RECONNECTING WITH NATURE AND REAFFIRMING CONFIDENCE IN THE BACKCOUNTRY
"It’s no wonder there’s a community of people who desire the backcountry experience but get overwhelmed after comparing themselves to what they see on TV or online."
Sarah Watson shares her experience taking her AIARE Level 1 course.
Follow @sarahwatson2 for more pow slayin' greatness.
I am a Director of Event Technology for Image Audiovisuals. By definition, I make my living off the modern world. My phone constantly dings and vibrates from incoming emails and calendar reminders. I study technology and how it advances, and I integrate that into my daily endeavors. Even at home, Amazon is at the top of my favorites list and I always seem to find a way to turn a “quick browse to get one thing” into “I’m remodeling my living room.” I’m on Instagram (@sarahwatson2) and I check my Facebook several times a day. But although I live in the modern world, I crave disconnection. I long to be outside, away from traffic, from email, and noise, in a place where I can find peace.
There is pleasure in the pathless woods, There is rapture in the lonely shore, There is society where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more. -- Lord Byron
In the summer months, my husband and I try to live off grid when we can, through either mountain biking, climbing, hiking, camping, or some combination of adventurous activities.
Winter expeditions became alluring as we had the desire to combine some of our favorite outdoor sports (how could we hike and snowboard at the same time?). But this was also daunting because we had no idea what Mother Nature was truly capable of. March of 2019 showed us the most active avalanche period in Colorado in over 100 years. While we wanted to start exploring deeper and higher into the mountains, we wanted to make sure we’d be able to do that for years to come. Being uneducated in the ways of the backcountry, we agreed that we wouldn’t venture there until we had the proper gear and training.
In October of 2019, we signed up for an AIARE 1 course through a local company, Colorado Adventure Guides. AIARE stands for American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education. Basically, the professors of the backcountry world. They were going to teach us what we need to know and why we need to know it before traveling into one of the most dangerous places we will probably ever go.
After signing up for the three-day course, stoke was high. From October to the end of December, I spent countless hours researching gear and doing as much online education prior to the course that I possibly could. Down the internet rabbit hole I went.
There’s no shortage of backcountry videos online. However, the majority of videos present a seemingly unobtainable picture of the backcountry. Multitudes of clips show snowboarders descending slopes of 45, 50, or 60-degree angles. Some look almost vertical. Long dreamy lines are achieved after being dropped in from a helicopter or climbing up a knife’s edge ridge. There is no inclusion of avalanche mitigation scenes, snow science, or anything that would keep these riders safe.
Somehow, the video editors make escaping an avalanche look romantic and easy, just another day in the deep mountains.
It’s no wonder so many people start exploring without any education or tools necessary to keep themselves safe. It’s no wonder there’s a community of people who desire the backcountry experience but get overwhelmed after comparing themselves to what they see on TV or online.
As the days before my AIARE 1 class started to dwindle, my emotions changed from stoke to doubt and anxiety. Would I be as smart as the other people in the class? I had insecurities of being able to keep pace with them on the skin track and being able to physically keep up with others on the snowboard descent down the mountain.
When my husband and I arrived at our classroom on DAY 1, we came to realize that everyone else was just as inexperienced as we were! Whew! Talk about relief. All my fears and uncertainties were transformed into excitement. There was a range reasons why people had signed up for this course, but ultimately, we all wanted to be able to experience the backcountry safely.
DAY 2: We went into the field and practiced the skill sets we had learned about in the classroom. (Fun fact- I never realized how heavy snow was until we were practicing digging pits and rescuing touring companions.)
The day two experience was incredible. This beautiful mountain scenery that I had admired for years suddenly became like looking into a heads-up display. I could spot wind blown terrain on easterly facing aspects. I could identify avalanche terrain by the steepness of the slope and see trigger points. I knew how to listen for signs of instability in the snowpack below my feet. The mountains were speaking to me and I could finally hear the message.
DAY 3: We broke into groups for a student lead tour day. The fog was starting to lift, and the education took hold as we planned our first expedition on Vail Pass.
Was I great at skinning downhill on splitboard planks? Not really. Did the group get off track and miss the uphill trail by half a mile? Yep. Did I get exhausted breaking new trail, crossing streams, and traversing through trees? You bet. But that’s just type II fun. I earned my turns, I learned how to safely navigate the backcountry, and experienced joy from doing so.
Our instructor used the analogy of a picture on TV. Before you start your AIARE training, your picture of the backcountry has a couple pixels, not really enough to form an image. You take an AIARE 1 course, and you get a couple more pixels. You start training in beacon parks and doing test rescues. You attend a couple demos at the local REI. You gain more pixels and the image is starts to get clearer. You take your avalanche rescue and AIARE 2 class, and maybe a wilderness First Aid course. More pixels. The more training you do, the more pixels you gain, the clearer the picture becomes.
I don’t have a full picture yet, but I’m starting to see more clearly. AIARE 1 is just my first step. Thanks to groups like Backcountry Babes and Weston Backcountry, education is becoming more accessible. That groups like this believe in someone like me, makes it easier for me to believe in myself. They allow me to grow as an outdoor girl in a modern world.
Follow @sarahwatson2 for more pow slayin' greatness.
Visit backcountrybabes.com to learn more about women's specific avalanche education and backcountry guide programs.