Dear Exum Mountain Guides:
Attention: Owners, Management, and Lead Guides
Exum is a local guide concession serving Grand Teton National Park. Arc’teryx is a global clothing company with dozens of brand stores and thousands of licensed retailers all over the world. Both companies meet important needs and have a history of excelling at what they do, but their growing partnership sets a disturbing precedent in our national parks and prompts several important questions that Exum, Arc’teryx, and the NPS have yet to answer publicly.
The clock is ticking through the last day before the third annual Arc’teryx Academy gets under way. The promotional beer has been brewed, the banners have been hung around town, funds from the lodging tax and corporate sponsors have been allocated, and the #jacksonhole #arcteryxacademy social media sprayfest is already in full swing.
It seems that no expense has been spared in planning the Academy, getting the NPS to sign off on it, promoting it to a global audience of potential customers, and presenting it to our local community in a positive light.
Despite a well-crafted — and expensive — corporate PR campaign a grumble of discontent is growing. Clouds of uncertainty shroud your Academy, your upcoming Arc’teryx Trips program, and the precedent Exum is setting by partnering with global corporations to promote brands, create customers, and sell an unprecedented number of guided trips into federally protected backcountry wilderness areas.
At a time when the Trump administration is pushing for more privatization of our National Parks and public lands, local conservationists are concerned that Exum and its partners are actively playing a part in this troubling predicament. With significant NPS and NFS budget cuts in recent years, are our public lands being prepared for an era where increased corporate exploitation will run rampant?
Could the Arc’teryx Academy and Arc’teryx Trips programs — and the precedents these partnerships set — be contributing to this exploitation? Are they part of a push to squeeze every possible cent out of priceless natural treasures like GTNP that were protected specifically so they couldn’t be sold off, overdeveloped, or overused for profit-driven purposes?
I am sure we can all agree that the one place in Jackson Hole that certainly should not be exploited for profit is the backcountry wilderness of Grand Teton National Park.
I’ve been actively seeking public comment about your growing Arc’teryx Academy and upcoming Arc’teryx Trips programs, and so far only one person has spoken up in favor of these partnerships and the precedents they set.
No one from Arc’teryx, Exum, or the NPS has gotten back to me, but plenty of concerned citizens have. Hopefully, this open letter will help get a legitimate dialogue going because at this point more one-sided corporate propaganda about how your Academy “unites the backcountry ski community in Jackson Hole” is only going to turn local public opinion against your expanding partnerships and growing programs.
One person who did respond to my inquiries is a medical doctor from BC, Canada who said she attended the Academy last year. She signed up for an “Intro to Backcountry” tour and said it was more advanced than she had expected. Her husband bailed on his reservation, and she was glad that he did because she was overwhelmed by the terrain and he has less backcountry experience and skiing ability than her. She found herself surrounded by ~70 other Academy skiers simultaneously ascending the avalanche prone slopes of Whimpy’s Knob. This was on a day that avalanche danger got downgraded from Considerable at all elevations to Moderate at all elevations.
Her “Intro to Backcountry” tour didn’t strike her as exceptionally safe or educational, and I can relate to her sentiments having also witnessed that spectacle on Whimpy’s last winter. In addition to being shocked by the total number of Academy skiers on one slope simultaneously, I was equally shocked by the group sizes: 6-12 skiers per group, when the well-established safety standard for groups travelling through avalanche terrain is 2-4 skiers per group.
According to Utah Avalanche Center director Bruce Tremper, the “1st Commandment” for “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” is “Thou Shalt Go One at a Time — and Leave Someone in a Safe Spot to Do the Rescue”. This — the most basic and important of backcountry safety protocols — is impossible to attain when one guide service is running several atypically large groups of relatively inexperienced skiers travelling up, down, and across the same avalanche prone slopes simultaneously.
Is this the new normal? Does Exum hope to run more and bigger groups all winter long thanks to all the exposure their partnership with Arc’teryx is providing? One could actually argue that Exum’s Arc’teryx Academy is actually lowering safety standards for all backcountry visitors by treating GTNP like a Canadian cat skiing operation.
Another person who responded is a well-established film maker who has had proposals to film in the GTNP wilderness areas denied because his projects had corporate backing and were deemed too commercial by park administrators. He wondered why Exum and TGR have been able to film commercial projects together in the GTNP wilderness and how the Arc’teryx Academy’s associated #jacksonexposed photo/film contest could possibly be labelled anything but corporate and commercial.
The Academy is certainly corporate and commercial: it involves hundreds of clients paying to play, dozens of guides and pro skiers getting paid to attend, a gaggle of VIPs from sponsors and the ski media, and a least a half dozen professional photographers/filmmakers competing to “capture the essence of the backcountry ski experience in Jackson Hole”. This captured essence is clearly being used to create more customers, promote brands, and sell products. It stands in stark contrast to the corporate PR portraying the Academy as a purely educational experience.
Just this morning a rumor got back to me that this year’s #jacksonexposed photo/film shoots will not include footage or photos from wilderness areas in Grand Teton National Park, but last year’s photo/film shoots certainly did. Anyone who doubts or wishes to dispute this fact need only watch the Red Bull Snow video “Finding Freeski Flow in Jackson Hole | Originate w/ Michelle Parker” to see footage clearly shot in the wilderness areas of GTNP being used to promote the Arc’teryx Academy, to promote professional athletes and photographers, and to sell energy drinks.
