Mutiny on Gray Wolf Peak

Mutiny on Gray Wolf Peak

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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 Wolf

Mutinies 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.
South Face - Upper Riddell Lake BasinGray 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.
From the Summit of Gray Wolf PeakViews 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.
Descent route into SaddleExpand 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 Crux
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.
The Crux SectionSaintgrizzly 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.
Paintbrush & Gray WolfA 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.
Cliff-Bands and Shrubs


Thanks are due to:

Bob Sihler for his thoughtful editing.

thephotohiker for the use of some of his terrific photos.

saintgrizzly, for the use of some of his photos also.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 79
Bill Kerr

Bill Kerr - Aug 23, 2008 8:15 pm - Voted 10/10


I think you are being too harsh on yourself. As members of a club, the trip participants owe responsibilities to the trip leader. Do not take on responsibilities which are not yours to carry. These clubs are voluntary as is the leadership(this is not the military). Your anger properly reflects your frustration at being disrespected by Maverick as well as not being able to control the situation. He should have never have put you and the rest of the group in that situation. The trip leader should be consulted if someone wants to do something different from the plan. The trip leaders decisions stand or else why have a club and go on a club trip?

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 23, 2008 10:54 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Muntiny?

Thank you Bill for your considered comments. While what you say about clubs is true, I have come to realize that did not shield me from responsibility for the less experienced in our band, who did place their trust in the leaders mountain skill.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Aug 23, 2008 8:28 pm - Voted 10/10

Some thoughts

Personally, I think you are too hard on yourself in this. I feel you did no wrong. Yes, maybe you should have insisted the others stay on the planned route, but they were already making up their own minds and ultimately must be responsible for their own choices. You were not a paid guide with a legal as well as an ethical responsibility to the others. They were adults
and made their choices. It speaks well of you that you stayed with them and helped; I might have said to hell with them and gone back along the planned route, unwilling to risk my own neck for their stupidity and inexperience.

And that's what it came down to-- stupidity and inexperience. Frankly, I might have tried that other way down myself out of interest in something different and challenging, but I would not have dragged others with me, and I would not have done so if I had gone along under somebody else's guidance. I think the dumbest ones, though, were the ones who followed Maverick initially; maybe all you should have done was explain to the group why his move was a bad one, tell them you weren't following him, and let them make up their own minds.

Then again, maybe I'd have done what you did in keeping everyone
together. I don't know. But it underscores why I have absolutely no interest in group hikes and climbs. 3 or 4 at most for me. More people just means more issues.

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 23, 2008 11:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Some thoughts

Thanks for the comments Bob, in my original thought for the article, I envisioned a dialog that dealt with the responsibilities of both leaders and participants of such outings. But my process led me to admit my errors first, and make whatever amends that are possible. I believe that is the only way to truly learn from this experience.


Saintgrizzly - Aug 24, 2008 12:37 am - Voted 10/10

Tim... are indeed being too harsh on yourself: you weren't the leader, you were a co-leader, and I bear as much responsibility for any errors in judgment as you.

The problem wasn't that the "shortcut" became quite a bit longer (an additional 2 hours) than the normal descent--that was, of course, unpleasant but relatively unimportant--the problem was that by entering the couloir we encountered terrain (and quite a bit of it) for which we did not have the necessary equipment for safety. No ropes, no helmets, and no ice axes--all three items of which the group had been specifically informed would not be necessary. And would not have been had we stayed on route. It was a safety issue! Not to mention that a group of 12 is WAY too large for exploratory excursions...! Three or four in a group, with the understanding (and equipment!) from the outset that exploration might occur can be a positive experience. This was not.

Well written report, but don't take the blame all on yourself!

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 24, 2008 1:02 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Tim...

Thank you for your comments saintgrizzly. While we did share leader duties, I understood that our duties would be essentially split, with me leading the climbing, and you as co-leader handling the administrative side of coordinating 12 people. I am not attempting to take all of the heat on this, just my part of it. I think our inability to coordinate a response to events is a shared blame. I will let others [Maverick and Goose et al]define their own culpability. I do agree that safety is the issue, and that we were unprepared for the terrain we were descending.

Wandering Sole Images

Wandering Sole Images - Aug 24, 2008 3:04 pm - Hasn't voted


Hey Tim,

I just want to echo what the others said and say that, while it is good to assess what happened and learn from it, you are being too hard on yourself in the end.

The only good discussion of the topic of leadership that I have ever read/heard is the chapter on leadership in the Freedom of the Hills book. On the one hand, you've got very loose leadership structures/needs when a few people go out on a easy outing and the "leader" might just be the person who had the idea to go. On the other end, you've got a very high need for a hierarchy on a large expedition with teams, duties, etc. Your outing falls in between. Those people who ventured off on their own weren't bound to follow you (in some military sense) but certainly owed you (and the rest of the group) some courtesy and respect even if they thought the gully was a better option (which it wasn't and they didn't have the experience to know that). They owed you that respect due to your being a part of the organizing/leading of this day and due to your having more experience than them. In the end, you were in a ambiguous situation which couldn't neccessarily be foreseen. A few people went off on their own, others followed, and I think most people in your situation would have done what you did and gone along too so as to help oversee this unexpected new direction of the plans. There is indeed a good chance they were going that way no matter what you did.

