On May 18, 2021, the Albuquerque Journal reported on the rescue of 24 hikers from El Paso, Texas. The group attempted to hike to the highest point in the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The elevation of that high point, Organ Needle, is 8990 feet (2740 meters) above sea level. The route to the high point rises 4000 feet (1220 meters) over four miles (6.4 km), an average grade of 19 percent. The route includes trails, off-trail route finding, and a short climb.
According to the Journal, the group ranged in age from teens to sixty-somethings. They started their hike at 4 A.M. on May 16. According to KVIA.com, “Some members of the hiking group were lacking in trail experience and became separated from the others during the ordeal.”
None of the hikers reached the summit. On the way back, some resorted to sliding down areas, shredding the seats of their pants. As night approached, calls to 911 began. One hiker had to be carried down by rescuers and was taken to a hospital. Lesser medical issues included twisted ankles, “butt scratches,” and dehydration. The rescue required about a dozen individuals and lasted from eight at night until four the following morning. Fortunately, no one died or was seriously hurt. Let’s draw a few lessons for large hiking groups.
1. Large hiking groups need leaders who can assess the difficulty of each hike and the group’s ability to safely complete that hike. That didn’t happen, so there was a failure of leadership before the hike even began. A wise group leader will design hikes at various levels of difficulty, so everyone who wants to join the group can participate in a safe, enjoyable way.
2. Once a group hike begins, the group must stay together. It’s the only way that the leader can maintain leadership of the entire group, including by monitoring the less experienced hikers. Once a group splits in two, it’s likely to keep splitting until you have small groups or even individuals who lack the skills to deal with the situation they're in. At that point, tragedy looms.
(In extreme cases, it may be necessary to keep most of the group in one spot while two or three experienced hikers go for help. Someone has a broken leg, for example, and there’s no way to call for help. If so, the messengers who leave the main group are now their own group, which must keep together until help is reached. These days, however, resorting to such measures is evidence of another failure of leadership. In any place where calling 911 on a cell phone is not an option, a responsible leader of a large group will carry a satellite device.)
I can’t overstress the importance of keeping the group together. If you take nothing else away from this blog, please take away that thought. It’s the cornerstone of group hike safety.
3. As part of everyone staying together, the pace of the hike is set by the slowest hiker. The alternative is to force less able hikers to keep up with more able hikers, until the less able hikers reach a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. At that point they can’t move, even to head back to the trailhead, and it’s a crisis.
(For those more able hikers out there: if you hate the concept of slowing down to benefit your fellow group members, you’re in the wrong group. Check with your group leader about setting up advanced hikes restricted to people with abilities similar to yours.)
4. As another part of everyone staying together, anyone can say that it’s time to turn around, at any time. At that point the wise leader takes the group back to the trailhead, regardless of the original goal of the hike. Otherwise, individuals are forced to continue the hike against their better judgment, which can have two consequences. First, individuals who want to turn around may be experiencing difficulties that become more serious as the group gets farther from the trailhead. Second, some members of the group, including the leader (or especially the leader) may be so focused on the day’s goal that they ignore obvious warning signs (about the weather, for example). The most “timid” member of the group may be the one whose thinking is clearest.
5. These safety rules empower the least able members of a large hiking group, lest they become the weak link that snaps. However, it’s common for struggling individuals to not admit that they’re in trouble. They don’t want do let down the rest of the group, are ashamed to show weakness, or whatever. For that reason it’s important for the group leader to pay extra attention to the least able hikers and, if necessary, make the call about slowing down or turning around the group.
All hiking groups need to have a “culture of safety,” where minor problems are eliminated before they become major ones. As part of that approach, group members must feel free to speak when a hike is exceeding their limits, knowing that the group will respond respectfully and responsibly. But safety, like so much else, starts at the top, so group leaders need to explain and then enforce the rules. Without safety-oriented leadership, a large hiking group can quickly fracture and stagger into tragedy.