A Daily Choice
Before I really get going, I want to show you a few pictures.
What is your gut reaction to these photos? Disgust? Happiness? Ambivalence? Nostalgia?
Now ask yourself, why did you have that reaction?
These crowded scenes are becoming more and more common in the backcountry. I have grappled with these questions on many instances, as I share information that can encourage people to enter the backcountry. I have mixed feelings. But I think the most helpful framework I have found to view this issue with is “abundance versus scarcity”.
At the most recent Friday afternoon all-hands meeting for Rupa Health, where I work, we had a guest presenter. Dini Mehta is the former Chief Revenue Office at Lattice, a fast growing company that advertises itself as a “people success platform”. She spoke about growing the sales team at Lattice from a few people to over one hundred, and developing a culture of cooperation and teamwork. While many sales organizations are cutthroat and competitive within teams, members of her organization would give each other leads to help reach their quotas. This sort of cooperation is extremely rare in the world of sales. She said that this culture was only possible through a consistent message of abundance: that there are enough potential customers for everyone and the best outcome will come through teamwork.
Instead of focusing on dividing up the pieces of the pie, focus on growing the pie so that each piece is bigger.
This concept of abundance stuck with me. Obviously, it is easier to believe in abundance when the context is a growing company in an enormous market that is nowhere near saturated. But when I think about other organizations and communities I have loved, they typically also share this view of abundance. Communities that seem the most closed are those driven by scarcity – resistant to newcomers, unwilling to share and cooperate. Abundance is not always a guarantee, but once you give in to the scarcity mindset, abundance becomes impossible. While some may argue that abundance versus scarcity is an objective measurement, I think that it is mostly a mindset.
Kelly told me that this duality plays a prominent role in climate activism. To demonstrate, we asked ChatGPT to explain how this concept relates to climate activism. It gave us two different answers:
See the difference?
In the first response, climate activism is promoting the scarcity of resources. We need to consume less, travel less, reduce our footprint. While this is true, Kelly says that this sort of messaging has proven unsuccessful because it fosters a culture of blame and defensiveness. It is widely unpopular, even amongst activists, to suggest they should reconsider traveling to see their family or not use air conditioning in the summer.
In the second response, climate activism instead focuses on an abundance of renewable energy. We can grow our sources of sustainable energy to meet our lifestyle, while creating jobs at the same time. This sort of messaging is generally more successful because it is not requiring people to sacrifice as much personally. It gives a vision of a future where we collectively have more, yet still reduce our impact on the planet. Whether or not you agree with this message, I think we can all agree that this message is more likely to win over your average citizen.
So how does this all relate to mountains? After all, this is a climbing blog, at least supposedly.
The duality of abundance versus scarcity is a lens that can be applied to recreational communities. Most successful communities leverage abundance. Mountain bikers come together to build trails and open new terrain. Nordic ski clubs raise funding to increase the frequency of grooming. Climbing communities can recruit more volunteers to replace old hardware and clean new routes. In each case, these communities are able to harness benefits from increased participation. More people = a better experience. That is abundance.
Backcountry skiing, however, is a community driven primarily by scarcity. Powder is scarce. Parking is scarce. There is no common infrastructure, like trails, grooming, or bolts to bring people together. More participants are just more competition for good snow and a threat to safety. Everything about backcountry skiing inherently drives a wedge between people. In places where there is a greater density of backcountry skiers, the culture becomes very secretive and zero sum. Information sharing stops. People snake each other at the top of a line for first tracks. Visit the Wasatch, and you will learn what I mean.
With the Cascade Backcountry Alliance, I believe that one of my top challenges is not institutional or logistical, but cultural. It is changing the culture of our community, the mindset of backcountry travelers, from scarcity to abundance. This mentality change is not just a nice-to-have. It is absolutely essential. More people are going to recreate in backcountry in the winter, whether you like it or not. We need to find a way to leverage increased participation to create tangible benefits. We must find a way.
The most obvious benefit of increased participation has been the growth of the Northwest Avalanche Center. Increased observations, better forecasts, and diverse telemetry all benefit backcountry users. More users means more funding and a positive feedback loop.
I think most people entering the sport of backcountry skiing these days also under appreciate gear improvements. Lighter, better gear allows us to go deeper in the backcountry and ski harder. These investments by gear companies are only possible because the market is big enough.
These are two examples of looking at the issue with a mindset of abundance. But we need more.
At the Cascade Backcountry Alliance, we are constantly looking for ways to turn more backcountry travelers into a good thing. Sure, gone are the days when you could sleep in on a weekend and get parking at 10am at Alpental, or when you could skin up Summit West and go unnoticed by the ski area. But we can envision a future where increased participation results in more access points, volunteer-thinned glades for betting skiing, greater education, and generally more positive relationships between different user groups. In my opinion, we have to envision that future. Abundance versus scarcity is a choice. If you chose scarcity, scarcity is what you will get.
Backcountry users have an abundance of space to spread out in Washington, but a severe lack of access points in the winter. It is going to take a lot of work to create change. The change each of us can start with is changing our mindset. I, too, am disappointed when a zone is tracked out of good snow. There is no real logical way of feeling good about that. I acknowledge there are undoubted downsides to more users. But I chose to believe that increased usage can provide at least some benefits – because the other belief is simply too defeating.
If you are curious, here is what Chat GPT3 thinks about abundance versus scarcity in the context of backcountry skiing:
By this point, you have probably thought of dozens of contexts in society where abundance versus scarcity is relevant. But it also plays a role in my personal mindset.
When I feel anxious about all the commitments taking up my schedule, I can remind myself that this is because of an abundance of people that care about me, activities I love, and causes I care about.
When I feel stressed debating whether I should go skiing or ice climbing tomorrow, I can remind myself that this is because of an abundance of accessible activities that I enjoy.
When I feel stressed by career decisions, I can remind myself that this is because of an abundance of opportunities and paths I could pursue.
These problems are privileges, scarcities created by abundance.
People ask me how I stay inspired and stoked about the mountains, how I keep coming up with new ideas. At my core, I believe in an abundance of inspiration and energy. While it does not always come easily, it can be actively cultivated. It is less like a fountain, and more like a forest – it must be cared for, respected, and sourced sustainably. Rest and reflection are essential.
There are always more places to see, more knowledge to acquire, more people to love. Life itself is wonderfully abundant.
Whenever possible, I try to chose abundance. It goes against our tribal nature as Homo Sapiens, individual incentives, and the negative messaging we receive daily through media. But I believe it is the happier, more optimistic choice. Many aspects of life are out of our control, but our mindset is not one of those things.
Which do you choose? Abundance or scarcity?
To greater heights, to unforgettable sights. The only way is up.