'We are one': Examining group dynamics in the wild 

Mountaineers discuss importance of human relationships at museum talk

click to enlarge PHOTO BY VINCE SHULEY / COURTESY OF HOLLY WALKER - GROUPTHINK Holly Walker, right, realized the importance of group dynamics in the backcountry while on a gruelling, month-long expedition of the Pamir Mountains.
  • Photo by Vince Shuley / Courtesy of Holly Walker
  • GROUPTHINK Holly Walker, right, realized the importance of group dynamics in the backcountry while on a gruelling, month-long expedition of the Pamir Mountains.

There are so many boxes to check off the list before heading out on a mountaineering expedition of epic proportions.

Do I have the right gear? Enough food? Am I prepared for the weather? Have I charted the safest route? These are all very common questions for the average adventurer. But a far less common consideration centres around the all-important human factor.

Anyone who's embarked on a major expedition through treacherous, remote terrain will tell you that the group dynamic can make or break a trip. Mountaineers, by sheer necessity, tend to be detail-oriented people. After all, out in the wild, a minor miscue can be the difference between life and death. But overlooking the human relationships that drive these expeditions can be just as dangerous.

It was a lesson Holly Walker had to learn the hard way. Two years ago the Blackcomb patroller joined four other ski tourers on a gruelling, month-long traverse of the Pamirs, one of the world's highest mountain ranges, centralized in Tajikistan. Midway through the trip, rifts in the group were already forming, and the deteriorating dynamic meant the lines of communication were beginning to close. That's when catastrophe struck. One morning, keen to squeeze in some skiing, the group ignored the risky weather conditions and set off a major slide, burying one of the members.

"On the day of the avalanche, we didn't discuss an avalanche plan, we didn't discuss the worst-case scenario," remembered Walker. "We didn't have an exit plan. Maybe there is no exit plan, which is fine, but having that discussion I think is a huge learning point."

Walker discussed the importance of group dynamics at a talk held at the Whistler Museum on Tuesday, March 15, that also featured ski tourer and wildlife biologist Bridget McClarty.

Originally from Kitimat, McClarty shared her experience from a ski traverse three years ago that took her group along the Coast Mountains from Whistler to the Homathko Valley. The first lesson McClarty learned was "the importance of shared vision."

She admitted there were two opposing perspectives in her group. Originally the plan was to make it to Skagway, Alaska, and some of her fellow mountaineers were of the opinion that anything short of that destination would be a failure. But that kind of single-mindedness can hold you back, McClarty said.

"My experience was having such a narrow vision of success really puts the blinders on to different opportunities," she said. "It not only blinds you to challenges, like deteriorating group dynamics, but the opportunities as well, the beauty around you."

As women in the male-dominated world of mountaineering, both Walker and McClarty had to fight the impulse to prove themselves in the backcountry. They wanted to carry the heavy pack, often refused to take breaks and pushed on through worsening physical, mental and weather conditions. But, at a certain point, both realized leaning on their expedition partners wasn't a sign of weakness, but an opportunity to bring the group closer together.

"I was travelling with a man (while tracking wolves in Banff), and he said to me in exasperation: 'I know you can carry a bigger pack, I know you're a strong, outdoors woman, but here's the thing: I'm bigger than you, I'm stronger than you, and goddammit, I feel like a man carrying the heavier pack,'" she recounted. "A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, literally and figuratively. It was no longer about my fear of feeling weak, it was about his need to fulfill a role he desired, so it totally changed my perspective.

"I felt it was also very liberating because it allowed me to be myself authentically. I no longer felt like I had something to prove."

In the end, knowing your fellow mountaineers on a level that scratches beneath the surface is key to a safe and fulfilling expedition. Waiting until you're out in the remote wilderness to forge those deeper bonds is too late.

"For anyone planning an expedition with other partners, you have to be very open and clear with each other ahead of time," Walker said. "We are one. We are a team, we are not each individuals."


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