Having the benefit of hindsight in reading your article I would take two things from it and not worry too much about the rest (easier said than done, I know). One is that big groups can be pretty unweildy. It can be really hard to get 10+ people to act in some organized fashion. And, secondly, if there is a group that size, then perhaps things need to be laid out a bit beforehand of how situations involving desicion making are going to be handled - just because of the size of the group.

As far as what happened on that day - you were in a bad spot and we all question how we handle things in those unexpected situations. Take what you can from the experience and move on better prepared for next time. Keep on keepin' on!


T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 24, 2008 4:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Tim

Thanks Les for the very kind and considered comments. I think your closing that I "take what you can from the experience and move on better prepared for the net time" is exactly correct. I think writing this article is a catharsis that will result that outcome.

Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson - Aug 24, 2008 6:10 pm - Voted 10/10

Well written-tough subject

I heartily agree with all of the commments above. It's good advice I completely support. In all of my years leading outings, I've never run across such a predicament. I've had situations where it was agreed prior to the hike that some may wish to turn around, wait, do a side trip or a different route. Knowing the group's abilities always determined who did what when and where. Due to conditions, decisions have been made by various parties at the given time to alter course. As long as I knew their experience and abilities, I've never had a problem with it, though in most cases, splitting up a group is a bad idea. Having a "mutiny" though, is something I've never encountered, so I feel a bit out of place offering any "I would do this" type of advice.

If I had been there in your shoes, I would have asked everyone "do you know what you're descending in to? Is it safe to do so?"--which you did. An ironclad rule I always follow on descents is to (A) see the entire route and be certain it was safe to proceed and (B) KNOW what to expect in terms of terrain from careful study of the mountain on prior trips or in photographs. If either of these items could not be satisfactorily answered, I would have urged that no one follow Maverick despite whatever his abilities may have seemed to be.

Your SP peers are right that there was nothing much you could do. You did the right thing to stay with the group and assure everyone's safety, but you also would have been right to remain committed to your route plans in order to get those that were willing to follow and support you as leader off the mountain in a safe manner as well. There is no one right answer to this difficult situation.

I'm betting Maverick, who was nowhere to be found once you were down off the mountain either realized the error of his ways in the way he conducted himself and in his choice of a descent route. Either way, I'm betting he won't be around any time soon and he'll do his best to avoid you, because he knows in all of this murkiness of what may be right or wrong, he was definitely wrong. He probably fears a slug in the mouth, but perhaps worse, and justifiably so (for him), you know from this experience that he is not welcome on any further outings you would host. At least you have the benefit of experience learned from this outing that Maverick is not one to be trusted in ANY circumstance in the mountains. If he shows up, I'd tell him to get lost (and he probably will eventually). He's the type you read about in SAR reports.

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 24, 2008 7:23 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Well written-tough subject

Thank you Aaron for your insightful comments, I am appreciative to hear from such an accomplished leader as yourself that my experience was a rare occurrence, this was an instance my experience had not prepared me for. I do however find myself in the unenviable position of defending Maverick; He did wait at the trail-head to make certain that everyone got off the mountain, at which time he did apologize to Vernon for his actions. By the time I had reached the trail head my thinking had begun to shift toward my culpability in the events that had occurred, so he has nothing to fear from me. He is actually a very personable guy, and I wish him safe travels. I hope that he has learned from this experience also.

Vic Hanson

Vic Hanson - Aug 24, 2008 7:32 pm - Voted 10/10


As has been said, lots of good advice and good to learn the lessons possible to prevent a repeat happening.

It reminds me of a group of friends I invited to climb a local ridge here in Peru a number of years ago. There was section where we had to climb up a steep slope, fairly exposed with no good holds, mostly dirt, some weeds and a few loose rocks. It wasn't too bad going up but one influential member of the group didn't want to return the same way, but rather down a steep gully with sand and loose rocks, but no exposure. It was a long, slow, treacherous descent with just a rope to help protect on a couple of the worst spots. And then we finally split up and went our own preferred ways as we got near the bottom and encountered 20 foot cliffs. We all made it safely down but not an experience I want to repeat.


T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 24, 2008 7:58 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Tim

Thank you for the nice comments Vic, just as in your experience, it is the final funnel at the end [that can never be seen] that has always kept me from descending any couloir that I have not climbed.
I am glad that you all had a reasonable conclusion, as did we.


