Large groups in a canyon can present their own challenges - and opportunities.

Team Dynamics and Group Think

Safety is a constant concern in a sport such as this one. Recent events have been bringing this to mind.

While last week’s tragedy in Zion National Park doesn’t really bear very strongly on the type of canyons in this area, as far as flash flood danger goes, it is worth thinking about. We will likely never know the decision making process that this group used in electing to descend a slot canyon with a danger of flash flooding, but it may be a good opportunity to think about the perils of “group think”.

It is very likely that at least one of the seven people who perished in Keyhole Canyon had some misgivings about entering the canyon that afternoon. Surely they were aware that, in poor weather, flash flooding was a very real danger – there are signs and warnings in the visitor center, and printed on the permit, which they had acquired earlier in the day. The weather was unsettled that day, and rain was a very real possibility.

If one person had expressed misgivings about entering the slot canyon, might that have gained some traction with the group, and prevented them from dropping in? We will likely never know. Perhaps they did discuss those very qualms and, tragically, elected to disregard them. But there is also a chance that no one said anything about their concerns, because everyone else was putting on a brave, carefree front.  Therein lies the danger of “group think”.

This is a good opportunity to consider this kind of risk. Anyone participating in a potentially hazardous sport like canyoning/canyoneering needs to utilize all the clues around them. This includes getting input from everyone involved.

I work in the aviation industry, and there is a great emphasis in aircraft crews on “Crew Resource Management”. This means taking input from everyone involved into account when it comes to making decisions.  In the old days, the culture gave the pilot-in-command dictatorial powers in the cockpit in all matters of flight safety. The new paradigm encourages the first officer, and indeed the cabin crew, to offer any input they feel is pertinent, and requires the pilot-in-command to take this under advisement. While the pilot-in-command still has the power to make the final decision, there is much more emphasis on utilizing all resources available.

All of which is to say: If you feel worried about a safety decision, even with more experience people on the trip, please voice those concerns. If the flow in a canyon seems too high for your abilities, say something. If an anchor seems suspect, mention it to someone. If you think light is fading too quickly to escape the canyon before nightfall, mention something while there are still options.

Take responsibility for your own safety. Ask questions. Utilize your resources.


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