There’s nothing quite like the call of the wild. Untamed places beckon with a voice that reminds us of the power of our own bodies and the power of just being out there, away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Richard Riquelme, American Alpine Institute guide and avalanche instructor, knows how important the wilderness can be for many people. “There’s a physical and spiritual thing about being in the wild,” he says. “It’s a physical exercise that takes you away from work or the city. And you feel the spiritual aspect deep in your gene pool, like back in the days when we used to roam. It’s a psychological tool that helps us to cleanse and clear, and get us out of our daily stress and worries. And it’s fun, really fun!”
For many outdoor enthusiasts, the backcountry exemplifies the idea of the ‘wilderness.’ And yet, the backcountry comes with many risks, avalanches being a predominant one. The American Alpine Institute offers many levels of avalanche safety courses for skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, and snowshoers that can help them understand and mitigate risk in the backcountry.
The backcountry doesn’t care what you use to travel, whether they’re skis, climbing shoes, splitboards, snowmobiles, or snowshoes. “The main goal is to become aware of what you’re getting into,” Riquelme says. “People think that because they’re wearing snowshoes and just hiking around, they’re not in avalanche terrain. But as soon as you’re in that area that’s not controlled by snow professionals, you’re in the backcountry. Avalanche terrain is a type of terrain that enhances the consequences of an avalanche, and makes them much bigger.”
Riquelme, who has been guiding for more than 25 years, has noticed a skyrocketing in the number of people interested in backcountry activities. “I remember when we used to have five or six people in a class and were like, ‘Wow, it’s packed!’ Now my normal class is 18-24 people.”
Outdoor recreation has seen a huge increase, due in large part to advancements in technology and equipment, as well as people looking for something new to do outside. “It’s made it popular and cool to be out there,” Riquelme says.
This increase has made appropriate safety measures even more important. Alongside courses and training, backcountry travelers should always check avalanche conditions. “For us in the Cascades, you can use NWAC,” says Riquelme. “You can become informed and aware. If you read it and aren’t sure you understand, then you probably need more training!”
Communication is a key part of both the training that Riquelme recommends as well as an excellent practice for staying as safe as possible in the backcountry. “We teach how to be prepared and aware, and to understand and communicate with a team. One of the biggest things to master is communication, being able to say, ‘This is my threshold for risk tolerance.’ You need to be able to verbalize, express, and explain that.”
This season has seen a significant number of avalanche-related fatalities, more so than usual. “That’s a big red flag in our community,” Riquelme says. “A lot of speculation is that many people are not travelling because of COVID. A lot more people are staying local, and there are more people in the backcountry, with or without training. There’s less space, and people go just a little bit farther, exposing themselves to more terrain.”
This isn’t to say don’t go to the backcountry. After all, as Riquelme is quick to point out, it’s a wonderful way to connect to your physical and emotional selves, as well as just have fun. Appropriate safety courses and training can help people understand their own tolerance for risk and how to be prepared and aware.
And we’ve come a long way.
“Back in the day, we didn’t have the understanding we have now,” Riquelme says. “It was a lot of trial and error. But we have so much knowledge and technology now.”
The call of the backcountry leads people into some of the most transformative, exciting experiences of their lives. And yes, there is also risk. Taking courses, training, and practicing communication, awareness, and preparedness can go a long way in getting people ready to explore the wild.