vertical slope) one at the top and one at the bottom. The roots to be climbed are about two stories tall. There is an orange trail marker on the tree beside the root ladder.
This is trail.
Photo by Alex
A photo of one person on bare rock with trees in the background. There are two orange trail markers, one on the rock and one on a tree farther along.
This is trail.
Photo by Rhonda
Photo of an open V-shaped down slope that looks like easy going here, with a view of the city in the distance.
This is not trail. This is the top of a gully.
Photo by Rhonda
Those little orange markers on the trees and rocks? Sometimes they were the only real sign that we were going in the right direction. Many of the other hikes we've done have had other indications of where the trail is in addition to the markers, and we have navigated trails with few to no markers as well.

The most important safety tip I've learned about wayfinding in a formerly glaciated landscape such as BC is: in the absence of trail markers, don't follow streams downhill, even if at first it looks like easy going and you can see city through the break in the trees, as you can in the above photo. That way lies danger. If you don't have valley bottoms that connect in a useful way, ridge tops are the way to get around. (Although they're often not easy either!)

A hanging valley, with stream gully at the open end.
Photo and clumsy annotations by Rhonda
This is because glacier-carved valleys are U-shaped: flat bottomed and steep sided. Streams cut gullies into those very steep valley walls and can end in waterfalls. Sometimes those waterfalls are just very steep gullies all the way down, and sometimes they are an abrupt end to a smaller flat bottomed valley, such as the one pictured here. These truncated valleys are called hanging valleys, and are the result of a smaller side glacier carving them into the characteristic U shape, but feeding into a much larger glacier that carved the main valley much deeper. The blue U-shape is the original hanging valley, and the purple marks the stream gully that carved out the edge after the glaciers melted. (The red line is the ridge top; all the mountains above that line are actually the next mountains over, behind this one.)

If you look at a topographic trail map for any of the glacier-carved mountains in the area, you'll see that the trails often follow ridge tops. Both the Mount Seymour trail and the Burke Mountain trail do this, which is why both hikes go over or very near multiple peaks. The ridge top marked in the photo above is a section of the Lynn Peaks route that runs from Lynn Peak to the Needles.

On the Mount Seymour trail, the second peak (Tim Jones Peak) and third peak (Mt. Seymour) are less than half a kilometre apart, but that short distance was as deceptive as the distance between Burke's second and third peaks. Fortunately we had allowed plenty of time and could have a picnic at the peak, near the geological survey marker that indicates the official top of Mt. Seymour, before our turnaround time.

Head-sized rocks of various shades embedded in a reddish-brown cement which is made of volcanic ash. A hand is on the rock for scale.
Tuff is pretty tough.
Photo by Rhonda
The trail was very steep in places, so we had to be careful of our foot placement. But when dry and clear, the trail is stable and safe enough; a lot of the time was spent on solid granite and some on equally solid tuff — rocks cemented together with volcanic ash — neither of which were likely to move any time soon.

Two people walking on a narrow ledge across a nearly vertical rock face. They could easily put out a hand and touch the rock face without leaning.
Now imagine this trail
with waist deep snow.
Photo by Rhonda
But even a small amount of snow would make it too slippery to be safe, and could hide many of the trail markers, as a lot of them were bolted directly to the rock. A larger amount of snow would hide the trail entirely and could in places make it wildly unstable. It became obvious to us why the trail is closed past approximately first peak once the snow starts.

On another trip, about a month after first snow, we did not even attempt that trail, but went to Dog Mountain instead, an area with terrain suitable for snow-covered conditions and which had an established and marked snowshoeing route. This was a deliberately easy hike, because Alex was testing out his new snowshoes, including going very short distances off trail to test the limits of their abilities in a safe situation — such as going down a steep slope that was only a few steps high so there was limited risk of injury if their traction failed and he fell. We never went far from the trail, of course; we didn't want to lose our way.

A person standing next to a sign post buried in the snow.  The placard with trail names has been dug out of the snow and is at ankle height to the person.
That trail sign is usually at eye height.
Photo by Rhonda
One of the trail signs even separated the winter trail from the summer trail, although most of the trails seemed to follow the same routes summer and winter... if we could find the signs in the snow at all. Fortunately our wrong turns at the trail junctions were ones that led us back to the main trail instead of deeper into backcountry than we had planned — as SAR has noted, something that happens all too often in that and other parks.

Even if we had made a wrong turn that led to us being lost, we always leave a trip plan with a route and an expected return time with a responsible person, so if we don't get back when expected, at least SAR knows which mountain to search for us on and which trail to start with. Not doing that, well... while I was writing this post, a pair of hikers who hadn't left a trip plan went missing; the search started with police trying to contact the owner of a car found by Cypress Resort staff in the parking lot while closing up that night. Given that Cypress closes their lifts at 10PM and it takes time for all resort visitors to pack up and leave, this was most likely well over 6 hours after the hikers' intended return time. (Sunset was at 4:20PM that day, and it is dark under the trees quite a while before that.) Might they have been found if they had a responsible person to call for help at 4:30PM with a trail or peak name? Maybe, maybe not, but SAR wouldn't have had the multiple peaks of Cypress Provincial Park to spread their efforts over and would have been able to focus in more detail on the probable areas where the hikers might have been lost. The odds would have been better.

We have not ourselves needed SAR help and don't ever want to, and we don't want other people to need it either. One way we approach this is that we tell all the people we see heading away from the trailhead near the end of the day about sunset and how long it is before dark, and try to turn them around or at least set a safer goal given the time left. Sometimes they appreciate the information, sometimes they refuse to listen, but we still tell them.

For reasons that should be obvious at this point, we love AdventureSmart, and especially their slogan of "search and rescue prevention." We will happily put in the effort to prevent our local SAR teams from having work whenever we can.