This narrative/trip report/article is written in an effort to solidify the lessons I learned while leading a group of 12 intrepid climbers on the NE Ridge of Gray Wolf Peak on 08.16.08 and to share with the reader the events that led to a hazardous yet uneventful off-route descent. I will not name names or assign blame to anyone (except myself), nor will I attempt to pass the buck on to anyone else, because this is, after all, an introspective look into my leadership skill or lack thereof.
Mutiny on Gray WolfMutinies have occurred since ancient times when hunter-gatherers followed the alpha male until they realized that continuing to follow would prove hazardous to their well-being, whereupon the troupe either killed the old leader or simply abandoned him to his fate. Thankfully, behaviors have become more civil, and the mutiny I experienced was more an abandonment.
Gray Wolf Peak
So here is the short of it: 12 members of a famous NW mountain-climbing society set out at 7:30 from the trailhead, grinding up the steep trail to Riddell Lake, skirting its south side to a low saddle on the south ridge of Gray Wolf, then down to Scenic Lake and up a short Class 4 section to gain the southeast ridge. I set a moderate pace, with a couple of stops for huckleberry picking and to allow the slower members to catch up. Everyone was hiking well and seemed anxious to reach our destination. As a result, our progress was steady, and we were on the summit by 2:00 p.m.
This was rather impressive due to the size of the group and the semi-technical nature of a couple of short sections of this wonderful ridge climb.
Views North from the summit of Gray Wolf Peak
The experience level of this group ran the gamut from very experienced-- one fellow has climbed all of the technical peaks in Glacier National Park-- to the very inexperienced-- a young member from New Jersey who had just joined the Society the day before and for whom Gray Wolf was to be only his 2nd big peak, the first being Trapper Peak, a casual walk-up. There were many seasoned climbers who filled out the ranks, though, and most of us were in the 45+ age range.
At this point I should elaborate just a bit on the challenging sections of this route. The first difficulty is a short but exposed downclimb to a saddle on the ridge. I mention this section mostly to indicate that every climber seemed to negotiate this terrain fairly easily, and a couple of members were very helpful in guiding the foot placements of a pair of unsure compatriots.
Expand to original size to view topo.
We paused for a lunch break at the saddle and admired spectacular views of the Mission Mountains to the north, the Swan Range to the east, the Rattlesnakes to the south, and the Bitterroot Mountains to the west.
The second difficulty, just a short scramble above our lunch saddle, is a near-vertical 75' section of blocky climbing in the 5.2 range. The holds for hands and feet are all there but not always obvious, especially to the less experienced climber. I gave a short safety talk and led the way up this wonderfully exposed pitch.
The only loose rock on the entire pitch is at the top, and I waited there and cautioned every climber not to attempt to use it as a handhold (though some did anyway). I was able to assess each climber's abilities as he ascended this pitch and was pleased that only a couple of guys had any difficulty, and even then it was only for one short awkward step.
Saintgrizzly gets ready to negotiate the "awkward" step
So my mind was at ease, confident that with a little help, everybody could get back down this section. Since the top of this step is a rather small ledge, and the remainder of the ridge route is marked by cairns and fairly obvious, I allowed climbers to proceed at their own pace up to the summit. I took the opportunity to pull up the rear at this point and talk climbing with one of the least experienced members of our team. We reached the summit just a few minutes behind everyone else.
This part of the narrative begins to get the heart of the matter because while enjoying the summit views, I heard two members of the team (for the purposes of this narrative, I will call them "Maverick" and "Goose") talk about what they thought was an alternate descent couloir. At the time I did not think that they were entirely serious about going down that way, but as we were putting our packs back on to start our descent, I again overheard that Maverick was going to give the gully a look-see. I do not know why alarm bells didn't go off in my mind; I really did not think that anybody would leave the group and head into unknown terrain. Further, it was Maverick who had had the most difficulty with the rock pitch, so in my mind, I mistakenly thought there was no way this guy would strike off on his own. This obviously in retrospect was my best opportunity to nip this crap in the bud, but I honestly did not anticipate the events that were about to unfold.
Maverick practically ran down the upper ridge. The next I saw of this guy, he was 200 vertical feet down a bowling alley of a steep couloir 200 feet west of our planned descent route. Goose said that Maverick was just going to check it out to see if it would “go.” This was my next opportunity to halt the defection, but there were several rumblings from other members to the effect that if it did “go,” it would save considerable time.
