Background: Nadios, "S", "L" and I take off to South America.
I know Nadios very well, S quite well and L only a little bit.
Already from the start I feel some sort of a competition in between S and L. They are both extremely competative as S is one of Europe's best marathon runners and L is a top notch multi-sporter and national champion in a sport I don't wanna give out (in order not to give out her identity). I start to worry a bit when I see them going "Tour De France" on every little hill (we're biking in between the mountains). How will it be in the mountains?
In the mountains:
L and S are going full on also on the approaches. Both are feeling very good and say they don't need much acclimatization. I worry a bit about how L can know about that as she has never been higher than 3800m once.
We camp two nights on 3200m and one on 4200m. Everyone is feeling good. We walk up to 4700m and intend to go up to 5000m before returning to camp at 4700m to spend the night.
Incident # 1:
We walk up to an altitude of roughly 5000m as planned. When we stop to have a look at the scenery we realize L is not with us and can see her walking off along a ridge towards higher reaches.
She comes back two hours later and starts with:
"I climbed Cerro Vallecitos! Ha!!! I was so scared that I cried the last 10 meters (UIAA grade 2 rock, but an airy 1000m drop on one side), but I could not turn back". I could see S's face was full of envy. Beaten by L that day. L has never been that high before and has almost no experience of rock climbing.
Incident # 2:
S is full of "go" and declare he feels ready for the 6300m high peak Cerro Plata. I ask him if he think it's a smart decision after only one night on 4700m.
"Yes, I felt great on 5000m yesterday".
"I think it's really stupid and I would not like you to do that today, I told them. Wait for a day".
What could I say?
I was not the official leader, just the guy with the most experience.
Nadios and I packed our gear for a lower target and saw L and S almost running towards Cerro Plata.
To my shock I saw L had no backpack and only wearing thermals. Storm and snow clouds started to appear everywhere. I was content that S would judge the weather too bad to make an attempt on Cerro Plata, but no. They continued.
Nadios and I made it to the summit of a lesser peak together with a group of Argentinian climbers, who also were a bit worried about the weather, but as we all carefully took waypoints with our GPS's and were fully equipped for bivauqing we felt we were doing ok.
We rushed down to camp as the weather started to look really nasty and wondered where the hell L and S were.
Half an hour before a blizzard arrived they made it back to camp, declaring they had made a speed ascent.
I blasted them for being stupid about how they had dressed, about the approaching weather, about the risks of going that high without sufficient acclimatization and so on. L defended the climb. S realized it had been a stupid thing to do and backed off.
During the night the mild blizzard raged a bit and brought 40cm of snow. I thought about the situation and decided to give L and S an ultimatum. They both had to listen a bit more to what I had to say, or they could take off and take their chances by themselves. I just didn't want to take responsibility for their potentially dangerous actions all the time. "Ok, said S". L looked defiant, but kept quiet.
We travelled to the Aconcagua area. Walked to Confluencia and headed for Plaza Francia. Our plan was to make our way over the ridge which separates Plaza Francia from Plaza Argentina. A guide had told us the ridge was an easy 30 degree scree walk. We watched the ridge in the late afternoon and could see there were constant rockfalls all over the place and it looked steeper than 30 degrees in places. We decided to have an early start the day after.
Incident # 3:
Nadios and I started early. L was ready, but S had some trouble with his backpack. L and I agreed on the best would be if we went up the ridge in two pairs. Nadios and I took off. L seemed to be very restless and was basically running around in circles. After a couple of hundred meters up the ridge, Nadios and I realized she was just behind us, even if she had told us all that she should go together with S. As it was now, the communication in between S and L was very difficult. When L was going to warn S for a rockfall, he usually said: "What"? I told L to stick to the plan we had agreed on in camp. She gave me a "why-does-everything-have-to-be-so-difficult-look", but stayed to wait for S.
