In early February our community will have a great opportunity to take a good, hard look at the trend towards more commercialization of the backcountry in Grand Teton National Park. Several park concessionaires and corporate partnerships are contributing to this growth, but it is most obvious during Exum’s annual Arc’teryx Academy, which will be in session again from February 5th to 9th, 2020.
The Academy is a recently developed and rapidly growing event bringing hundreds of people — clients, guides, sponsored skiers, photographers, filmmakers, and writers — into federally protected avalanche terrain. In 2018 the Academy was three days long and limited to 240 participants. In 2019 the Academy was four days long and exceeded 300 participants. This year the Academy is five days long, and if all the trips being sold through an Arc’teryx-branded website fill up at least 438 people will participate in 2020.
Most of the Academy trips are launched from three small and already overflowing parking areas in Grand Teton National Park. Unless transparency is achieved and clear limitations are imposed, further growth is guaranteed because the Academy seems to specialize in graduating repeat customers and generating marketing materials for Exum, Arc’teryx, and several other corporate sponsors.
This growth is not surprising when we acknowledge that Arc’teryx is a global brand with more than 50 stores and 2600 licensed retailers. Arc’teryx is owned by an even bigger corporation based in Finland, Amer Sports, with dozens of offices all over the world. Amer Sports, through Arc’teryx’s partnership with Exum, is now — quite literally — selling commercial trips in Grand Teton National Park.
Unfortunately, the Academy is only half the story: next summer Exum is partnering up again to help launch the Arc’teryx Trips program selling guided adventures up the Grand Teton and into the Wind River Wilderness. In its first year, that program is limited to just a few trips, but growth is practically guaranteed unless steps are taken to nip it in the bud.
The Academy is being sold as an educational event promoting backcountry safety, but locals are concerned that the safety of all backcountry visitors is compromised when several atypically large guided groups travel up & down avalanche prone peaks in overlapping succession. Last winter I was shocked to encounter approximately 70 Academy skiers while ascending the skin track from Death Canyon trailhead up the avalanche prone slopes of Wimpy’s Knob and Albright Peak. There were so many guided groups travelling so close together that it was hard to ascertain, but it seemed like 6-12 skiers per guided group was typical.
It is widely acknowledged that groups of 2-4 skiers are safer than bigger groups for travel in avalanche terrain. Bigger, slower groups composed largely of inexperienced backcountry skiers are harder to manage, harder to avoid, and more likely to set off avalanches than smaller groups of experienced skiers travelling swiftly. Several large groups of novices travelling up, down, and across the same slopes simultaneously is a recipe for disaster. These larger, slower guided groups are not only a danger to themselves, but to everyone in the vicinity.
With the explosive growth of backcountry skiing and social media in recent years, more winter visitation to Grand Teton National Park is inevitable, but commercial exploitation of the GTNP backcountry can be avoided. Avalanche education is certainly important, but there are plenty of places where it can be taught outside of our precious National Parks.
Is GTNP really the appropriate venue for a corporate event like this? Should a global clothing company be advertising and selling trips for a concession service in GTNP? Is Exum exceeding the limits of its concession contract by partnering with Arc’teryx to this extent? Most importantly, what sort of precedent does this partnership set not just in GTNP, but throughout all of our National Parks?