In my defense, I did say that I was certain that the gully got progressively steeper and narrower, that it very likely cliffed out, and that I figured this guy would soon be starting his slow climb back up to the rest of the group. As we all waited and watched, he found a way down through a very steep section and descended to where he could see the snowfield below. At this point he yelled back up that he was mostly certain that the couloir would “go.” Several people immediately began descending, and one well-respected member of the group asked me if I was okay with attempting the couloir route, to which I replied that I was not okay with it at all. I further stated that the die had been cast when the fellow had headed off route, that several people were determined to descend by that gully, and that I was unwilling to split the group up. It became apparent to me that I was no longer the climbing leader of this group. Even though I still had the ultimate responsibility for the group, our lot was now cast with the least competent rock climber in the group leading the descent into the unknown.
My last opportunity to correct the mistakes passed when, as the last person, I began to descend into this unknown chasm. With each step I grew more and more angry because I began to fully recognize the objective hazards that the group was now subjected to. There were 12 helmet-less people stacked directly on top of each other, in a steep couloir with nowhere to go if a big rock got to rolling. I had not called for helmets being mandatory because I knew that on the route we climbed there was minimal rockfall hazard. Needless to say, there were several tricky sections that slowed the least experienced amongst us to a literal and figurative crawl. There were also a couple of sections that could only be safely descended one person at a time. The last steep part just above the snow took over an hour and a half to get the last six of us through.
A careful examination of this wonderful photo will show the couloir that we took. Look for a left-slanting gash just left of the deep saddle and steep step on the right skyline; it starts just below the small triangular snow patch and terminates at a long snowfield that slants back right.
Once through the couloir, we were dumped out onto a 35-degree snowfield nearly 250 feet long. Due to the lateness of the day, the snow was starting to harden, and several people slipped and fell, resulting in inglorious glissades. As there was no snow on our set route, I had not called for an ice ax or crampons as mandatory equipment, either. One of the members had never even been on an alpine snowfield, and I thank goodness that he was not injured when he glissaded out of control into the rocks below. To the credit of the guys who were already down, they were able to break his slide and slow him down a bit before he hit the rocks. Another member had the previous year experienced a very harrowing slip on a large snowfield on McDonald Peak, and it had left him very unsure of himself on steep snow.
I think kudos are warranted to the entire group for the extreme care with which they descended; I witnessed several amazing catches of rocks that had just started rolling. There also formed an impromptu information chain, where the fellow who just gotten down a tough section would pause and guide the person behind on hand and foot placements. I also think there was a bit of providence at work because we had all made it down without injury and, maybe more importantly, because Maverick was nowhere in sight when I got to the bottom of the snowfield, for I am quite certain I would have punched him square in the nose.
The group fractured further as some of the people who had long drives ahead of them did not want to wait for the slower walkers, so they asked for, and were granted, permission to head on down of their own accord.
What is amazing to me is that they even asked because at that point, I am sure my anger at the situation was apparent to everyone, and, of course, it was directed outward at the a**hole that had jumped off route. I know that his decision was made out of fear of downclimbing the 5.2 step, and I imagine that his fear could have been at least partially allayed by a well-timed encouragement. I do not know for sure if Maverick would have listened if I had yelled at him to “turn around and get back on route,” but I do know I should have yelled. I think now that it would have been proper to split the group to avoid exposing any of the rest of them to excessive hazard. Perhaps I should have appointed a lieutenant to lead the set route, and I could have gone after Maverick to see that he got safely down, or back up. These and many other “should have, could have, would have” questions will haunt my experience.
Lessons and Conclusions
I have learned that the mantle of leadership, once taken, requires that person to be more “alpha male” than any other in the group. I know that “alpha male” is not a normal position in my character. I do not find it easy to yell at people I have just met and to tell them where they can and cannot go. On past hikes/climbs that I have led, a more laid-back style has always sufficed, but when faced with a mutiny, I utterly failed in my responsibilities. For this failure I owe and extend to the entire group my sincerest apology.
What I have concluded in retrospect is that it will be amazing if any of these people ever climb with me again, especially if I am in a leadership role, because my lack of solid leadership put 11 people in a situation that could have very well turned tragic. I sincerely regret not recognizing and taking the opportunities that were presented me to forcefully let it be known that the group I was leading would be staying on our set route. If this had been a military sojourn, I would likely be facing courts martial right alongside the mutineers. At the very least, I would not get that next promotion and my career would be over.
Which leads me to my final conclusion: From here on out, I will stick to climbing with people and partners that I know and trust.
I appreciate any feedback, positive or negative, that fellow Summitposters care to extend, because my purpose is to learn all
of the lessons from this experience.
Thanks are due to:
for his thoughtful editing.
for the use of some of his terrific photos.
for the use of some of his photos also.