My days out in the mountains seem to follow a familiar theme; things rarely go to plan. The weather changes, someone forgets something, lifts are shut, buses aren’t running, the refuge has closed for the season, clients move faster or slower than predicted. I move faster or slower than predicted. As you start out in the mountains this can be unsettling, but as experience is gained confidence in a flexible approach grows.
When I started ski teaching I used to lie awake at night trying to form a plan. Sometimes this was a plan for teaching people that I hadn’t met before. It seems daft looking back. Now I go to bed with a head filled with ideas for the next day, knowing that the plan with evolve depending on what the next day brings.
When meeting clients the first question they often ask is “What’s the plan”. Sometimes they’ll look doubtful when I say “I don’t know, it depends”. Often the clients work in an industry where their routine follows a set plan and their day rarely deviates from that. They struggle with the concept that there isn’t a definitive plan. It takes a bit to convince them.
I was working on a Haute Route trip this summer and it was a good example of plans not going to plan. I met the clients on the Sunday evening and they wanted to know what the plan was regarding the snow. It was the first week in September and there had been a snowfall to 2500m. We were due to pass cols at 2900m. I explained, “We’ll set off as planned and make decisions about the condition of the route as we go”. Again, they took some convincing. They wanted to know where we would be staying on the 2nd night. “It depends. If we can cross the col we’ll be at the hut as detailed on your itinerary, if we can’t we’ll be somewhere else.” It would be easy to change the plan at that point and get public transport round to avoid the snowy pass.
That evening I thought many of the clients would have preferred to hear that. Then they would have a definite plan, something they could relate to. But I know by doing so they will be missing out, missing out on the potential of completing their itinerary but also on an experience. This also had to be balanced against the clients who couldn’t understand why the col would be so difficult to pass when it’s green and sunny down here. They needed to be shown to understand why the itinerary might need altering.
Our route for the Monday was not affected by the snow as it was below 2500m. When we started walking I was hopeful that with sunny weather the snow would melt enough so that we could cross the high col on Tuesday. On Monday evening in the hut the clients were still asking “What’s the plan?” “Will we be able to get over the col?” They are now becoming familiar with the answer, “it depends”. The weather was good on Tuesday morning so we set off towards to Col de Termin. It quickly became apparent that the snow had melted on Monday, but what was left had then refrozen on Monday evening making the ground impassable in summer walking gear. I told the clients we’d be turning round, returning to Verbier and taking public transport round to Arolla.
The clients were pleased. We had gone as far as we could safely; they had enjoyed some beautiful views in snowy conditions and now understanding the condition of the trail they were very happy to return. They were beginning to understand it was flexibility combined with knowledge and judgement that had allowed them to have that experience. If we had changed the plan before we set off they would have not enjoyed the same views and experienced that part of the route. If we had continued the safety of the trip would have been compromised.
Coping with change is never easy but its part of being in the mountains. Learning to accept it is important. More often than not the plan will change. Without this experiences could be lost or safety compromised. When working and playing in the mountains I set off with ideas, experience and judgement; I’ll be able to tell you the plan once it’s happened...
Alison operates Off Piste Performance, based in the Chamonix Valley, where she has been teaching and skiing for over 7 years. She delivers Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to the British Mountain Guides and works as a trainer on the BASI Mountain Safety Courses tutoring aspiring instructors. Thanks to Alison for the words and images.