Thursday, December 22, 2011

Empty The Mind

A mind that is already full cannot take in anything new.  Zen Master

Yesterday, I was out acting as an (unrecognized by the person who invited me) co-leader on a ski trip that an acquaintance of mine ran for our local mountaineering club. I was there ostensibly to help with some avalanche skills training that she intended to run at the beginning of the tour. Turns out, this training was reasonably abbreviated as there were only three of us on the trip, and the one fellow who had signed up, went on one or two guided ski weeks a year and thus practiced under the tutelage of an ACMG certified ski guide at least once a year (which is much more than the general recreational population) and, frankly, was reasonably adept.

My acquaintance, has now come to self-describe herself as a "guide", after taking some courses offered by one of the big heli-ski companies in Canada - courses that are unrecognized by the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides), the gold standard for professional guide training in Canada. Frankly, I was surprised as her mountain experience is quite limited and her trips frequently end in semi-disaster. In fact, I would say, she lacks mountain sense.

I wish I had the tact, diplomacy, or possibly even the courage, to give her feedback on her leadership performance, but I lack all three. Years of general living have led me to the conclusion that unsolicited feedback is seldom welcome and even less frequently heeded. Now, I take the easy way out and say nothing, unless an opinion is requested. Which, while it saves many friendships, does not cultivate skill development.

Had I more tact, diplomacy and courage, here is what I would love to share with her:
  • Know where you plan to ski. She and I had spoken the night before, and I had said I knew a location where we could find good snow and no ski-tracks within a reasonable distance. Well and good, but the responsibility for the trip lies with the leader and the leader should know exactly where they are going, how they are going to get there, what navigational landmarks they can use, where the decision points are, and what alternatives are available should the party be weaker/stronger than anticipated or the conditions different.
  • Communicate the plan to the group. At the beginning of the tour make sure everyone knows and agrees with the plan. During the tour, continue to update the group as the plan evolves, changes, or even stays the same.
  • Change the plan if conditions warrant. A cold morning in a dark valley is not conducive to standing around practicing with an avalanche beacon. Reschedule for later in the day in a sunny location.
  • Know where you are going. Blindly following an existing skin track won't necessarily get you where you are going. Orient yourself as frequently as required with the map, check off your navigational landmarks as you pass them. Stay found.
  • Use good group management skills. At the top of a run, point out possible hazards, set regroup points for the descent, keep an eye on the people skiing with you. Don't take off at warp speed into the trees leaving the slower, weaker skier behind. Leapfrog regroup locations setting the next as soon as you reach the previous. Set a tail gunner for both the way up and the way down. Don't let the weakest member of the party fall to the end of the group.
  • Reiterate the plan. At each transition, reorient yourself and your group and make sure people know what the next leg of the journey entails.
  • Wait for your group where ever there is a possibility of a wrong turn. The correct fork in the trail may be clear to you, but is not necessarily clear to the participants who have never been in this location before. Wait at junctions to ensure everyone in your party goes the right way.
  • Clearly communicate safe travel practices. When crossing through terrain traps, communicate and demonstrate safe travel practices.
  • Debrief. There's a lot you could learn from this experience.

Ultimately, as is clear, I said nothing, my sense, after hearing her talk about how much she knew about the mountains, about group management, about communicating, about her skill level convinced me that to speak was more likely to give offense than to provide a learning opportunity. To quote the Zen Master: a mind that is already full cannot take in anything new.

Keep the group together

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