The safety, success, and fun of a climb depend in large part on leadership and organization. These formal concepts may sound a bit stuffy for the out-of-doors, but they exist in any successful climbing party. A small group of longtime climbing companions probably incorporates all the elements of leadership and organization with no conscious thought or effort because they have become habit over the years. It's a different matter with a party that includes beginners and whose members have never climbed together.
Leadership starts with each individual. Individual leadership means being aware of the group and its progress, whether or not you are the formal climb leader. Assume responsibility for your own knowledge and skill, and make personal judgments based on how they can support the group's objective. Be willing to speak up when you feel the risks of the climb may exceed the abilities of the party. Don't be deterred by fears that others know more than you and may consider you weak. By asserting personal leadership, you can contribute to group decision-making within the framework of the established organization.
The complexities of leadership grow as party size and trip length increase. On a weekend climb by two close friends, it's possible for one of them to take on all the organization and leadership chores: planning the menu, selecting the route, supplying the gear, and so forth. In a group of several friends, leadership may be by consensus. As the trip becomes more complex, one person may be designated the formal leader, charged with coordinating the group's activities.
The leader of a climb cannot do everything, nor is that desirable. A leader delegates duties and responsibilities in order to maintain an overview of the trip and ensure that all tasks are carried out. This also helps build morale as party members become more involved in the climb by taking on specific jobs such as planning meals, arranging transportation, or coordinating equipment. In a group that is large or in which the members are not well acquainted, the leader should appoint an assistant who can assume the role of leader if that becomes necessary.
A leader is also a teacher. Beginning mountaineers need help with climbing techniques, and experienced mountaineers may appreciate help in learning leadership. The best leaders exhibit the patience, empathy, and generosity that it takes to give members of their party experience in all phases of leadership.
Leaders prepare carefully to meet any major disaster that could befall their party. But the most common, and the most vexing, problems of leadership are the less dramatic, exasperating little mishaps that arise at the most inopportune moments—a lagging, footsore climber who is breaking in new boots, or another too ill or fatigued to continue the climb. There is no set answer for these trying situations. The leader is called on to use good judgment in evaluating the predicament, and then make a decision firmly and unequivocally. An effective leader recognizes the potential for serious consequences in such seemingly trivial problems.
Mountaineering trips bring a rich spectrum of choices and make continual demands on a climber's will. Without leadership, even a strong party may wander aimlessly or sit paralyzed with indecision. But with good leadership, even a relatively weak party may achieve its goals.
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