High Risk Leisure Discourse: Influence And/Or Use By Adventure Companies

ABSTRACT - Scholars of high-risk leisure consumption generally focus on psychological aspects of participation. They take the high-risk leisure discourse as given and do not particularly emphasize how this discourse forms and how elements of it are presented to consumers in the marketplace. In this study, I choose high-altitude mountaineering as an example of high-risk leisure in an attempt to analyze the surrounding commercial promotions directed to this consumer sector using a discourse analytic approach. The study reveals insights about how high-altitude mountaineering experiences are commoditized, aestheticized and glamorized by adventure companies in the process of marketing.



Citation:

Gulnur Tumbat (2003) ,"High Risk Leisure Discourse: Influence And/Or Use By Adventure Companies", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 30-34.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 30-34

HIGH RISK LEISURE DISCOURSE: INFLUENCE AND/OR USE BY ADVENTURE COMPANIES

Gulnur Tumbat, University of Utah, USA

ABSTRACT -

Scholars of high-risk leisure consumption generally focus on psychological aspects of participation. They take the high-risk leisure discourse as given and do not particularly emphasize how this discourse forms and how elements of it are presented to consumers in the marketplace. In this study, I choose high-altitude mountaineering as an example of high-risk leisure in an attempt to analyze the surrounding commercial promotions directed to this consumer sector using a discourse analytic approach. The study reveals insights about how high-altitude mountaineering experiences are commoditized, aestheticized and glamorized by adventure companies in the process of marketing.

INTRODUCTION

So-called high risk leisure is seen as a feature of contemporary modern society. Increasing demand for high-risk sports activities, along with broadened demographics of participants, beginning to draw attention from consumer researchers as well. Although these studies provide some understanding of the subject, they take the high-risk leisure discourse as given and do not particularly emphasize how this discourse forms and how elements of it are presented to consumers in the marketplace. In this study, I choose high-altitude mountaineering as an example of high-risk leisure and analyze the surrounding commercial promotions directed to this consumer sector, using a discourse analytic approach. The study reveals insights from an ongoing study about how mountaineering experiences are commoditized, aestheticized and glamorized by adventure companies in their marketing. This paper begins with a review of the risk literature. In the methodology section, I present the discourse analytic approach that I applied in order to study adventure companies’ marketing of high-altitude mountaineering expeditions. The paper concludes with a presentation of preliminary findings.

BACKGROUND

In high-risk sport/leisure activities, the term risk refers to physical risk (of physical injury or death) in demanding environmental conditions. Studies about the topic up to this point generally focus on psychological aspects of participation such as motives, antecedents, reasons, and needs. Peak experience (Maslow 1961), peak performance (Klausner 1968; Privette 1983), sensation seeking related to biochemical and psycho-physiological changes in the body (Zuckerman 1979), extraordinary experience (Abrahams 1986), optimal experience and flow (Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre 1989; Csikszentmihalyi 1990), edgework in an effort to link psychological and sociological dimensions to high-risk behavior (Lyng 1990), and symbolic play with death (Le Breton 2000) have all been concepts used to explain engagement in activities such as paragliding, skydiving, scuba diving, rock climbing and mountaineering.

In the consumer behavior field, Arnould and Price (1993) studied river rafting experience and the formation of a narrative through the guide’s interaction with customers. They call rafting a magical and extraordinary experience. Similarly, Celsi, Rose and Leigh (1993) studied the reasons behind seeking physical and psychic risk. Following subcultures of consumption studies which look at communities that identify themselves primarily by their consumption objects or activities, the authors studied transcendence and flow experiences in skydiving. They look at shared flow and the shared experience of skydiving and consequent risk acculturation. They further point out that mass-media enculturation of a dramatic worldview is an important factor motivating the culture’s high-risk consumption. Finally, they mention macro-environmental influences on high-risk leisure consumption from mass media, social specialization, and technology, and claim that these operate in parallel to inter- and intra personal motives.

