• Cowboy professionalism: a cultural study of big-mountain tourism in the last frontier

      Wagner, Forest J.; Cole, Terrence; Ehrlander, Mary; Heyne, Eric (2017-08)
      Geographical features and cultural traits may influence the character of big-mountain tourism in Alaska. For example, Alaska's wild landscape, rich climbing and skiing history, and cultural mythos of wilderness and frontier fostered its status as a major destination for niche big-mountain tourism. Growth in the industry since the 1980s has been phenomenal, though a change threatens the identity of mountain guides of the region, demanding they accept international standards for their self-regulating and uniquely Alaskan version of big-mountain tourism. This research project explored big-mountain niche tourism in Alaska, considering the influences of wilderness and frontier concepts on the tourism culture and examining guides' and clients' motivations for participation in the industry. I queried clients and guides at two guiding services, the Alaska Mountaineering School and its Denali mountain climbers, and Alaska Powder Descents and its Coast mountain heli-skiers. The quantitative client survey assessed participant motivations for engaging in big-mountain tourism, for hiring a guide, and for travelling to engage in mountain tourism. The qualitative guide interview asked guides their motivations for working in big-mountain tourism, their experience with the management of big-mountain risk, and changes they had observed over time in the industry. I am a professional mountain guide and instructor in Alaska and use this experience as a third data point. The findings showed that Alaska's big-mountain tourism offers individuals a transcendental, sublime, yet physical encounter, one that is part of a globalized political and economic system. Except for the guides themselves, the high mountains are generally accessible only to those who are at the high end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Gender is also a defining characteristic of the industry, as the guiding ranks and the clientele in Alaska's big-mountain tourism are overwhelmingly male. For guides, the frontier mythos of intrepid and rugged individualism is a powerful motivator, an identity construction that relates well with the depictions of the region in early literature, and in images promoted by the tourism industry. Clients on the other hand may come to Alaska because it is geographically exceptional, but they are not as enamored of the frontier ideology that resonates so deeply with many permanent residents.