Winning a sweepstakes may not sound like a likely start to a life in the backcountry, but that’s exactly what happened to Rachel Reich four years ago when she gave up the security of a desk job for frequent trips to the mountains. Before she won the Alaskan Freeride Program (sponsored by Alaska Brewing), she was working full time behind a desk at Vail Resorts doing marketing. That was in 2012, and soon after the trip she traded in her plot in the cube farm for an ice axe and backcountry board.
After spending a week in Alaska at Thompson Pass heliskiing and splitboarding, she knew it was time for a big life change—weekend trips to the backcountry were no longer going to cut it. Shortly after the trip she quit her job, moved to her new home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and started a business that would allow her the time and flexibility she needed to ride big mountains.
When did you start snowboarding?
When I was a teenager living Charlotte, North Carolina, I saw a picture of big mountain snowboarder Victoria Jealouse riding a big Alaska spine in the magazine Teen. I tore it out, stuck it to my wall and set my sights on someday following in Jealouse’s footsteps. During my freshman year at Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina, I started riding my resort board on manmade snow at the local mountain. There wasn’t a lot of vertical relief, so we rode the park mostly. One day, I hiked up a steep snow slope in the backcountry but we hit a lot of rocks on the way down. I don’t think I rode powder until I moved out West.
What were your early experiences with mountaineering?
I did a month-long NOLS course in 2008. This trip provided my first exposure to alpine climbing when we attempted Mt. Baker and Mt. Shukshan, both in Washington. Being outside for that amount of time gave me a completely different set of challenges. My mind turned off the trivial and instead focused on the essentials: warmth, food and sleep. That experience made me appreciate the simplicity of life, especially after our group witnessed a huge D4 avalanche.
And after college?
I moved to Summit County, Colorado to pursue a marketing career in the ski industry. Maybe things would have stayed that way—a daily commute to a secure desk job, receiving a salary and benefits—but that all changed when my name was randomly selected for the free trip to Thompson Pass. Before traveling up north, I spent about three years resort riding and splitboarding at Breckenridge, mainly on weekends. But that trip opened my eyes to the possibilities of splitty mountaineering and what else is out there.
So then you were hooked on snowboard mountaineering?
I flew back to Alaska three times after my first visit, once to Valdez (near Thompson Pass) and twice to Haines. After spending time with the guides in Alaska, I learned the importance of understanding snow science. It’s a crucial piece of what goes into riding big lines. To stay alive, it’s important to recognize how the snowpack is reacting, and then managing and assessing line selection based on hazards.
When did you land your first sponsor?
I approached Karakoram BC after Liz Daley died in an avalanche in 2014. Liz, who rode for them and was an aspiring AMGA mountain guide, was one of my influences and her death deeply impacted me. I inquired with the company about ways that I could give back to the splitboarding community. They offered to bring me on as an ambassador and I’ve been a part of the team ever since. I generally have three sponsors: Mammut, Mountain Athlete and Karakoram.
How do you give back?
A few ways: I helped Alaska Heliskiing pull off their first women’s big mountain camp. At the time I was also doing work for SheJumps, a non-profit dedicated to getting women into the outdoors. I flew up to Haines, Alaska to help with marketing for the event, ride and collect content. We also held a raffle to raise funds for SheJumps and Alaska Heliskiing. I’ve also worked closely with The Avalanche Project to create opportunities for avalanche education and awareness clinics for women and the general public. Last year, I was involved in putting on a women’s splitboarding clinic in Salt Lake City with Pallas Snowboards.
Do you have Any tips for aspiring female riders?
Do everything you can to learn the hard skills for yourself so you can help your partner in case of a slide. This includes avalanche awareness, understanding changes in the weather, backcountry medicine, rope work and technical travel. And be sure to choose your partners wisely. I pick riders who have a combination of technical skills and good communication—and people I know I’ll have fun with, regardless of the objective.
I’m co-leading an expedition to Denali this coming spring. We hope to summit the peak and ride as much as we can.