Safety Stories: Where's The Leader?

The climb leader became separated from the rest of the party. Since the trip leader knew he was the last one on the trail, he continued along the trail skirting the edge of Colchuck Lake. Upon reaching the base of the climbing route, the party was still not reuinted.
David Shema David Shema
Safety Committee Member
November 12, 2020
Safety Stories: Where's The Leader?
Dragontail Peak - photo by Curtis Stock

As Mountaineers, we are committed to learning from our experiences. We examine every incident that happens on a Mountaineers trip for opportunities to improve the ways we explore and teach. Our volunteer safety committee reviews every incident report and picks a few each month to share as examples of ‘Lessons Learned’. The trip report below describes what happened on this trip, in the leader’s own words, and outlines the lessons the leader has identified. In some cases, we offer additional key learnings from the incident.

Sharing incidents creates an opportunity to analyze specific incidents and also identify larger incident trends. We appreciate every volunteer trip leader who takes the time to share their incidents and near-misses so that others can benefit. We ask that readers engage critically and respectfully in the spirit of sharing and learning.

Dragontail Peak/Colchuck Col, Enchantments – 9 May



The trip leader became separated from the rest of the party.  The party was eventually reunited. The trip objective was aborted.

During the first part of the approach hike to Colchuck Lake, the trip leader was in the front of the party. At the junction where the Colchuck Lake trail splits from the Stuart Lake trail, the trip leader took the sweep position at the end of the party. The team guidance was to stop at Colchuck Lake to regroup, as the party might get stretched out during the hike into the lake.

During the approach, the trip leader stopped twice - once to take a picture of the objective and once to set the altimeter at the marked 5,000 ft position. The trip leader lost sight of the rest of the party and was several minutes behind the next-to-last party member.

Upon arrival at Colchuck Lake, the trip leader did not find the rest of the party. Since the trip leader knew he was the last one on the trail, he continued along the trail skirting the edge of Colchuck Lake. The climb route is at the far end of the lake so it seemed plausible that the party had continued on to the point where they would need to prepare for the next phase of the trip (crampons, ice axes, helmets, etc.).

Upon reaching the base of the climbing route the party was still not encountered. There were climbers ascending the snow slope above, heading up to Colchuck Col. It seemed very unusual that the party would not have stopped to regroup prior to heading up the snow slope.

The trip leader waited at the base of the route for about 10 minutes or so and then headed up the snow slope to a small level area. There a descending climber was met. The descending climber described two parties of three ascending toward the col. That sounded remarkably like the trip leader's party, although proceeding up the snow slope without first regrouping was distinctly uncharacteristic.

Trip leader tried calling out to the surrounding area to locate any other parties - specifically a bivy area in the adjacent boulder field, and the boot track at the edge of the lake, all with no responses. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the party had stopped adjacent to the trail, short of Colchuck Lake, to regroup. The team waited for about 10 minutes and was surprised that the last party member had not rejoined. The team waited another 30 minutes before backtracking to the last known position - the marked 5,000 ft level where the trip leader had stopped to set the altimeter. 

With no luck there, the team continued on to the Colchuck Lake campsites and waited for some additional time - about an hour. At that point, the party determined that the best course of action was to return to the trailhead and report the member as missing, while there was still an opportunity to conduct a search. The party hiked out to the trailhead. Along the way out they told other parties that they were missing a member and to be on the lookout.

The trip leader eventually determined that the climbers above were not his party. After turning back, he was able to confirm that the rest of his party was still on the trail below and actively searching for him. 

The trip leader hiked out to the trailhead (2 hours) and eventually reunited with the rest of the party. The party had sent a couple of people down the road to get a cell phone signal and activated emergency personnel (911 call). After uniting with the party, emergency personnel were re-contacted to stand down, and notifications were made to others who had been contacted about a missing party member. The trip leader personally contacted the local sheriff department to confirm arrival back at the trailhead.

Lessons Learned


Still not sure exactly how the trip leader missed rejoining the rest of the party on the approach and in fact leap-frogged their position. There was one section where there was some blowdown on the trail - perhaps a boot path was followed for a short distance that shortcut the actual trail. Alternatively, there are a couple of places where the trail comes out across rock and the trail is rather indistinct; there are several worn routes that all eventually rejoin to the main trail. At any rate, the trip leader’s conviction that the party was ahead of him, and the party’s conviction that he was behind them, delayed a reassessment that other possibilities may have occurred.

The party had a trip leader, an assistant trip leader (intermediate student), plus another intermediate student, in addition to four climbers. The assistant trip leader had completed this climb the previous year.

Because the approach was on an established trail, and there was ample, experienced leadership at the front of the party, there was probably some complacency on the need to stay within eyesight. It seemed highly unlikely that there would be any party separation concerns on such an established trail.

The assistant leader did everything right, based on the best information that she had available. She kept the party together, retraced steps to the last known position, provided reasonable time for the party to reconnect, and when that did not happen, elected to return to the trailhead to alert emergency personnel while there would still be adequate daylight to perform a search. Advertising a missing party member to other parties hiking in to Colchuck Lake was a remarkably effective way to put the word about that the party was missing a member.

Learnings from this incident:

  1. Do not get complacent on keeping the party together. Any time party members are out of sight from one another it is possible lose track of where someone is.
  2. Trust in the group norms and expected behaviors. The trip leader probably should have realized much earlier that the group would not have continued on once arriving at Colchuck Lake and reassessed what else might have occurred. Need to be definitive about stops/regroup parameters for each leg of each trip.
  3. Reconsider the use of radios for group safety. My two-way radios are beyond their useful life. Replacements would add a safety factor for any kind of trip.

Main image: Paddleboarding on Colchuck Lake. Photo by Rafael Godoi. 


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Thomas Unger
Thomas Unger says:
Nov 29, 2020 06:48 AM

Reminds me of a similar incident on approach to Mt Goodie. After a stream crossing we sat down to reset our foot wear. After a while we realized that one party member was not with us. They had crossed a little upstream, put their boots on, assumed we had continued up the trail, and took off after us. One party member had to sprint (a ways) to catch up to them. In both, some bushes screen one group from the other, someone makes a wrong, though possible, assumption, and you are off to the races.
There is a balance between giving individuals the freedom to step away from the group and the risk of a “separation”. These incidents seem unlikely, but they had significant impact on both parties.

SuJ'n Chon
SuJ'n Chon says:
Nov 29, 2020 01:19 PM

Thanks for an excellent recap and lessons learned. Disappointing for the party members I’m sure, but glad that the only casualty was an aborted trip objective.