The Guide's Manual Pt. 2 - Let us talk about Improvisation
Updated: Jan 12
In the last part of the “Guide’s Manual” I tried to teach you a technique to develop better and plan your tours. But everyone that has ever guided any excursion, be it a multi-day canoe tour or just a two-hour panoramic bus drive, will tell you that preparation only can get you this far. Something unexpected happens almost every time, all plans fail, and you are only left with one thing to do: Improvise.
It is my honest opinion that improvisation is one of the skills that genuinely every guide should master. However, it is a dangerous one to possess. As mastery grows with experience, you could come to rely on your improvisational talent to much, and I am definitely guilty of this. At one point in my life, I had realised that I could solve almost any situation on the spot. This led me to actually neglect planning especially for my own exploits and, for example, got me into numerous sticky situations during my Solo-Tours of the Pite Älv. I even began to employ the “Fuck it, we will do it live” mentality to problems in other contexts, where it definitely did more harm than good. Improvisation is also a worse risk reduction tool than a good plan. And for any guide risk avoidance should always be their number one priority. This is why risk reduction will be the next topic we will talk about in this series. But now with the words of warning taken care of, let us talk about improvisation because sometimes it will be unavoidable. Here are my recommended steps.
And because things can get bland without examples, I have decided to talk a little bit about the Mountain-Bike tour I took with my buddy Clemens last week. You can read about the first half here, but I now want to focus on the second half, around the Heimgarten Mountain, where more than a few things went wrong.
1.: Have a Good Plan
It seems counterintuitive, but the first step to a good and useful improvisation on your tour is having a good plan. This is since during preparation for an excursion, you should have already thought about solutions to some likely problems. This includes topics like:
Cutting the trip short, due to weather or guests endurance
Potential deviations you will have to take from the planned track.
Alternatives to rest stops if your planned stops do not work out.
A plan for contacting rescue services if necessary
In the case of our tour, the problem was our my own endurance. After a long and hard day, I definitely did not feel the last descent, over a steep and technical trail. So we stopped short just a few hundred meters of the trailhead and instead decided to ride down on a forest road, leading to some much easier trails. (That had their own problems). I already was aware of this way to descend because I had looked at multiple possible routes during preparation, so when we decided to cut our tour short, it took me only a few seconds to identify the correct way on my GPS. In case you ever had to develop an entirely new route with a handheld GPS, you might know that it can be quite tiresome. So, in this case, good preparation allowed us to come up with an alternative solution quickly. Especially on guided tours, there is often a set time limit for the trip so the quicker you arrive at your alternative, the better.
2.: Keep you Goal in Mind
There are many scenarios the could lead you to deviate from your pre-formulated plan. Simple reasons, like taking a wrong turn, or previously accessible paths being blocked by outside influences. Construction work would be a straightforward example of this one. You could also have another reason to deviate from your pre-formulated plan. For example, you could have met a local that told you about something interesting happening just of your usual route. A mountain meadow full of blooming flowers might be such a reason. And because you do not want to miss your guests to miss out on a rare sight, you decide to take the small detour necessary.
Now in all cases, your goal is actually similar: Return to your pre-planned tour as quickly and safely as possible. Just by their nature, these deviations have a higher likelihood of incidents, simply because you might not travel those paths as frequently and might not have spent much time, if any at all, on them during preparation. As it is your goal, to keep the likelihood of incidents as low as possible, you should try to return to the familiar areas. The possibility of accidents is not as likely, simply because you are more familiar.
To give you an example from our tour: After about 500 meters of ascent on the second leg, we noticed that Komoot had led us into a cull-de-sack. There should have been a small steep path up the mountains, there actually was a little open gravel pit, with parts of the hill being minded away to surface the same roads we had been climbing so far. The way was lost to the mining operation, and we were equally at a loss. At first, we could only think of one solution: Descent the same roads that we had climbed and call it a day, as it was already late in the afternoon. We would not have enough time to try another forest road to regain the elevation and top it off with the other 500 meters towards our goal we had been missing at this point. But after a time we came to another solution. We would climb through the mountain forest to reconnect to the way, somewhere over the mining operation. We had our GPS with the map, so we knew the location we needed to get to, and from our point, it was a straight line distance of only 200 meters to where we expected the way to be. So we had the shortest route to reconnect to our planned tour. But not the safest. After all, climbing up the walls of a gravel pit is not secure. So we looked around and found a game path up through the forest. We climbed 1.5 kilometres and 250 meters up along the steeply banked forest, on barely visible tracks and ended up actually too high. So as we wanted to reconnect with our path, we even found ourselves on a ledge overlooking the way. So we had to continue for another kilometre on this ledge, parallel to the track before their relative elevation equalised and we could join back onto our planned route. So while the situation was certainly not without potential pitfalls in the most literal sense (as you can see on the pictures), it was still the least dangerous, shortest connection back to our track. And I would have actually felt comfortable to do this section as part of a Hiking Tour with experienced guests, so it was well within my limits.
