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Can good judgment lead to a misadventure?

This is an excerpt from Risk Management in Outdoor and Adventure Programs by Aram Attarian.

Poor Route Finding

Eight teenagers and two instructors from the Rocky Mountain Summits (RMS) program left July 14 for a 10-day backpacking and climbing trip. One week into the program, the hikers approached their destination, Tall Peak, and set up camp nearby. Doug (head instructor) and Janie (assistant instructor) had never been to the area before. The following morning, Doug decided to leave camp early to recon a major crossing of the river that the group would encounter later in the day. The river was running above normal as a result of heavy snowmelt, and this had Doug concerned. He and Janie decided that they would meet at the Pinnacle, a local landmark a few miles north of their current location, do the river crossing, set up their base camp, and spend a couple of days rock climbing on Manzanita Peak.

Doug left with some food, water, and the group's only cell phone in his pack. He made good time on his hike to the river and was able to find a good place to cross. Later that afternoon, Doug arrived at the Pinnacle to meet Janie and the students. As dusk approached, Doug became worried because the group hadn't shown up. He decided that if the group didn't show up by the next morning, he would search for them. When they still hadn't arrived in the morning, he searched for most of the day. Frustrated and scared, Doug finally contacted his program director (PD) at RMS. The PD told Doug to stay put and that he would send additional RMS staff to help him search.

Later that morning, RMS staff arrived and continued searching for the missing group with no luck. Later the next day, RMS decided to contact the sheriff's department. The local TV station also arrived on the scene. At this point, the RMS director decided that it would be in their best interest to contact the students' parents to apprise them of the situation.

The sheriff's department and local search and rescue teams began searching a 75-square-mile (194 sq km) area with no luck. The RMS group had been missing for three full days when the sheriff's department received a call that the group had been found walking along a state highway. Evidently, the group had become confused on their way to the Pinnacle and found themselves on a different trail. Realizing they were disoriented, Janie decided to keep the group moving, hoping to find Doug or a way out of the backcountry.


1. Good judgment and decision making characterize effective outdoor leaders. What issues associated with judgment and decision making led to this misadventure?

2. What are some of the potential problems or risks involved when splitting one large group into two?

3. Put yourself in Doug and Janie's shoes. What would you have done differently? Explain your answer.

4. An emergency action plan (EAP) is a set of procedures developed to guide an organization's response to an emergency situation. Based on the limited information in this scenario, how would you describe RMS's EAP (good, mediocre, poor, or nonexistent)? Explain your answer.

5. What are some things that might improve RMS's EAP?

6. What resources are required in the event of an emergency? Identify these resources using one of the areas your program uses on a regular basis to conduct programs.

7. What scenarios might activate your program's emergency action plan?

8. When should the families of program participants be notified? When should the local sheriff, local law enforcement personnel, or search and rescue personnel be notified?

Learn more about Risk Management in Outdoor and Adventure Programs.

More Excerpts From Risk Management in Outdoor and Adventure Programs