Since "participants in any discourse expect and subsequently experience a reality shaped or created by that discourse" (Costa 1998, p.304), it is also important to look at the meaning formations and the social constructions shaping peoples’ views and participation in high-risk leisure activities. The notion of discourse is generally associated with Foucault’s theoretical arguments and methodology. He focused on the ways in which various practices and institutions define what it was to be a human (e.g. 1972, 1979). Thus, discourse is used here to refer to groups of statements which structure the way a thing is thought about, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking (see Costa 1998 and Said 1978 for deployments of Foucault). Foucault says that "whenever one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with discursive formation" (1972, p.38). Here discursive formation connotes the way meanings are connected together in a particular discourse and "how images construct specific views of the social world" (Rose 2002; p.140, emphasis added).

Belk and Costa (1998), in their study of mountain men, argue that mass media representations provide raw materials for contemporary fantasy construction and that this represents possibilities for character development, challenge, and performance. Furthermore, Costa (1998) suggests that marketing tourist destinations can be understood as discourse conveying meaning to the consumer. For high risk sports, Shoham, Rose and Kahle (1998) recommend that advertising and promotion should establish high levels of arousal featuring visually compelling demonstrations of the benefits of participating. Thus, to view visuality, in addition to textuality, as the research focus seems appropriate in order to explore how various images construct accounts of the high-risk leisure discourse.

High-Altitude Mountaineering and Adventure Companies

I chose to study high-altitude mountaineering as a significant representative of high-risk leisure discourse. High-altitude mountains usually refer to the mountains with an altitude of 18,000 feet or more. At this level, lack of oxygen, unpredictable weather and terrain conditions, including jet streams and avalanches prevail. As one of the famous high-altitude mountaineers puts it in an interview:

"...an environment for which human body is not well designed... it just doesn=t function at that altitude... demands on the body are much higher"

Climbs to such mountains are organized as mountaineering expeditions for three to nine or more weeks. These high-altitude mountaineering expeditions are quite demanding activities with the high-tech and expensive equipment now regarded as essential, along with lengthy pre-trip plans, including physical and mental exercise, manpower recruitment, and logistical support. Furthermore, high altitude mountaineering is now an important economic sector involving equipment, clothing, tourism, and insurance (Kohout, 1997). It has become a lifestyle sector (Giddens 1991) and a part of the consumption society (Ewert 1994). Except for a couple of peaks in the American, African, and European continents, peaks above 18,000 feet are only found in the Himalayan and Caucasus regions. Thus, expeditions to these mountains also necessitate travel to remote lands, since most climbers are from distant locales.

In the popular media, high-altitude mountain expeditions are usually portrayed as highly marginal and dangerous activities. Mainstream films such as Everest, K2, Vertical Limit, Eiger Sanction, and Cliffhanger involve dramatized portrayal of accidents resulting in the death of one or more team members. A disaster occurs due to a small mistake, unpredictable weather changes, or stubbornness of mountaineers. Now, we also have adventure channels providing high-altitude mountaineering shows:

"Reality is different at 29,000 ft. For the first time ever on LIVE television, follow the footsteps of...an everyday person who became immortal: Sir Edmund Hillary, ...who became first to reach the mountain’s zenith. Experience five months of Global Extremes: Mount Everest every Monday, January through MAY, as participants battle the most extreme conditions on the planet for the chance to make history...only on OLN Adventure TV...@ (OLN Adventure TV Ad in National Geographic Adventure Magazine, Dec.02/Jan.03)

Furthermore, high-tech equipment advertisements in the marketplace use the notions of unexpected danger and risk in visual and textual information, but at the same time they also provide a remedy for these dangers through their products:

"The unexpected... No amount of planning will prevent it, but you can get through it. Thanks to innovative outwear like the Liquid Steel Jacket...Next time...you won’t fear the unexpected. Because you will have the protection you can count on." (Marmot Ad, Climbing Magazine, Dec.02)