In order to avoid the most dangerous places of rockfalls, we walked up a ridge and it worked pretty good for a long time. It got steeper though and when we had put 80% of the climb behind us, the gradient was about 45 degrees. I realized we must be in the wrong place. The guide had said 30. I was looking around for alternatives. I could not see any places with less steepness. It started to get icy and snowy on the slope. I thought about going back down, but decided to put on crampons instead. After all, we were very close to the pass. I looked down. Nadios was making slow progress and wasn't so keen on continuing. 30kg plus in the bakpack, steeper and steeper and no ropes. The situation started to get dangerous. The progress was of course a lot easier on crampons, but the slope was getting steeper yet.
S had trouble with his chaotically loaded backpack. L was stil making progress upwards, without crampons and had passed Nadios. I told them both to put on crampons and then we would have to talk about what to do. Back down or continue?
I went towards my left in order to look for a better way up the slope. A lot of things happened quickly and almost at the same time. Nadios had slipped on a steep section and was almost stuck.
The strap on my left crampon broke! I threw myself to the side not to fall without control, but gravity had already started to work and I felt sharp pain in my left calf. I could see blood gushing through my stretch pants. I had no clue how deep the cut from my right crampon was, but the muscle seemed to work.
Close up of the broken strap and part of the crampon
The cut after a couple of days. Very deep actually. I must've been extremely lucky. First of all not to fall and also that my calf didn't got damaged in any way.
I dumped my backpack on a small rocky ledge and looked down. Nadios had ended up in an akward situation and couldn't move. L was going uphill, still without crampons. I told her to put on crampons or stop. On one crampon I went down to Nadios. She put her crampons on. S was still fiddling with his backpack. I asked him what he wanted to do.
"Is there an alternative? I guess we have to go down. This is getting bad".
So did Nadios.
L was further up, sitting down doing something with her crampons.
She called out and asked me how you adjusted them to fit her boots.
I was flabbergasted.
So that was why she had been walking without crampons for so long. She had never used crampons and had tried to avoid the embarresment of letting us know it by climbing on without.
"No! Why should we give up now"?
"Ok, I tell you why. I'm injured, bleeding from a cut from my crampons. S just jugded it's too dangerous to continue and I for sure stand behind that statement. Nadios is not up to continuing either. Not without ropes and these heavy loads. On top of that you have lied to me and have never used crampons".
She ignored my last sentence.
"But we are so close. I want to continue"!
"I will not"!
L stood her ground.
"I think this is the coolest thing we have done so far on this journey and I want us to continue"!
"For fuck's sake...do that then! Just go on! Why don't you go straight up the south face of Aconcagua solo, without crampons. Continue alone, I don't care anymore. We are going down now".
We did and managed to avoid the constantly more frequent rockfalls. S measured the gradient before we went down and concluded we had been on just over 50 degrees. After some heated discussions we decided to split the group in two. We all managed to reach the summit of Aconcagua, but at different times, using different tactics. Nadios and I waited for good weather, L and S rushed up a.s.a.p. on a windy and cold day.
What's the bottom line of this story?
I'm interested in getting some feedback.
Should I have told L to leave the group early?
Would you have continued as a group?
After which of the three incidents would you have felt: "This is enough"!
Would you have accepted the situation?
Should I have played out the "strong authority card" early?
Wow.... interesting story. We had an expression for woman like "L" (and what she need:) in my country, but that term it's not for here (I will wrote you an e-mail). As I realize you were not a leader - it was just a group of random choice so you did not have the authority (this was first mistake). But at the time you told them to "stop" you did ok decision. Ok "L" did not listen to you up there, but again you were too nice to here. However nice experience I don't think that you will repeat your nice behavior.
Interesting story. Your decision to stop was a good one. I am not sure if your decision was the best one on the choice of route with a group of people where you are unsure of their capabilities. Especially if you felt you were in the role of default leader of group of people with mixed abilities.
Also on a route where you are doing it for the first time based on someone (another guide) elses information.
My recommendation would be to do the route yourself and not drag or allow others along especially if there had already been tension or disagreements or doubts to their abilities. Sounds and looks like you were quite capable of exploring this "pass" but not all the others.
