Do you know who your leader is?

Sunday November 11, 2012


We are three hours out from the trailhead. There are 10 of us on the 7.6-mile hike up Mount Race in Sheffield, with its acres of steep, bare, precipitous slopes.

Suddenly, up ahead, a man falls, tumbles down the slope and, landing hard on his back, grabs his leg and starts screaming.

A woman, his wife, about two hikers behind him, gets hysterical. A man, his brother-in-law, starts yelling, "Somebody has to do something now!"

The hike leader seems dazed by the situation.

There are three things happening at once that call for some immediate action.

Before you read any further, jot down what you would do if you were the leader of this hike.

This incident is not real. It is a demonstration called "Hike with Role Plays."

Everyone in the demo had a role to play, but no one knew the others' roles or when the event would happen.

The trigger was the fall.

I was in the group, but only to critique the demo. We were at a two-day Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Outdoor Leadership Training seminar last April given by the Berkshire/Worcester chapters of the AMC at Noble View Outdoor Center in Russell.

In critiquing the demo, the consensus was that the leader needed to stop and think through the situation. He then could have one hiker stay with and calm the man's wife and another hiker walk the brother-in-law away and calm him down.

The leader would then be free to focus on the fallen man to find out how badly he was hurt. Can he get up, walk, any bones broken, or just tripped? Did the group need to bail out to obtain first aid?

The leader's reading of his trail and topo map would show a road a quarter of a mile ahead, if an emergency vehicle was needed.

A prior occurrence led me to take part in the seminar. A friend asked me to join him on a day hike. On the way to the trailhead I asked him what he knew about the hike leader, his skills, etc.

"Nothing much," my friend said, "except he's a nice guy, works in my office, loves hiking, and put this hike together. I thought you'd enjoy it."

Prior to the hike, I asked the leader if he had done this hike before.

"No," he said, "but I read about the trail and it is supposed to be well marked. We'll just follow the blazes."

I then asked him if he had a trail map or topographical map.

"No, I'll ask Tim. He usually carries a map."

We finished the hike without incident, but I was unsettled by the leader's lack of knowledge and preparedness.

What training should someone have to lead a hike?

If you hike, ask yourself whether you know if your leader has the skills necessary to lead you.

All AMC instructors have taken AMC's leadership training, which gives them a solid level of expertise

The leaders I met at the seminar were from diverse occupations: executive assistant for a hedge firm principal; controller/accountant for an Internet technology firm; homeowner's insurance rep; licensed Maine and National Park Service outdoor guide; an office supply buyer for a retail supply chain and a trained paramedic.

One participant, 74-year-old Sonja Goodwin of Hadley, had been a hike leader in years past for overnights, and wanted to brush up her skills to lead smaller groups on day hikes.

She said she likes to keep active and enjoys the companionship of group hiking.

What are the traits a leader needs to head day hikes, upcountry hikes, overnights and winter camping, and bike and kayak trips?

As we discussed a leader's responsibility, group dynamics, situational decision-making, accident-scene management, trip-planning and weather emergencies, those skills became clear.

For bikes, kayaks

For an AMC bike ride, for example, you need to know basic bike and tire repairs.

For kayak excursions, you need knowledge of rescue skills, such as the paddle-float rescue or bow-to-bow rescues in the event a kayak capsizes, as well as water navigation skills.

The importance of pre-screening participants, trailhead talks, the role of co-leaders and sweeps -- the last person in line who makes sure that nobody is left behind -- was emphasized. Tips were given on researching terrain and bailout plans, map review, breaks, and lunch spots.

First aid was not covered, as the seminar was not a wilderness first aid course. (See, Tim Jones: "Wilderness First Aid" in the Berkshire Eagle Oct. 19, 2012.)

Participants prescreened

In a scheduled AMC hike, the participants are pre-screened by phone or email as to their hiking skills.

At the trailhead, they introduce themselves, detailed gear checks are done, liability waivers are signed, trail description and expectations of the hike are given, the co-leader identified, and maps reviewed.

The leader asks if there is a doctor, nurse or paramedic in the group who has wilderness first aid training.

"Never assume. Ask and always check," advises Beth Dillman, a trained hike leader from Great Barrington.

She told me of one day when she was leading a hike on the South Taconic Trail up Alan der Mountain, in Copake, N.Y., and an unexpected, fierce storm came in fast.

Even though the hike's equipment list included rain gear, one hiker forgot to bring his. There was a real danger of hypothermia, but the group's quick lending of appropriate clothing saved the day.

There is also an AMC hike called "show and go." It is advertised, but nobody is pre-screened.

The people show up, the leader describes the hike, checks to see all have the proper gear, appoints a sweep, and off you go.

These hikes are moderate in difficulty and pace.

Played roles

Over the course of the seminar, we played a panoply of changing roles in simulated outdoor scenarios such as a lost hiker, severe leg cramps, unstable slopes and washouts, severe weather issues.

An overview of the Vol unteer Protection Act was also covered.

After completing the course participants receive an AMC Leadership Training Certi ficate.

This allows them to train with experienced AMC leaders to lead actual hikes.

As we moved from one scenario to another, it took me out of my comfort zone and made me appreciate the training AMC gives to be a hike leader, and also made me a better hiker.


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