In a marketplace full of such claims, adventure companies offer a variety of mountaineering services and offer to take care of all necessary arrangements for their customers. The long and demanding preparation period mainly includes obtaining necessary permits, visas, guides, accommodations, flights, local transportation, and food. Commercial adventure companies offer a variety of mountaineering services and organize expeditions to high-altitude mountains. The cost of a commercial expedition per individual varies between US$3,000 to US$10,000 depending on the height of the mountain, the region and the services included. These figures reach to US$60,000 to US$100,000 for expeditions to Mount Everest. Today, it is almost impossible to engage in a high-altitude mountaineering experience (trekking is more feasible) without being part of an organized expedition beforehand. Even if one can go to Nepal and reach a base camp through a trekking route, it is highly difficult to be part of an already formed expedition team mostly because of the requirements mentioned above. Also, companies generally (claim to) focus on interaction among team members and knowing people better in terms of their skills and weaknesses before going to the mountains. Thus, a certain amount of psychological and physical dependency in the consumer’s relationship to an adventure company is part and parcel of the consumption experience.

In this study, I attempt to analyze such adventure companies’ involvement in helping to construct and make use of high-risk leisure discourse, with particular reference to high-altitude mountaineering expeditions. Therefore, the questions are: How is a high-altitude mountaineering experience portrayed? How do adventure companies use high-risk leisure discourse in their promotions? In what ways do these companies contribute to the discourse? What are the meanings apparently conveyed to consumers and how are those meanings connected to each other?

METHODOLOGY

Discourses are articulated through all sources of visual and verbal images and texts, and through the practices that those languages permit. "Objects, relations, places, scenes; discourse produces the world as it understands it" (Rose 2002, p.137). Paralleling some aspects of Costa’s (1998) paradisal discourse study, I analyze websites and brochures of 30 adventure companies as sources of visual and verbal images and texts. I chose the companies that organize expeditions to mountains above 18,000 feet. In order to find those companies, I used Outdoors Yellow Pages (2002) and the advertisements that such companies give to popular outdoors magazines like Climbing, National Geographic Adventure, and Outdoor Edge.

I employed a discourse analytic approach as outlined by Rose (2002) and Tonkiss (1998), and further incorporated five in-depth interviews with high-altitude mountaineers in an attempt to answer the questions: How is a high-altitude mountaineering experience portrayed? How do adventure companies use high-risk leisure discourse in their promotions? In what ways do these companies contribute to the discourse? What are the meanings apparently conveyed to consumers and how are those meanings connected to each other? Thus, as a first step, I look at the rhetorical organization and social production of high-risk leisure discourse as revealed by the adventure companies’ promotions to potential consumers. In addition to the inter-textuality (Rose 2002), I study inter-visuality in the data. I identify key themes and recurring texts and visual images and connections between them. I further look at the cluster of themes and relations among them in both visual and textual data. Since all discourse is organized to make itself persuasive (Gill 1996), I try to identify visible and invisible elements, complexities, contradictions, knowledge construction, and truth claims made to an audience.

In addition to the data collection and analysis described above, I conducted five in-depth interviews with high-altitude mountaineers through snowball sampling. The interviews ranged in length from one to two hours. I transcribed the data verbatim for the analysis. The people I interviewed are all highly experienced and both nationally and internationally well-known high-altitude mountaineers. All of them are also working as guides and two of them operate an adventure company and organize high-altitude mountaineering expeditions to various destinations in the world. They all have been part of both commercially and non-commercially organized expeditions as guides and/or organizers.

FINDINGS

Zuckerman (1979) indicated that customers themselves make a compromise and combine moderate level of sensation seeking with a strategy to minimize risk when participating in a packaged so-called adventure tours. Preliminary findings suggest that adventure companies do not necessarily incorporate the risk aspect of climbing into their verbal and visual communications. Instead they use adjectives like beautiful, best, high, highest, remote, famous, spectacular, and challenging in characterizing the mountains and experiences they are selling. With detailed itineraries, and assurances of safety and care, they legitimize the risks involved without pronouncing them. They use textual and visual materials to rationalize the risks involved in a high altitude mountaineering experience. Thus, the experience is usually portrayed as a rewarding adventure of a lifetime with resultant high status (Please contact the author for Picture 1):

Adventure companies claim to be experts by claiming the best knowledge, skills, and experiences in mountaineering, and the best knowledge of the area and the mountain. They also work with the highly experienced guides:

