The AMGA Splitboard Certification and Scholarship
By Leonie Sherman
Rick Gaukel grew up surfing the waves and skating the streets of his hometown, Santa Cruz. He fell in love with the mountains but retained his love of gliding with grace. “Rick was always on a board,” explains his mother Mary Gaukel-Forster. “A skateboard, a surfboard, a snowboard, a splitboard, a wakeboard, a mountainboard … he just loved it. His spirit was to share and bring the joy of the outdoors to everyone.” He found his calling as a backcountry guide when he moved to the Rockies. Gaukel continues to educate and inspire others though he can no longer enjoy the mountains himself.
On April 20, 2013, he and four friends were killed in an avalanche near Loveland Pass, Colorado. He would have been 40 this February. Thanks to the unwavering love of his mother and his wife, Jonna Book — Gaukel’s memory lives on through the American Mountain Guide Association’s Friends of Rick Gaukel Everywhere (FORGE) Splitboard Ski Guide Scholarship.
“I was in labor with Rick for 40 minutes,” Gaukel-Forster can’t help but laugh at the memory. “He came into the world fast and never stopped moving, he was always in motion.” She gestures at photos of her son climbing, skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, jumping off cliffs. “He left us just as fast as he came, and too soon.”
She remembers reading an editor’s note in Adventure Sports Journal soon after his passing. “Something about in order to live your life you have to challenge boundaries. When I read that, I thought of how Rick exemplified the outdoor person who needs a little extra to feel that edge. I might climb a six foot ladder and feel very shaky, or look down after hiking up Half Dome and feel nervous. But Rick needed to be there on the side of it, climbing it.”
Gaukel-Forster pauses. “I’ve learned to find joy in the fact that Rick knew who he was. He had struggled to find his place in the world, but his friends told me in the last six or eight weeks of his life he had finally come to peace with being a backcountry guide. He wasn’t going to own his own business. He wasn’t going to work in an office. He was going to share his love of the backcountry with others.”
A few tears roll down her cheeks, but she smiles as she looks up. “I could have had him forever if he was a super cautious guy,” she says. “But if he’d been sad, or miserable his whole life or felt restricted and confined, I don’t know that I would be as happy as I am knowing that he found who he was and was doing what he loved.”
The day he passed Gaukel was helping friends with an avalanche awareness fair near Loveland Pass. He hadn’t been feeling well for a few days, but he didn’t want to let his community down. During a lunch break he went off with five other young men to play on some nearby slopes. Only one of them came back.
Gaukel-Forster was at home watching the news when she saw a red banner scroll across the bottom of the screen announcing that five people had died in an avalanche at Loveland Pass. She had a sinking feeling but didn’t realize her son was one of them until the phone rang and a friend of her son in Estes Park gave her the bad news.
“A Rocky Mountain avalanche expert told me they did exactly what you should do in that situation,” explains Gaukel-Forster, who visited the area a few days after the event with the expert. “They were crossing the slope one at a time, it was all planned to be safe, to minimize risk, they were doing everything right. And then there was that sound …”
She called the coroner in Idaho Springs, Colorado as soon as she knew where her son was being taken. “I told the coroner I was the first one to hold Rick and he would be the last and asked him to please hold my son with tenderness and care.” She wipes away tears. “I just didn’t want him to suffer. I didn’t want him to be in pain, or die alone.”
The whole family could go out to Colorado together. When they arrived at the morgue, the coroner greeted them with a huge hug and told them that Gaukel’s lungs weren’t typical for a suffocation fatality. After the initial shock of the avalanche his heart simply stopped beating. And he was wrapped around his friend Joe. “So he didn’t suffer, and he didn’t die alone,” Gaukel-Forster says with a weak smile.
Family and friends celebrated Gaukel’s life at four memorials; one in Estes Park, Colorado, one in Santa Cruz, one in Pike, New Hampshire and another on his birthday almost a year later. At one of them Gaukel-Forster came up with the idea to offer an annual American Mountain Guide Association backcountry splitboarding scholarship in his memory.
“Rick was a pioneer,” his mother explains. When he realized AMGA had a certificate in backcountry skiing but not backcountry splitboarding, he petitioned them to expand their offerings. “It’s thanks to Rick that there’s even a pathway to becoming a recognized splitboarding guide.”
Gaukel-Forster turned grief into action and raised funds to create an annual scholarship for the certification that Gaukel was responsible for creating. “Every year people submit videos of why they want the scholarship,” explains his mother. “And every year it’s been obvious to the six people who make the decision that one of them is channeling Rick’s spirit,” she laughs. “Everyone who has gotten the scholarship has said they are driven by the joy of bringing the backcountry to others. So we say, ‘OK, Rick, we hear you!’”
When Gaukel-Forster heard that another mother who lost her son in an avalanche was going to be at an avalanche safety course offered at Cabrillo College, she had to attend. “I just wanted to give her a hug,” she explains. “She told me, ‘We will do an avalanche training in Santa Cruz every year, and it will always be in honor of your son and mine together,’” Gaukel-Forster says. She finds joy in reconnecting with her son’s tribe as she promotes the event at all his favorite hangouts around town. “Celebrating his spirit right here where he grew up, every year, gives me a way to remember him and pass on his message.”
“I want people to be safe, but I don’t want them to be fearful. I want people to be aware, but I also want them to know the joy of being who they are. As sad and painful as the avalanche was, coming to that moment reflected so deeply on who my son was. He was there to help his friends even though he wasn’t feeling great; he had so much loyalty and commitment to safety and education. I often think ‘Darn you, did you have to be so dramatic about avalanche awareness? There’s other ways to educate people!’”
To learn more about Rick Gaukel, visit his Facebook page: FORGE-Friends of Rick Gaukel Everywhere. To learn more about the AMGA Friends of Rick Gaukel Everywhere F.O.R.G.E. Splitboard Ski Guide Scholarship visit amga.com/scholarships.