Like all good students, while researching a master's degree project focused on wildlife management, Mary Benjamin allowed herself to become sidetracked by a topic that captured her interest more deeply — the mountaineering experience.
"I found I was reading more about the mountaineering experience for personal pleasure than I was about my original thesis topic in an attempt to understand why I love it so much," Benjamin explained.
She began listening with a different perspective to her friends' complaints and stories about what they liked and didn't like about their climbing experiences around the world. A grad student in environmental design at the University of Calgary, she began contrasting what she was learning in class about resource management issues and the struggles of allowing visitors to enjoy their experiences while maintaining the resource and land on which they recreate, with what her climbing friends described about their experiences.
"I went back to my trip notes from past adventures in Switzerland, Scotland and Wales and realized I had unconsciously been making comparisons between these locations and the Rockies and Adirondacks," she said. "I decided this was a problem with no easy solution — to find a balance between management and visitor experience — and that it was one that I could tackle in the context of this master's."
As such, Benjamin switched her thesis to the task of identifying the critical factors that influence the mountaineering experience with an aim toward outlining potential solutions.
In recent years, the sport of mountaineering has experienced a significant change in numbers of participants, methods and equipment, as well as changes in climbers' desires and expectations, she said. Changes in climbers' motivations have altered the relationships mountaineers have with their physical environment.
"This has resulted in significant environmental, social and cultural impacts on the world's mountain ranges and peoples," she said. "Land managers now face the challenge of addressing their mandates to provide users with appropriate recreational experiences, while avoiding and managing associated impacts."
In particular, increased numbers of participants presents a growing concern for national parks mangers in their attempt to understand the user experience and related environmental impacts.
"As land managers' policies are governed by mandates that provide users with appropriate recreational experiences while mitigating against environmental, social and cultural impacts, an understanding of this experience is essential," Benjamin said. "Without recreational users, Parks Canada's dual mandate will only be semi-achieved."
In addition to reading reams of climbing accounts, plus numerous interviews in Switzerland and the U.K., Benjamin has interviewed professional mountains guides and intermediate level recreational climbers in the Banff and Canmore area. The cooperation of the Alpine Club of Canada, Parks Canada, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures and Rockies climbing writer and historian, Chic Scott, has been indispensible.
One attitude that surprised her was reluctance exhibited by some of her interview subjects toward the idea that a national park should be considering any sort of management plan related to the pursuit of mountaineering.