Amy David: Why I Guide

brunette woman standing on the porch of a cabin during a snowy winter wearing a red buffalo plaid sweater and hand knit beanie

On a late August afternoon, the granite spires of Mount Bonneville cast a shadow over the lake below. I can still feel the chills rush through my body, followed by the warmth of hugging my horse after plunging buck naked into the alpine lake high in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. My sister, Erica, was poking fun at me as she snapped innocent photos on the disposable Kodak camera. Our parents always said we could play in the mud as long as we didn’t get our clothes dirty — so no clothes, no problem. After drying off, we raced through the mountain meadow on the outskirts of camp, collecting grouse whortleberries.

old film photo of a little girl wearing a colorful - blue, red and blue and white plaid - outfit skiing down a hill

Fast forward to 2016. That memory from my eighth birthday is what replayed in my mind as I lay in the snow unable to move, my head cradled by Ski Patrol. As a big mountain skier, I qualified to compete in the Freeskiing World Tour finals. Prior to this contest, I scored third place in a freeride competition in Verbier, Switzerland, so entering the finals, I had a load of confidence. During the finals run, I straightlined a narrow chute with plans to ride out the speed into the finish corral. Speeding down the mountain, I accidentally hit a roll in the terrain that launched me 100 feet through the air before I smashed into a sharp pile of rocks. First impact was my hip; then my head impacted with a rock on each side of my face.

As a Wilderness First Responder myself, it’s a strange feeling to be the person being rescued — especially in front of a crowd. The ski patrol could not pass my focused spine assessment due to my broken pelvis and strained C4, along with broken ribs, bruised lungs, and more. As they strapped me to a backboard and placed an oxygen mask on my face, all I could do was look at the sky. I thought I was going to die. One of the ski patrol held my hand and, although scared and shivering, I felt okay. Soon I was towed off the mountain, passed on to the ambulance, and eventually arrived at the hospital, where I was sent through multiple scans for internal bleeding, bone breaks, and stitches. I am unbelievably grateful to have crutched out of the hospital that day. Through months of recovery, I had plenty of time to think about risk management from a new perspective.

Skier off a jump in the trees.

Now in 2019 as a professional skier, I spend most days in the winter backcountry, skiing and snowmobiling while being photographed and filmed for media content. Simultaneously, I’m working to earn a backcountry ski guide certification from the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA), the highest standard for mountain guides. To become an AMGA Ski Guide, a person first has to be a Wilderness First Responder, have the ability to navigate in white-out conditions, and complete professional level avalanche certifications.

Avalanche danger is dynamic and continually changing based on weather patterns, snowpack structure, types of terrain, and the way humans travel through avalanche terrain. In the United States, 25–30 people die each winter from avalanche accidents while skiing recreationally. It’s a ski guide’s responsibility to understand intimately the stability of the snowpack and the weather, and to make intelligent decisions about how to travel through the backcountry safely based on the danger every day. I recently earned my Pro 1 Avalanche certification and continually study snow safety.

“I believe in you.” Sometimes hearing that is all it takes. We are often way more capable than we give ourselves credit for.

Between miles and mentorship, the next step in the process of becoming an AMGA Ski Guide involves extended days in the alpine environment, practicing remote winter rescue techniques and rope systems with mechanical advantages to rescue someone from a crevasse, applying climbing techniques to the ski realm to lower skiers into steep couloirs or over large cliffs with consequential terrain. The ski mountaineering element is paired with overnight winter camping and shelter building. Adding on to what you’d imagine backcountry skiing is, the higher-level courses require many miles of glacial travel. It’s not for the faint of heart.

My passion for the mountains runs deep, with a family heritage of cowboy mountain lifestyle through many generations. While I was growing up in rural Pinedale, Wyoming, raising animals and spending endless time outdoors, my parents instilled a curiosity for the intricacies of nature. My mom is an environmental science teacher and is always encouraging us to take a closer look at the landscape, from animal tracks and the physics of water flowing down rivers to the geometry of snow crystals. Intrigued by snow, our family has been a long line of skiers for many generations.

My dad’s family homesteaded in the Wyoming Range mountains using horses and handmade skis as a necessary mode of travel. Their day-to-day activities were based around either preparing for winter or surviving winter. As generations passed, my grandparents guided hunting trips on horseback, hosting people from across the world at the ranch to experience the cowboy way. Today, my dad owns an authentic outdoor western-cookout-style restaurant called Pitchfork Fondue. He has carried on the tradition of the western lifestyle, and I’d like to think I’m carrying on the tradition of my family in my combined career as a skier and backpacking guide.

a landscape shot of jagged mountain peaks in the background of a girl standing on rocks for the photo

As a backpacking guide for Sawtooth Mountain Guides, I spend the summer leading people on multi-day excursions in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. I carry a 50-pound pack while walking through rugged landscapes, cooking for the group sitting in the dirt, and sleeping under the stars. I teach about the local history and geology while empowering guests to fall in love with the wonder of the wild.

Respecting nature is as important as enjoying it. One of my favorite roles as a guide is teaching Leave No Trace (LNT) Outdoor Ethics and how to better respect ecosystems while being a guest in the natural environment. Every time I lead a group past the Sawtooth Wilderness boundary sign, I share the Wilderness Act of 1964 written by Howard Zahniser: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Immersion in wilderness facilitates a deep sense of peace within me. In 2015, I experienced the grim depths of grief after the tragic and unexpected death of a loved one. As I spent time in the mountains, the sadness of grief began to transform, and I began to notice the beautiful glimmers of light beaming through the trees, the comforting sensation of warm sun rays, and the invigorating chill of fresh morning air. On a very personal level, time in nature evokes happiness, gratitude, energy, and an ease of being.

This feeling. This is what I hope to facilitate for the clients I guide in the mountains. For the past eight years, I’ve worked as a multi-day backpacking guide and currently work for Sawtooth Mountain Guides in Idaho. I focus on creating and leading a backcountry retreat program for women. Gals from across the country join together for five days in the mountains, where I teach them to be self-sufficient in trip planning, navigation, backcountry cooking, and more. The goal is to build community while connecting with self, others, and the ecosystem.

a night shot of a few people cross country skiing with headlamps on

Aside from the sense of accomplishment reaching a summit or completing a multi-day traverse, the most rewarding part of guiding is seeing the moments of joy and soul-soothing throughout the journey. I’ve shed tears with a woman who recently lost her fiancé at war. I’ve watched a family double over laughing after glissading down a snowy slope for the first time. I’ve held hands with a woman fighting a kidney disease, while placing every step for her over a snowy divide. I’ve watched the sunset in silence with a girl who just found out her dad had cancer. I’ve had silly dance parties with a group of women who started as strangers and left as close friends. I’ve jumped off cliffs into the ice-cold lake with women for their first time to later hear them say they will never let anyone tell them what they can and can’t do when they go back home.

“I believe in you.” Sometimes hearing that is all it takes. We are often way more capable than we give ourselves credit for. My goal leading the all-women retreats is to create a space for women to rediscover their infinite potential and competence — to evoke self-confidence, teach self-sufficient skills within a supportive community, and educate and inspire while being surrounded by the magic of nature. The women on these trips create true community, and I learn from each person every time.

I’d rather have a cluster of eye wrinkles from squinting into the sun, cracked lips from getting pelted in the face by icy wind on cold, dry mornings, and a mind full of mountains. I’d rather be real, with eyes honestly showing the yin-yang of joy and sorrow from getting thrashed by the realness of pain and filled with genuine happiness and love. The mountains are the place for me.