In the past couple decades, a trip to go skiing or climbing in remote regions of the Canadian Rockies has gone from a solitary experience to one where you’re often surrounded by other adventurers. The rise in outdoor enthusiasts has also led to an explosion in business for backcountry guiding, training and accommodation.
Companies and guides say that there’s been a healthy – if not overwhelming – growth in adventure sports, whether it be milder activities such as hiking and snowshoeing, or more extreme sports such as backcountry snowboarding and ice climbing. But while the boost is good for business, it has also led to crowding and raised safety concerns over dangers such as avalanches.
While statistics on the volume of skiers and snowboarders in the backcountry are hard to come by, the two sports have generally been on the rise over the past decade. Canadian ski resorts in British Columbia and Alberta had 9.5 million ski visits in 2017, according to the Canada West Ski Areas Association, a 3-per-cent increase from 2016.
Guides and companies that operate in the sector note that popular backcountry areas are getting more crowded and classroom sizes for people learning the sports are bigger. Maintaining the quality of the outdoor experience is a continuing battle as more and more people get involved in these activities.
Cloud Nine is one of many companies that has experienced a business boost in the past few years. The guiding company organizes multi-day backcountry tours in remote regions of Western Canada, as well as educational courses that provide people with the skills to do those activities on their own. Mike Trehearne, director of operations at Cloud Nine, said that business for their guiding and outdoor education programs has tripled in the past three years.
Another booming area has been backcountry lodging. Various organizations rent out remote mountain cabins that are used by climbers, hikers and skiers, and demand for them is increasing.
“All of these backcountry accommodations have began to explode in the last couple years,” Mr. Trehearne said. “We used to be able to pick up bookings a year in advance, and now we’re booking into 2020 and we have clients now looking into 2021.”
Mr. Trehearne said that the pace of expansion has been overwhelming at times for his relatively young company. In order to maintain a personal touch for the customer, he said the company pulled back on growth after their revenue doubled each year for their first three years in business.
“We’ve had to be conscious of not biting off too much too soon and making sure that we’re not taking on too much work that’s going to sacrifice the end product to our client,” Mr. Trehearne said. “The individual person-to-person experience has always been a part of mountaineering,” he added, saying that the company has focused on smaller group sizes and a lower client-to-instructor ratio.
Finding enough staff in response to the demand has also proved to be difficult at times for Cloud Nine, and Mr. Trehearne said that certain types of mountain guides can be hard to find because of the certifications that are required.
Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, a larger outdoor guiding outfit that has operated in Western Canada for more than 30 years and employs about 100 people during peak season, said there’s been a steady increase in business.
Len Youden, general manager at Yamnuska, views the adventure industry in two segments: hard adventure and soft adventure. Hard adventure is expanding, he said, but soft adventure is booming.
“Hiking, snowshoeing, resort skiing; soft adventure has exploded, no question about it,” Mr Youden said.
But there are concerns amid the surge in backcountry adventures over natural dangers, especially in the more extreme sports. Don Steedman, a ski guide who has worked in Western Canada for the past three decades, pointed to the perils posed by avalanches.
“The mountains are big, but if we start putting too many people into the backcountry … that could cause issues such as people skiing on top of each other, which is an avalanche danger,” warned Mr. Steedman, who said that popular areas such as Rogers Pass in British Columbia have experienced this problem.
Mr. Trehearne said there have been crowding problems in towns such as Revelstoke and Golden, B.C., where too many people using popular trails at the same time has caused some problems for the industry.
For now though, Mr. Trehearne said it’s a positive development that more people are becoming interested in Canada’s outdoors. And the country still boasts enough remote areas for diehard mountaineers who are looking for a more solitary experience.
“As long as it’s well managed it’s a good thing,” Mr. Trehearne said. “We have to recognize that there’s a lot more people around.”
Stay on top of all our small business stories. We have a weekly Report on Small Business newsletter for hard-working entrepreneurs pursuing growth and expansion. Sign up today.