How to Lead a Summit Hike

Keep a group of peakbaggers safe with these field-proven tips.
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Keep a group of peakbaggers safe with these field-proven tips.

Early fall–after thunderstorm season and before the first snow–is the perfect time to climb a mountain with a bunch of buddies. But even with good weather, alpine terrain can be dangerous; and the larger your group, the higher the chance for accidents, lost hikers, and time-wasting confusion. Leading an informal group on a summit attempt–even on a walk-up peak–demands expertise and thorough preparation. Follow these guidelines the next time you take charge.

On the Ground

Ask a key question: Should you guide the hike? Think twice about leading a route you haven't done previously, and avoid peaks that require ropes, belays, and self-arrest skills. "You need to be totally comfortable with anything you'll encounter," says veteran guide Colby Coombs, cofounder of the Alaska Mountaineering School. "You also need to have reserve strength, so that in an emergency, you can concentrate on details and help exhausted members."

Limit your party to eight or fewer, and even then recruit help. "Appoint qualified assistants for every three people in your group," advises Dan Oberlatz, founder of Alaska Alpine Adventures.

Match your group to the adventure. Either choose a summit first and invite friends with the necessary skills and fitness, or pick a route you know everyone can handle.

Gather beta from guidebooks, topo maps, and trip reports on sites like summitpost.org, peakbagger.com, 14ers.com, and, of course, backpacker.com. Check current snow levels and trail conditions with rangers or local guides just before you leave.

Distribute equipment lists well in advance and require helmets on steep peaks (large groups generate their own rockfall). At the trailhead, ensure that everyone has high-energy snacks, plenty of water, proper footwear, and extra insulating layers.

Control summit fever before it starts. Make sure everyone understands that you won't top out if conditions are unsafe. Plan a firm group turnaround time, and have a backup destination, such as a lake or a waterfall, ready in case weather forces you to bail.

On the Peak

Never leave injured, exhausted, or altitude-sick partners behind. At the very least, send an assistant down with them. Don't let faster hikers take off, especially going down; attitudes tend to get casual, and hikers often get lost when they descend the wrong ridge or gully.

Carry a light rope (and know how to use it) on any steep peak, even if the route is only class II. Easy slopes get rain-slick, and people can freak out over exposure or wander off-route onto dangerous terrain.

Don't be afraid to bark orders if hazards like lightning or steep terrain threaten. Groups can freeze up in iffy situations, and that's when you need to take charge.