But I repeat myself and am sounding overly critical. Doing these things as "friends" is always more difficult than when you are in a structured group with one leader not 4 or 5. This is always difficult. You made the right choice by turning everyone around and taking charge. While you pissed off some of them, you were doing them all a favour. Certainly an experience that you learned something on.
Good learning story Janne! It is best that you decided enough was enough but sincerely I think that one shouldn't go to such serious mountains with strangers. Not even with real friends if they don't have necessary mountain experience. Once there it is difficult to say go away, if not even irresponsible, when you already noticed they could get killed because of their foolishness and lack of experience.
I had same accident with crampons less than 2 weeks ago. I was lucky too. My crampons didn't break but what happened is that I fell through the hard snow crust into the powder below, up to the knee. I lost balance and hit my right leg with the left one. I felt it went into my leg, left of the knee, but couldn't take it out immediately because I was stuck in the position. Had to wait don't know how many seconds to calculate my next move to avoid more damage. When I got out of the situation I didn't even look what happened but just hurried down because I was alone. Luckily there was no damage to muscle, ligaments or blood arteries, just quite deep wound. It still hurts me when I touch it. Crampons are excellent but dangerous tool. I have many years of experience but this never happened to me before. Guess it is never too late :-)
I'm quite surprised that the others didn't respect your experience more than they did, knowing you I would certainly look upon you as a natural leader.
Most of the trips that I've done that's been hard has been with a party with a "flat" structure. However, we had clear guidelines that everyone agreed to as we started out.
First: Everyone has a veto right as to turning back. If one says stop, it is stop. If there is strong disagreement about the stop, it might be a discussion, but a discussion shall not occur if the party is in an exposed or dangerous situation, in that case, whoever is currently leading the rope team takes the team to a stable, safe spot where discussions can proceed in safety.
Then, everyone in the party must be reasonably convinced it is safe for the party to proceed, if the party does not convince everyone, then it is stop. If there are not safety reasons to stop, one must evaluate the possibility for the member to return or wait while the rest is proceeding, but in cases where that is not possible, the case is settled by a majority vote. Disputes on route choices are also settled through majority vote.
Returning in time is an important part of survival, and allthough some may be overly cautious, I think it is a sound tactic to avoid the worst of summit fevers.
Nice TR and a difficult situation. I agree with William that it's easier in an orgainized group with someone in a well-defined leadership role. Climbers tend to listen to people in these situations. When climbing with friends, however, this may not always be the case. For what it's worth I think you made the right choice given the situation. It can be very difficult to stop a friend from attaining a personal goal.
A few things came to mind as I read your report. First, I'm a firm believer that unless you specifically hire a guide everyone in the mountains should be responsible for themselves and should put the welfare of the group before their own interests. If three out of four climbers decide they should turn around then the fourth should retreat as well, however, if the fourth decides to continue then they take responsibility for this decision upon themselves and the remainder of the group is absolved. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules up there and there's nothing to guide us but fear and common sense. Lacking either will get you into trouble at some point.
I also remembered a line out of Mark Twight's Fast and Light book: "Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement". Perhaps some people made bad decisions in this case but hopefully they will learn from it.
Lastly, a good friend of mine pointed out that there are three types of climbers in the mountains, those who know a little, experienced climbers, and experts who push the limits. The first group knows just enough to get themselves into a bad situation and not know how to handle it. The middle group knows enough to stay away from these situations and the last group puts themselves in these situations on purpose in order to challenge themselves. Of course it is the first and last groups that have the most accidents. It sounds like you come from the middle group and made a decision to keep the situation from getting worse. Nice job.
Interesting story. You were more than patient and understanding enough. I don't know about S but I know for sure L did not belong on that mountain. Going to a mountain like Aconcagua with no climbing experience and never having used crampons?! That's crazy!
Moroever, hero behaviour is - in my opinion - totally out of place in mountains. Treat mountains with respect or you'll get your butt kicked sooner or later, it doesn't matter if it's 8000 feet or 20000 feet, it only takes one mistake for disaster.
