Imagine this scenario:
You get home from work on Friday night and get the urge to climb a 14er. Your friends you usually go with are all busy. You take one last desperate attempt to find a hiking partner by posting on 14ers.com, and to your surprise, 6 people respond wanting to go. You pick the first person that responds, meet them at the trailhead for Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point early Saturday morning and begin your long hike up to Lake Como. After you pass Lake Como and reach treeline, you begin the steep ascent of Blanca Peak. Your hiking partner, just feet in front of you, begins to have an epileptic seizure, causing you to go into panic. How will you respond to their medical crisis on the side of a 14er? Woudn't it have been nice to have been alerted of this condition up front so that you could learn how you should respond, or decline the hike altogether?
Unfortunately, scenarios like this are all too common in the high country. In fact, the above scenario happened just last year - the person with the seizure ignored pleas of their hiking partners to head back down and continued on after their seizure, and eventually required a helicopter rescue, but not after needing her newfound hiking partners to spend the night with them through a thunderstorm at 13,000 ft. These sorts of fiascos can be avoided if everyone involved as new hiking partners did some honest questioning up-front.
I am not suggesting that people with medical conditions should be avoided like the plague, rather, that careful selection and questioning of new hiking partners will afford you the time and resources to make important (and potentially critical) decisions on who to hike with or not. I'm going to be honest, I may be overly selective of my hiking partners. I've had one too many bad experiences with strangers to know that the best thing for me to do is to ask questions. Think of it like dating. Would you marry someone before dating them? Not me. Nor should you blindly hike in strenuous situations with people you don't know (at least without some base knowledge beforehand).
Here's what I'm suggesting - and I hope you're still with me on this. Find out what kind of experience your potential partner has in the level of activity you are going to be engaging in. Doing some roped climbing? It may be comforting to learn that your partner actually knows how to belay. Climbing a long 14er? Get a feel for how many 14ers they have climbed and which ones. I'm not suggesting you be an elitist, rather, get to know the person's experience and ability beforehand so you can A) decline the invitation, or B) know that you'll need to take it slow, or step up your game (if they are a much better hiker than yourself).
Here are some questions I like to ask:
1. Do you have any medical conditions? If they do, this allows you to learn how this may impact your hike and/or your response to that condition if it should present itself during the hike.
2. What mountains have you climbed before (or hikes have you done, etc)? This allows you to gauge the person's abilities and accomplishments. Someone with far fewer accomplishments than you may turn out to be a superior hiker; however, it may be useful to learn that they are afraid of heights before you attempt to climb Little Bear Peak.
3. What kind of pace you do like to hike at? This allows you to guage how compatible you are with the other hiker. Perhaps you'll need to agree up-front on a signal to stop or that you want them to wait up for you, etc. These are important things to learn.
4. What do you do for a living? It's always nice to get to know the person you'll be spending the day with!
5. Do you have (x, y, z) peice of equipment that we'll need? This will allow you to make sure the person is prepared and if they need you to bring anything for them to borrow.
This all may sound a little silly to you, but trust me, you don't want to find yourself in the situation I described above unwillingly. Your hiking partner's life (and possibly yours) may well depend on how you select your hiking partner and what kinds of questions you ask before the hike begins.
And just to be clear, one last time: I am not suggesting you become an elitist. Just this past summer I hiked with two different people that I did not know before the hike, neither of which had hiked a 14er before. However, I had no reservations on hiking with them because I was able to learn about them and their abilities, health, etc. As it turned out, they were most excellent hiking partners that often left me in the dust!
Finally, I would also suggest that a simple round of questioning is a great way to break the ice and learn about the person. You never know, they may just turn out to be a friend for life!