Another person who responded has been guiding in GTNP for decades and informed me — please correct me if this is wrong — that there are no official limitations on commercial concession visitation rates in the winter season. If this is true, concessions must be self-regulating, and right now we are not seeing a very high level or responsible stewardship from our friends at Exum Mountain Guides and their corporate partners.
Here are several more public comments for your consideration:
- Greg Collins: Exum should use CTNF permit areas, mandatory carpooling, staggered start times, and different GTNP parking areas.
- Paul Turecki: Is that even legal, permit wise? Put an Arc’teryx billboard up at the gate.
Corporations even own the parks now. Gross..
- Dorelyn Talcott: I feel heavy hearted with the grave commercialism that is happening all over the valley, especially the park. Sadly, I believe it is inevitable & the power of the damn dollar will continue to perpetuate the situation. Perhaps the park can step in and cowboy up to limit permits… or permit sizes? I understand the strategy of the Exum/Arteryx partnership, however I do not believe groups of that size represent what a real Teton experience is all about.
- John Betts: The lightning injuries from the July 2010 incident on the Grand were compounded by the route being overcrowded. Can sheer numbers increase avalanche risks? I’m surprised the Park Service is allowing such high numbers.
- Michael Ray: I bet we know what Glenn Exum might say. Or what a living legend like Bill Briggs might say. Commercial trips of that size are certainly unsafe and unethical. You can not safely manage a group that size in terrain that big. End of story.
- Jerry Wallace: Seems like all they care about is making money. That many people at one time in an avalanche area sounds dangerously unsafe. Whoever’s running that show needs to be schooled on what can happen. But anyway stay safe Max peace out
- Sean McCarthy: Nothing more annoying than people travelling in large wolf packs #greedyhole
- Greg Cheney: Anytime a natural area is to be commercialized I have to pause and ask who will benefit. I’d say no right off the bat…
- pattagucci: “The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.” GTNP isn’t Everest, but on the other hand do we extend this type of reasoning to NOLS and the like? No matter what, you’re the man Max.
- keliblueyez: It’s a travesty. I am so over beta-nerd-hipsters being spoon fed excursions so individuals can social media post and huge companies can make more money.
Here is the one public comment I received that spoke in favor of the Academy, and he makes several good points.
- Daniel Rogers: Commercial use of the Tetons isn’t going anywhere. If a company like Arc’teryx is involved, you can be sure the permits are in order with the Park Service, (one would assume) and I hope GTNP is smart enough to get their proper cut. If staying off Whimpy’s for a few days means cash moneys for GTNP operations, in a time of dwindling federal budgets, then have at it, I say. If bunching up in moderate terrain means more folks get at least a modest introduction to backcountry travel, and stewardship, amidst an atmosphere of knowledge and celebration, I can live with that. Insinuating that folks are doing the mountain a disservice by hiring a guide service, like Exum or JHMG or whomever else is both short-sighted and somewhat elitist, in my opinion. National parks belong to the nation, not the locals. If someone with the drive, but not the experience hires a guide to go up the OS [route on the Grand Teton], that is 100 times more respectful, and responsible than heading up with a private party that is incompetent. I get as frustrated by crowds as much as the next guy, just providing an alternate point of view. I mean, roads are also dangerous, maybe we should ban tour buses as well. TGR puts out a lot of films that draw people here, let’s stop them too. A couple people drown each year, so lets shut down the Snake to Barker Ewing. I get the sentiment, but I think it’s a slippery slope to be sure…
There are indeed a lot of slippery slopes around. Slopes so steep and slippery, in fact, that they could avalanche both physically and metaphorically.
In my opinion, commercial use of the Teton backcountry IS going somewhere: it’s going UP! I’m not saying — in fact I haven’t heard anyone saying — that we should shut down commercial use of the backcountry, but we should keep an eye on the trend of rapid growth and potentially limit that growth so it doesn’t get out of control. We also might want to think twice about letting a global corporation act like a concessionaire, not just because it will blow up the Teton backcountry but because it could set a sketchy precedent throughout the NPS at a time when budget cuts are a real threat to our parks.
With recreation fee revenue and other mandatory funding sources, total 2020 funding for NPS is $3.5 billion. That’s down ~$400 million from 2019, so the budget has shrunk substantially in one year. This year’s Arc’teryx Academy is bringing ~400 paying clients into the Tetons paying ~$200 per trip, so the total take for the entire week is only $80k. Concessionaires pay ~5-10% to the NPS, so GTNP is going to make an estimated $4k-$8k off of the Academy. Some folks are certainly benefiting from the Exum/Arc’teryx partnership, but GTNP doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the top of that list.
For a lot of people, the hardest part about mountaineering and backcountry skiing is learning how and when to stop oneself, how to objectively assess situations and when to say enough is enough. The same applies to business practices and partnerships, especially amidst the “wealthiest county per capita” in North America.
Operating a guide concession in Grand Teton National Park is a privilege, not a right. Exum’s concession contract is up for renewal on December 31st, 2023. Is the additional money and fame gained through partnering with global corporations worth the risk of losing it all and being replaced by a better guide service practicing responsible stewardship?
February 5th, 2020
PS If you’re still interested in what I’ve got to say, you might want to check out “How NOT to Ski GTNP: Viral Backcountry Ignorance“. One Love. Peace.