If you get the opportunity, try to get to know your partners a little better before you take off. Good luck!
My buddy is a river guide here in California. Two years ago they had an incident where everyone was thrown out of the raft and floated down the river. In the face of death, that was the first and last trip that they took that year.
The following year, his girlfriend convinced him to use disclaimer forms. It's a signed statement where everyone who participates in the raft is giving up their rights to sue the guide for negligence, and that they're understanding the risks of white water rafting.
My buddy also conducts an extensive briefing prior to every trip, and makes sure that anyone not familiar with the raft (first timers, returning veterans who need a refresher, etc) knows the tricks to float down the river in case it is necessary, among other things about handling the raft. He also makes sure that he is the *supreme* authority when they're in the raft on the river. Whatever he says, goes, and makes sure that everyone understands and approves of his position.
I agree with Kjetil about scouting the area before guiding anyone.
One of my wishes in life would be to go riding bikes with you across the Taklamakan desert, so please don't lose your interest in guiding. ^_^
I think that you gave L enough opportunity to develop a respect towards the mountain, and since she kept ignoring you, you could feel free of some potentially bad outcome... If you would tell her to travel apart from the beginning, you were risking putting yourself in some guilty feelings in the case of accident. What a character! Rather to avoid next time...
Thanks Janne for sharing.
The feeling of a potentially bad outcome was all around, so I felt I had no real choice. If you feel something can end wrong you better change some parameters. Fast. In this case a split was the only good option. Thanks for the feedback.
After reading your trip report, some things were unclear to me. Before setting out on this trip, did the four of you agree to (I realise all this may sound rather formalized...):
- common norms
- decision-making processes
- some kind of group structure (was it total democracy / was there a clear leader? (you wrote that you were not the leader))
- Was everybody expected to be a team player? Or was it a loose alliance of sorts?
- Did you consider yourself to be the leader? ("I was not the official leader, just the guy with the most experience." seems to contradict "Should I have told L to leave the group" and "Should I have played out the "strong authority card"")
I think incident #1 made it clear that the group had problems. Regardless of whether you were the leader or not, I feel this would have been a good time for the group to discuss the above points for the first time or to revisit them. This meeting could have been initiated by somebody who had some authority, but just as well by any 'regular' team member who was not feeling happy under the circumstances.
In addition to blasting them (before the blizzard struck after incident #2), did the group come to some kind of agreement on how to operate (decision-making, norms, leadership) from that point on?
You write you knew S quite well. Were you surprised by his actions/decisions on this trip (incidents #1 and #2, +his method of summiting Aconcagua)?
Incident #3 - Maybe pairing S with L was not the best idea.
To answer your questions:
1. Should I have told L to leave the group early?
Were you the leader? ;)
If I understand the feelings you had and the problem you were facing at the time, I would have had the group discuss the issues together at an early stage in order to come to a consensus.
2. Would you have continued as a group?
If I understand the feelings you had and the problem you were facing at the time, I would have had the group discuss the issues together at an early stage in order to come to a consensus.
We also don't know what consequences splitting the group (would have) had on what kind of future relationship you wanted to maintain with S and L at the time. (Are you 'friends'? Have you been on a trip together since?)
3. After which of the three incidents would you have felt: "This is enough"!
(If I understand the feelings you had and the problem you were facing at the time, I would have had the group discuss the issues together at an early stage in order to come to a consensus.)
4. Would you have accepted the situation?
5. Should I have played out the "strong authority card" early?
Had I been the 'leader', I would have first explored methods to ensure a functional, healthy, successful and happy team. If that did not work, I would have made it clear what kind of behaviour I/the group deemed unacceptable and what the consequences would be (e.g. I would resign as leader, the team would split up, L would be kicked out and left to fend for herself), and if the unacceptable behaviour occurred, would have followed up with the promised consequences.
But L (and S) were an accident waiting to happen, so the issue called for quick resolution.