Things I’ve Learned: Talking risk with Margaret Wheeler, president of the AMGA
Interview by Megan Michelson
A New England native, Margarat Wheeler didn’t know much about backcountry skiing until she spent a few winters ski bumming in Chamonix after college. That experience ultimately led her into a career as a mountain guide. In 2006, Wheeler became the second woman in the U.S. to earn her UIAGM guide certification. Today, she’s the president of the American Mountain Guides Association and a full-time guide at Pro Guiding Service in North Bend, Washington. Needless to say, she’s learned a few things along the way.
“I put sunscreen on like six times a day,” says Wheeler.
Guiding is the most rewarding profession ever. It’s being outside. It’s analytical thinking. It’s dealing with people. But as a guide, you’re constantly in a high-risk environment. I don’t like guiding because I’m threading the needle; I like guiding because of where it takes me and who it takes me there with. If I could take the risk part out of it, I would.
The number one thing: Sign up for an avalanche course. But find one that focuses on your decision-making process not just snowpack analysis and digging pits.
My favorite place to go backcountry skiing is often somewhere that’s new. I love the idea of discovery and coming around the corner and not knowing what you’re going to see.
You’re never going to know your actual risk. Your perceived risk is the best thing you can go on. But you can be wrong. How confident are you that you’re right? Once you’ve had some experience, your confidence goes up but your accuracy may not. And that can get dangerous.
As a guide, I’m taking people somewhere that they might not have gone without me. They’re responsible for themselves, but I’m ultimately responsible for managing their risk. That’s different from saying I’m responsible for their safety because I can’t promise that.
Factors in a checklist: terrain factors, snowpack factors and human factors.
I put sunscreen on like six times a day.
The best client is someone who is self-aware. There are other things—preparedness, flexibility, a good attitude—but being self-aware is the most important.
My favorite client is this amazing woman who started a bakery in Santa Fe and bakes 3,000 rolls of artisan French bread every day. She is open to anything and grateful for whatever experiences come along.
I have a mental file of the shit people have said. Like this one guy at Mont Blanc, who said, ‘I’m glad you’re my guide. Because you’re a woman, so if you can make it up this, then I know I can do it, too.’
People who understand that failing is part of the backcountry experience will have a much better time.
Nutrition is my weakness. I have food stress if I don’t get enough to eat. In my guide training, I had a huge pocket in my pants that I’d shove full of sausages and cheese and bars. Everyone would tease me because I’d be in the back shoving food in my face.
I’ve had a lot of clients give up because they don’t eat enough food. My advice is to eat early and often. If you’re hungry, eat your lunch mid-morning, which could be 9 a.m. for backcountry skiing. Then just bring another sandwich or more snacks for later on.
My kit used to be super light but now it’s heavier, with more of a focus on the downhill. My skis went from skinny to wide and with a layer of metal. The main thing that hasn’t changed for me is the Dynafit binding: That’s not going anywhere.
Pacing, pacing, pacing. If you rev it out of the gate, which is the natural response, you’ll rev your metabolism and burn through your fuel, then you’ll have to stop and you’ll get sweaty and cold. When you leave the car, you should be walking as slow as you’re going to be going all day.
I got into backcountry skiing because it was so deep, with so many levels of complexity and so many opportunities. Versus a powder day at a resort where you get really stressed out and then you take two runs and then it’s all tracked out.
There are totally days when I don’t go in the backcountry. Some days the mountains are essentially closed for business. Go do something else. It’s just not worth the risk.