This situation came to be because a planning mistake: Usually, I inspect Komoot build routes with Google Earth to see if they are feasible, I did not perform this task for this specific tour. And I somewhat regretted it, while I pushed my bike up a tiny path with an average gradient of 17%. So if you want to take anything away from this: Plan better, because no improvisation can be as good as a well thought out plan.
3: Be ready to change your solution
Situations that lead to your improvisational needs can be very fluid. At any time, you could gain more information about your challenges, or your set of problems change entirely. Due to this, you should never be married to your solution.
Let me give an example: During our descent towards the car, we found one more trail, we were willing to try. I was all well and good until about two thirds down we came to an area where, probably, a storm had previously nocked down a lot of trees over the trail. It looked like a giant Mikado that we somehow had to cross. After climbing over the first few, we actually noticed a much easier way, that would only involve a few trees to climb over. So at this point, we actually backed out and reconnected to the alternative option, which involved climbing over far fewer trunks than our original route.
Now the problem with changing plans in the environment of a guided tour is, that doing so frequently can actually cause your guests to lose trust in your abilities, which is why you should always explain your steps the reasoning behind them to your group. And this leads us to our last point.
4: Be honest and open about the fact you are improvising
In crew resource management classes, you get told that you should always explain every step to the people accompanying you during unusual events. This gives others the chance to evaluate your thought process for logical flaws and develop even better solutions in conjunction. Now CRM procedures are often built upon the assumption that everyone providing his opinion is on roughly equal footing in terms of knowledge and experience. This is usually not the case in guided tours. However, I will try and explain why you still could profit from explaining your improvised plan to your guests, even if, at first glance, it might feel strange to admit the improvisation thing to paying guests. After all, are they not paying you because they want everything to go. You acknowledge that something went so wrong, that you do not have a pre-determined plan to deal with it, which might lead to the guests no longer taking you seriously?
Well, for this we have to look at the dangerous situations people usually get themselves into. One of the more frequent causes of accidents is that inexperienced people get into a low-level perilous situation and do not realise it. They do not take appropriate measures to mitigate the threat and finally have these situations escalate to worse ones. So one of the abilities that can set the guide apart from his guests is that he should realise dangerous situations much earlier. A prime example of this would be, of course, weather changes in the mountains. And every reasonable person should understand why you would cut a hike short of its summit when you expect a major thunderstorm to form around that summit on a sunny day and suddenly have to improvise and find an alternative descent back before the weather worsens. Vocalising this correct reasoning will actually make you look way better, then just stopping short of a summit and then descending without giving the proper explanation.
This is one reason, but another one is equally important the risk avoidance. Here we talk about the comfort level of your guests. Here I would like to talk about myself for one moment. I fuck up the lines in two kinds of situations: First, if there is a really easy looking rapid, that I way underestimate and therefore do not go into serious enough. The second situation arising if the rapid is complicated, right at the limit of what I trust myself to do, and I get nervous. Often I get so worried that I end up doing foolish things (Like going down the core rapid of the Lofer Gorge backwards). Well, against the first scenario, the mere presence of a guide is already protection. An experienced guide should always give a realistic guess to some sections' difficulty and danger. But the second scenario can even happen with a professional guide. So, as a thought experiment, let us get back to our mountaineers and their thunderstorm. I just happened to be that the storm is now forming much quicker than expected by everyone, so the guide realises that there now needs to be an immediate solution. He can offer two different ideas to the group: There is a way where the group could descent very fast down into the valley, but at one point they would need to cross a ladder bridge over deep craves. The second option is a Mountain Hut close by, where they could ride out the storm. In the absolute worst-case scenario even be picked up by a car via the access road should a descent not be possible before the guests need to be back at their hotels in the evening. Upon presenting this idea, one of the guests actually steps forward and explains that he chose this tour because it was advertised as an easy and mellow tour, and he is a little bit afraid of heights. And just like that, the guide has only really one choice left. Of course, there are psychological tricks to use and get guests over features or challenges they really do not want to do. They can and should be used sometimes, but whether a time-critical situation like running away from a storm is the right situation for them is at least questionable. And even worse, you as a guide could actually be liable for potential damages if an injury occurs in circumstances a guest only entered because of your recommendation.
So now we have two reasons why you should be honest if you have to improvise. On last and I’ll leave you be: If you follow my recommendation and continually brief your tour you need to come clean anyway because your briefing can not be as good as for situations you are familiar with. You will have to have to give a more generalised briefing on upcoming dangers as well. Everybody should notice this difference to your usual style of briefing. And since continually briefing your tour is the single best thing you can do to improve your overall tour performance I would always recommend to be honest in this regard.
With this, I will leave you be for now. I hope I could give you some input and please remember. The reason why I love guiding so much is that it is after all, really individualistic. Tips that work for one guide might not work for another, and while I encourage you to think about my ideas to simply broaden your horizon and end up a better guide for it, you should not take them for your singular gospel. Instead, build your own theories upon them. And always stay safe out there. Anyways I hope you enjoyed this blog and return next week when we will publish another project.