MoapaPk - Aug 24, 2008 9:56 pm - Voted 10/10

sort of familiar

I haven't had anything this severe, but I sure have had people take off suddenly, then I've spent hours back-tracking to a ridge, or just screaming into the dark. It happens, especially when you are tired and the bells don't ring soon enough.

There are a lot of weird people out there, who always feel that they should be in control; sometimes they are pied pipers, very charming and effusing confidence. It's a tough situation; it can take the skills of a hostage negotiator.

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 24, 2008 10:39 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: sort of familiar

Thanks MoapaPk for the nice comments. Now that would be some interesting training, a couloir clinic in hostage negotiation.
I can hear the echo in the cirque now "send up the civilians, and we will go easy on ya" Ha!


dscharfman - Aug 24, 2008 11:49 pm - Voted 9/10

How to avoid the prob

I agree with everyone who's saying you're being too harsh on yourself.

But what you could have done differently? The trick would be to establish some group rules early on: how and when can a group member suggest a different route? what's the latest turnaround time? if you're separated from the group, what's protocol? That sort of thing. It's especially important in a large group, essential on a long expedition, and very easy to forget on a day hike in summer.

Perhaps a skittish and inexperienced hiker like Maverick would have bolted anyway, but it's also possible that if you'd established clear rules about how the group would negotiate an alternate route at the start, you could have yelled down that the whole group needed to talk before Maverick explored that route any farther.

Still, one of the tests of leadership is whether once you're thrown into an unexpected, dangerous situation you can retain enough control to keep the group acting safely and deliberately. You did: no one cleaved off into additional routes when the couloir got tough, for example. You pass my leadership test!

And by the way, aren't those mountains just astoundingly beautiful?

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 25, 2008 12:08 am - Hasn't voted

Re: How to avoid the prob

Thanks for the kind and considered comments dscharfman. I agree that some of the errors made that day were fundamental, and that they were made in an astoundingly beautiful setting!

Sarah Simon

Sarah Simon - Aug 25, 2008 4:03 pm - Voted 10/10

Only the insecure have problems with authority

My experience is that only those lacking confidence have issues with authority. Confident, secure people are happy to quietly follow a competant leader. Mature, sensible people know when it's time to lead...and when it's the right thing to just shut up and be a team player. This story also illustrates how difficult group dynamics are for anyone to manage. Kudos for sharing.

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 26, 2008 2:12 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Only the insecure have problems with authority

Thank you sincerely for your kind and insightful comments sarah.simon. We knew that 12 people was an awful lot to try to get up this route, but there was such a terrific response of climbers who wanted to get on this peak that made it seem worth a try.


Michael Hoyt

Michael Hoyt - Aug 25, 2008 4:50 pm - Voted 10/10

You Acted Appropriately

In my opinion you acted appropriately, given the circumstances and your past experience. Having never previously experienced a "mutiny", you had no way of recognizing the pre-event symptoms which in retrospect now seem obvious to you. And, when the unfortunate event did occur, you kept the group together and followed what I believe to be the most important rule for group outings, "Every person is not only responsible for him or herself, but for every other person in the group."

Maverick was obviously at fault for instigating the uprising, but equally responsible (and maybe more so) were those who felt it okay to follow his lead. I’m guessing that Maverick and his little group of mutineers were each thinking only of themselves and disregarding the fact they were also part of a group – Maverick, because of his "fear" or lack of skill at down-climbing the short Class 5.2 section, and the others because they wanted a "faster" way down.

No, Tim, I believe I know you well enough to imagine that even as your anger grew, somewhere in your mind percolated the thought, "I’ve got to keep this group together and even though he’s an idiot, do what I can to make sure Maverick doesn’t kill himself or worse, someone else." Casting aside thoughts of "self" you recognized your responsibility for "others", and against your better judgment plunged into the gully to use your considerable mountaineering skills to resurrect what you could from the situation.

I’m equally convinced that it was your good example which prompted others in the group to come to their senses and realize they should help the less experienced members during the tricky down-climbing through the unknown gully.

Not every alpha male has the need to "bite". A few are able to lead without outward displays of ego or pride and outperform the "testosterone poisoned" among us, and you, Tim, are one of those. Your style of leadership may not include biting, but I believe only those with an IQ below room temperature would not be able to recognize your mountaineering abilities.

Once again my hat is off to you, possible the only person I know who could have rescued such a bad situation and managed to lead every member of the group (idiots included) back safely. As I’ve told you before, you are the one person I trust above all others in the mountains, myself included.

T Sharp

T Sharp - Aug 26, 2008 2:22 am - Hasn't voted

Re: You Acted Appropriately

Thank you very kindly for the rousing vote of confidence in my abilities Mike! As I am sure you know you are one of the trusted partners that I hope to continue to climb with well into the future. As my narrative states though, I am human and capable of mistakes. Please rest assured that I will learn from this experience, and be a better partner on our next outing.

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