What makes a good backcountry group?

Why decisions in backcountry must be made by consensus

Moving through the mountains in the winter is rewarding. We can enjoy solitude, beauty, challenge, and the ability to create our own adventures. But it is also a place where a mistake can have severe consequences. Because of this, decisions made in the backcountry must be made by consensus within your group.

The importance of having a highly performing group is paramount to safety in the backcountry. Tracking and understanding the complexity of the mountains and the ever-changing conditions cannot be left to one person. Rather, everyone within the group has the ability to help with the decision making process regardless of educational background, skill-set, or abilities. Participating in this process is part of our social contract when engaging with the complexity of the backcountry. Creating a social contract to agree to travel together and decide together is a way to ensure the group safely and effectively makes decisions in the field.

Achieving consensus

So if consensus is what keeps us safe, how can we achieve it with our friends in a way that gets everyone to buy in? Planning is an essential part of the process. Creating a shared vision prior to going out builds camaraderie, allows the group to remove blinders and assess all the variables. Soliciting everyone’s thoughts and seeking out the group’s blind spots helps create a norm that carries into the trip itself. Consensus comes from rapport and comfort in voicing your opinion.

Creating a group dynamic that allows for communal decision making is key. One way to do this is to assign roles at the beginning of the day. A “devil's advocate” ensures someone will be critically thinking about the inverse of a group decision. A leader can facilitate conversation and help to reduce side conversations and opinion overload. By creating a safe space to hold these conversations, the group will be more empowered and able to speak to intuition and analysis.

The AIARE “Rules of Engagement”

There are four keys to fostering consensus and stewarding a high function team. We call these the AIARE Rules of Engagement or TEAMWORK. TEAMWORK was developed specifically as a tool for backcountry user groups to ensure consensus. These rules of engagement form the social contract every member of a group must agree to abide by every time they go out.

Photo by Jonathan Bell on Unsplash

Travel Together and Decide Together

Actively engaging with the group decision-making process is a key component of the TEAMWORK philosophy. Think of participation as part of your situational awareness during the day. We are constantly making intuitive (or subconscious) decisions that help us move through the day. Group chatter and camaraderie are analogous to whispering, decision points and checklists to talking, and critical observations to yelling.

Part of participating is knowing when to turn your situational awareness dial up in order to speak out to the group to inform them of something. This is, to know when to analyze something of concern. After all, we wouldn’t make it very far from the trailhead if we stopped to analyze every small detail!

This sliding scale of participation never subsides. It can be as subtle as listening or inquiring about an observation. Or it can be louder by advocating for the group’s attention. Again, this all depends on the risk and uncertainty that a group is assuming.

The human factor to watch for here is social pressure. The drive to be or remain part of a group is subconscious yet powerful. We are social beings by nature, and thus it is important to create a group that is based off of unconditional acceptance, not popularity or your social media following.

The underlying factor here is PARTICIPATION. An efficient team is able to listen to one another and adjust their plans accordingly.

Listen to Every Voice

This cultural component usually manifests in a “top down” hierarchy. The leader(s) of a group need to be willing to delegate tasks and remind group members that they are equal within the importance of making decisions. If a leader is able to communicate clearly and openly, then it is likely that group members with less experience or an introverted personality would become more willing to offer their opinion and perspective.

Expose “group think”. By definition, this human factor discourages creativity or individuality. Thus, thinking as a collective consciousness is much less productive and informative than individual ideas and opinions that lead to a decision. Rather, formulating a team that is capable of sharing information, ideas and observations based upon individual experience, skills and abilities is far more reliable than everyone deferring to the majority without individualized critical analysis.

Challenge Assumptions

Assumptions are generally based upon life experience. We all have different risk tolerances, understandings, educational backgrounds, personal desires, and reasons for wanting to explore the outside world. It is important that we never assume, rather we communicate and challenge the borders that we have created for ourselves (or the lack of borders). Everyone has the right to challenge assumptions, though this is best done in an objective fashion. It is easy to create friction within a group if the challenge comes from ego or anger. Remember, a fluid group is able to listen, observe, reflect and change.

Refrain from deferring to the expert. The human factor to watch for here is the expert halo. This idea is based in the following practice: less experienced group members tend to believe that the expert within the group has all of the answers and skills so their decision-making ability, opinion and observations are rendered useless. In contrast, a true expert knows that they do not have all of the answers and are willing to reach out to others for help. They know that nothing is certain, and they must create safety margins to account for this uncertainty and to challenge general group assumptions.

Respect any Veto

A veto is often the hardest opinion to voice. It generally goes against the desires of the team. It is the lump in your throat that you hold onto silently upon the skintrack. The intuitive mind is incredibly powerful, and it is important to find the courage to speak up for the safety of the group. Oftentimes, you'll find that it is actually the silent voice that represents what everyone within the group is thinking about!

Active and open listening and communication will help to create a culture within a group that allows for a veto process. It is important that a group creates this culture in order to avoid the human factor of low-self confidence. When a group member is not confident in their opinion then they are far less likely to share it with the group, especially if that opinion would lead to avoiding the most desirable terrain.

It is important to know that a veto could come from something as simple as intuition (or gut feeling) or from a critical observation noted in the field (ie a collapse, recent avalanche, or active loading). Ignoring evidence or using bits of supporting evidence to craft a decision can lead to disaster. A veto is a part of the social contract that creates an open platform to talk about the variables that suddenly appear.

It is important for a group to know that a veto doesn’t mean persuading the member(s) who don’t want to go. It means a change in plans or a redirection for the safety of the group.

Examples of group culture that would help to support a veto

  • Creating a social contract the night before with explicit protocol and guidelines

  • Creating terrain options related to group fitness, abilities and skills.

  • Closing down terrain that would be tempting, but unsafe in certain conditions. Do this prior to entering the field via a terrain atlas.

  • Established check in and decision points throughout the day

Teamwork as a Process

A process is a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. In this case, we are trying to attain a safe and rewarding backcountry travelling experience

Teamwork needs to be fluid. It needs to survive the variables of wicked learning environments that don't readily provide feedback. Teamwork needs to hold strong against changing conditions, the complexity of mountain weather, added or subtracted members, differing philosophies, and new terrain.

Teamwork cannot be attained in a day. Every successful team has its own “rules of engagement”. It takes time to explore, establish and become empowered. This happens over many seasons. Expect to leave this course with the tools to create a highly functioning team, but know that it will take time to implement in practice.