"...we have led over 80 expeditions in the last 18 years. The quality and expertise of our trips are unparalleled...we have the highest success rate...all of our guides are professional mountain guides. You should expect high standards from the guides...occasionally we have very qualified local assistant mountain guides proven to be of superb asset to expeditions...not only we use the best equipment, we renew our equipment at the end of each season. We are specialized...in the art of high-altitude mountain guiding...." (www.patagonicas.com)

In order to be convincing, the claims include their knowledge and experience, and the loyal Sherpas working with them, all ready to provide every imaginable service. These claims may create an illusion of control over the uncontrollable aspects of the high-altitude mountaineering expedition. The photos serve this purpose as well since they show smiling clients with expensive and colorful technical equipment on the white peaks of massive mountains (Please contact the author for Picture 2).

They emphasize the long preparation period as a ritual which is an important part of the expedition, urging customers to sign up as early as six months. Most adventure companies also provide training for those who don’t have any prior high-altitude mountaineering experience. Training includes use of equipment, basic safety and rescue procedures. As Lyng (1990) argues "...planning and organization play some role in maintaining the illusion of control...even though the actual course of events may be largely chance determined" (p.875):

"Our goal is to give you the highest quality expedition available and to provide you with the technical skills and knowledge needed to competently reach the summit." (www.earthtreksclimbing.com)

They provide information about how to choose the right equipment and how to use it. Providing this experience and knowledge to customers, adventure companies may create an illusion of control for their customers.

Although one would "push personal limits and live this self-rewarding experience," it is also not necessarily an individual activity but a team activity: It is a "shared adventure" (www.earthtreksclimbing.com). This may also mean to decrease the burden on the individualBthey are not the only ones engaging in such activities. The photos, which cover most of the brochures and web pages, seem to offer tantalizingly pleasant experiences with other group/team members, who look fit, healthy, and happy. The people in colorful clothing and the technical equipment shown in the pictures give the first clues as to what it means to become a member, even at the first glance. The notion of communitas (Turner, 1969) is developed by portraying the expedition as a shared ritual experience towards a common goal. Depicted feelings of linkage, belonging and group devotion to accomplish a challenging goal are some of the aspects of this notion. Also, most companies provide post-climbing activities such as barbecue parties and slide shows to maintain communitas. They also quote their prior customers’ views of their experiences and expeditions. These usually involve appreciation of the guide, planning, and organization:

"Thank you for a great adventure and a perfect vacation...everything was perfectly planned and perfectly executed." "The experience had a big impact in terms of our attitude, our pace, our approach to work and life in general. Thanks for being our guide to this change." (Arun Treks brochure)

In the images, Himalayan and Caucasus mountains are always shown together with some cultural features of the area (Please contact the author for Pictures 3 and 4). Images used in brochures and advertisements exoticize the Other, as in the case of Nepal (Belk, 1993) and Hawaii (Costa, 1998; see also Said 1978). Furthermore, the use of local guides is presented as an opportunity to learn more about these "different, exotic and mystic" cultures. In an effort to invoke cultural experience as a part of the expedition, companies even place sometime in the itineraries for souvenir shopping.

"This service, in turn, provides a better overall cultural experience and the chance to safely push yourself closer to your physical limits." (www.camp5.com)

This aesthetization of high altitude mountaineering expeditions provides a sense of escape, challenge, and self-transformation through different cultural experiences. Here, one can see the basic aspects of leisure that are usually attached to a place of relaxation, a place that is restful and calm, but in any case, away from daily life.

Webpages and brochures are full of breath-taking scenes of mountains. Weather is always sunny and mountains are spectacular under blue skies. Each image captures and reflects a growing public fascination with the excitement of high-risk sports. These idealized photographs of unspoiled snow-capped mountains generate oversimplified views of nature. Adventure companies claim to open the way to the summits that only elite mountaineers are supposed to climb. Commercial expeditions "democratize the mountains. It means that everybody has their chance to become a mountaineer" in the words of one manager of an adventure company.

"Dreaming of climbing in the mountains is a time-honored fascination for humans and until recently, climbing the highest peaks in the world has been known only to a few, highly skilled and intrepid individuals...Now, for determined individuals following the philosophy behind our Live Your Dreams program, the Seven Summits are no longer the exclusive realm of only elite mountaineers" (www.mountainmadness.com).

