Last summer, while leading a thirty day backpacking expedition in the Yukon, a student slipped on a rock slab, dislocated her shoulder, and sprained an ankle. We needed to get the patient through five kilometers of off-trail, tricky terrain to get to a lake which we could fly her out on. Our large group of eighteen made it essential to divide up into roles to evacuate her. We had a group of route finders, people running the ongoing first aid, scribes, and others helping the patient move towards the lake where the float plane would meet us. The unfortunate incident ended up being a smooth collaborative rescue. One wonders what rescue efforts, other than an expensive and potentially hazardous helicopter ride, would be like if we had not been such a large expedition.
Before embarking on a wilderness pursuit and assessing the natural and human hazards, a closer look at the group size and group dynamic is of high importance. Depending on the objective, experience levels, and access to outside help, the most effective group size may vary.
Setting off on a solo journey has its benefits. Some might find this to be the ‘true wilderness experience’ of man vs. nature. Decision making can be quite easy as it relies on personal rationalization and gut feelings. This might also have its drawbacks. With only one mind to make decisions, there is no sounding board to verbalize thoughts and receive positive or negative feedback. In addition, the smaller the party, the fewer the resources for help and self-rescue. In many technical mountain environments, there is no choice but to rely fully on your partner (or partners) for help. Getting caught in an avalanche, falling into a crevasse, or facing an injury while climbing a rock or ice wall requires immediate assistance from resources within the group or nearby. Local search and rescue and other rescue units cannot come to your help instantaneously.
Committing routes are often a balance wanting speed and light gear while still having the necessary tools to be self-sufficient. Travelling in a pair offers that sounding board and promotes a strong trust between partners. You may have a ton of skills to offer, but if you get in trouble, does your partner have the skills and equipment to rescue you?
Adding a third person can bring on more skill, gear, strength for rescues, and strength for making decisions. A triad should be prepared to work within the dynamic to avoid a 2-on-1 pressure to make decisions. Group collaboration can be less efficient than having one or two people making the calls. A foursome is often seen as an ideal group size for backcountry rescue, seeing as though it has strength in numbers but isn’t too many chefs in the kitchen.
As group sizes get bigger, it becomes more essential for roles to be divvied out and leadership to be clear. Having a large discussion board for decision making may generate the most ideas but is obviously the most time consuming. Perhaps the member of the party with first aid skills carries the medical kits, the rope savvy member carries the rope kit, and the most experienced navigator holds the map and compass. Assuming roles before setting out can often facilitate a more organized response to stressful incidents. Every group size has its merits and drawbacks. What is important is to acknowledge before your trip whether your group (and its dynamic) will be prepared to effectively make decisions together and have enough resources and skills to self-rescue.