Mt. St. Helens Backpack Challenge: Keep from leading a Kindergarten Field Trip

It's always a leadership challenge to give the right limitations and directives without the trip becoming too restrictive; akin to being on a kindergarten field trip.
David Shema David Shema
July 28, 2014

Backpacking
June 27
Loowit Trail, Mt St Helens, South Fork Toutle River Crossing

Injuries: None
Cause of Accident/Incident: Navigation challenge & Party Split

[Note]: The 28.6 mile Loowit trail circumnavigates Mt St Helens, "revealing the volcano and the blast zone in all its raw glory. Since conditions change ... it is impossible to predict when/if the circumnavigation is doable at any given time." - Washington Trails Association.  "

[Leader]:
This isn't an "accident" but I do feel like I should mention an incident that occurred. After we crossed the South Fork Toutle River, the trail seemed to veer downstream and we thought we spotted a cairn in that direction. This kept us from seeing that the route up the other side was upstream of us.

I and two other persons went a ways downstream to scout out possible routes up, and in retrospect we should have done so without our packs on - at that point we felt we would quickly find a route up. A ways along, I paused and managed to stop one of them, but the other kept going; the river noise precluded calling for a halt. I asked the stopped person to wait and hand signal if a good route was found, else come back. 

I went back to the main group to ensure that they stayed together, expecting (hoping) the stray scout would return.  Just after I got back, another individual took it upon themselves to go check on the situation. Talked with the one I had left in place, and then they BOTH moved further away.

I felt the best option at that point was to wait, in hopes that sanity would return and our wayward folks would come back to us. Finally the last to leave did return, reported that the others had found a way up. In the interim, a couple from the main body - with much more clear instructions and no packs on - scouted upstream and quickly found the route up. The individual that had reported from our wayward scouts volunteered to go bring them back. I sent the four others with me up the actual route with instructions to make it easy to find them, and to scout without packs in that vicinity for a campsite (which they did, and all worked out fine there).

Next, our self-appointed runner returned saying that the other two had declined to return in the way requested, but instead were going overland on top to meet up with us. I had passed the message along that I didn't want them to do that, because given the challenges of the overall terrain, I didn't know if there might be any hidden obstacles/gullies/whatever or if they could safely follow the cliff edge to reliably find us.

They did reconnect with us without problem, but this was obviously a fiasco, one which easily could have devolved into something worse than simply lost time.

It's always a leadership challenge to give the right limitations and directives without the trip becoming too restrictive; akin to being on a kindergarten field trip.   


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