"The reason non-technical climbers have the opportunity to summit is through our skilled leadership...we offer both the instruction and support you will need to realize your dreams" (Camp5 Brochure).

At the same time, guides and company managers interviewed maintained the distinction between a client and a mountaineer. They referred to people who climb in their companies’ expeditions as clients or customers, and to their guides and friends in other expeditions as true mountaineers:

".. the only gear that they carry up the mountain is part of their personal gear... the Sherpas are carrying all the tents, all the food... As a client you are probably carrying your sleeping bag, maybe your parka, and a couple of liters of water... so your pack is pretty light all the way...hire a guide one on one for 100,000 dollars and hire the Sherpa to carry all the bottled oxygen he can carry so that you can have oxygen all the way up and down and you can come home and tell somebody that you have been on the summit.. but, that is not what high-altitude mountaineering is about.." (a guide)

"high altitude climbing stuff...with oxygen, full Sherpa support, fixed lines... doesn=t mean anything for... the sport of international mountaineering..." (adventure company manager)

The boundary between client and mountaineer is maintained through the arguments of what is right versus wrong or what is appropriate versus what is inappropriate. The excerpts also imply that the means to create that distinction is something that is earned (Bourdieu 1984). However, the distinction is not necessarily problematized because it provides an opportunity for the "real" mountaineers and/or guides to go to mountains:

"Someone is going to pay $60,000 to climb Everest; it is a lot of money... but... they got more money... they have more mountaineering expedition time and the market force always will find a balance there, someone has lots of climbing skills but not the money. They [guides and clients] meet and they go to the climb." (famous mountaineer and guide)

Target groups of high altitude expedition promotions are usually upper-middle class people, ages 30 to 45, with high discretionary incomes, living relatively routine, ordinary and safe lives. High-risk leisure activities such as high-altitude mountaineering are presented to these people as opportunities to meet with risk and with different cultures of less developed Third World countries, and thereby to more ready to face uncertainties in their lives in the future:

"We have knowledge, experience and skill to manage risk.... We teach risk management... they [clients] come back, perhaps less fearful... they don’t even know... they are managing risk... by traveling and experiencing other cultures" (adventure company manager)

DISCUSSION

High risk leisure discourse appears to be a complex articulation of the tropes of risk, safety, control, rationality, aesthetics, and communitas. Mainstream films in addition to other popular media present a dramatized view of the risky and dangerous aspects of high-altitude mountaineering activity. Equipment manufacturers also emphasize these aspects in their advertisements to promote their high-tech equipment’s reliability. Adventure companies, on the other hand, without necessarily pronouncing the potential risk element involved, focus on knowledge, expertise, skill, control, and the opportunity to have different and aesthetic personal and cultural experiences. In an attempt to downplay the risky aspect of the activity, adventure companies rationalize and aestheticize the risk involved in high altitude mountaineering expeditions in their promotions. They achieve this by providing claims of expert knowledge about mountains, equipment, distant areas, and cultures; showing spectacular views of huge mountains and smiling people with colorful high-tech equipment on summits; exoticizing different cultures and thus making cultural experience a part of the expedition. These two views (i.e., popular media and company promotions) operate in contradiction to each other, while yet feeding off of each other, since adventure companies seek to use the most positive aspects of the already established high-risk discourse from other popular media channels (e.g., mainstream films, TV programs, high-tech equipment advertisements).

As mentioned earlier, this study is a preliminary attempt to understand how high risk leisure activities such as high altitude mountaineering, are commoditized, aestheticized, and glamorized for consumers in the process of marketing, through analyzing visual, textual and verbal information used by adventure companies. Assuming that clients pre-imagine the experience and components of the expedition, in the next step of this study, I will incorporate interviews with "clients" to reveal their expectations, the meanings they derive from such experiences, how these conform with the themes found, and whether their expectations and experiences reinforce the discourse. This work should also reveal how boundaries between a "true mountaineer" versus a "client" are maintained, penetrated, or violated by clients during and after high altitude mountaineering expeditions.

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Authors

Gulnur Tumbat, University of Utah, USA



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003



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