In the News  Archive

Adirondack High Peaks become victim success

Times Union
September 26, 2016

By Rick Karlin

There's nothing quite like the Adirondack High Peaks.

This 200,000-acre pocket of mountain wilderness in northern New York is renowned for its crisp, clear air, crystalline waters and stunning vistas atop treeless summits.

But lately, the High Peaks is becoming known for something else, such as mountain-top keg parties, crowds of people ascending rugged rock faces wearing nothing more on their feet than flip flops, and even human waste littering some of the trails.

The High Peaks have become victims of their own success, being overrun with people, some of whom are unprepared for a wilderness trek or who treat the "Forever Wild'' area like a vast tree-lined amusement park, according to advocates and organizations that have long looked after the region.

"These mountains are just getting pounded,'' said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club which organizes trips into the region and works for its protection.

"It's really kind of getting out of hand,'' he said, noting that for the past few years, unusually large crowds have descended on the High Peaks during summer and on fall weekends.

The result has been more erosion on already-rutted and rocky trails, potential spoiling of fragile alpine flora that exist above timberline and, perhaps most notably but in a way that's hard to quantify, a change in what it means to hike into these areas.

While reaching the top of a High Peak was traditionally viewed as a wilderness experience, climbers on the popular summits like Mount Marcy, Algonquin or Cascade and Porter are increasingly likely to be greeted with throngs of people.

Some appear to have no concept of the etiquette that traditionally applies to these woods.

Woodworth has reported seeing human waste, along with toilet paper, in the middle of footpaths. There are internet photos of young hikers swilling beer from kegs on some peaks.

Mostly, though, the overcrowding is hard to manage when it comes to foot and road traffic as well as safety.

The crowding came to a head over Labor Day weekend.

The Mountain Club's Adirondack Loj is a small compound at the trailhead, or jumping-off point, for some of the region's most-used trails such as those that lead to Mount Marcy and Algonquin.

There's limited lodging, a small gift shop, restroom, some camping and parking spots. They can handle about 200 cars. But over Labor Day, the parking lot quickly filled up and there were another 350 vehicles lining the narrow road that leads to the Loj, Woodworth said.

Not only did they run out of parking, but the Loj's small restrooms got so much use that they had to be shut down.

Before that, in late August, leaders of a group of 67 hikers on a bus trip from Quebec ascended Algonquin mountain, the state's second highest peak. The leaders were ticketed since groups in the High Peaks are supposed to be limited to 15.

Similar situations have cropped up in the roadside parking area near Cascade Mountain, which is particularly popular since it's a comparatively short hike to a summit above 4,000 feet.

Rather than touring the wilderness, visitors can find themselves in mini-traffic jams and prowling the area as if in Queens or Brooklyn, looking for a spot to park.

"It's been building for a couple of years, but over Labor Day weekend it came to a head,'' said James McKenna, President and CEO of the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.

There are lots of reasons for the boom, ranging from the rise of adventure sports, a tourism push by the state on social media sites like Facebook, where, as McKenna put it, every photo taken from a High Peak serves as a promotional vehicle.

For years, lots of outdoorspeople who came to the High Peaks aspired to becoming 46ers, a group of dogged hikers who have climbed all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks that rise to more than 4,000 feet in elevation.

That's almost quaint compared to what people are doing nowadays. There are trail runners who run up multiple peaks in a day and ultralight hikers who carry as little gear and clothing as possible in a search for speed. There's even a small subset known as "grid hikers,'' who aim to climb each of the 46 peaks during every month of the year.

Adirondack adventures are even depicted, or one might say caricatured, on TV.

NBC's ''Running Wild with Bear Grylls'' show featured a recent episode where Grylls took basketball great Shaquille O'Neal on an Adirondack adventure that would seem bizarre to most 46ers or other veteran hikers.

After landing in a helicopter, they used a rope connected to a grappling hook, fired by a mortar-like launcher, to ascend a cliff. Then they cooked a survival meal from a placenta, which was likely from a deer or moose.

The extreme sports mindset can create problems. Veterans like Woodworth speak of hikers who are climbing treacherous routes like the Trap Dike, a mountaineering route up Mount Colden, in sandals.

In other cases, people venture into the mountains thinking that help is simply a cell phone call away.

In some instances there have been tragedies, although most have come in winter when there are far fewer people.

Last winter, an avid and experienced ultralight hiker from Delaware, Hua Davis, died of hypothermia near the top of MacNaughton Mountain. She was wearing sneakers and thin clothing layers even though the temperatures were below freezing.

The growth in visitors is reflected in statistics on search and rescue missions conducted by state rangers.

Rangers in 2015 conducted a record 341 search and rescue missions, consuming 20,606 man-hour hours of time.

That's up from 229 requiring 10,378 in 2005. Back in 1975, there were 162 and 4,049 hours.

And last year, 53,423 people signed in at the trail register at the popular Van Hovenberg Trail at the Adirondack Loj.

That's compared to 30,289 in 1988.

All of this doesn't mean that people are decrying the High Peaks' are popularity.

"I want other people to see what makes it so special and I hope when they are out here they respect it as much as we do,'' remarked Ken Aaron, a Saranac Lake resident who just climbed his 46th high peak.

And Peter Bauer, executive director of the conservation group Protect the Adirondacks, said people shouldn't be kept from the area's beauty.

"I don't think we can keep the crowds away from the High Peaks nor should we,'' he said.

He added that certain spots in the High Peaks have always been draws, such as the state's highest point, Mount Marcy.

He recalls descending Mount Marcy during one nice fall day two decades ago and counting 400 people along the trail.

The issue, to him is one of resources from the state – especially for improvement such as rebuilding trails with switchbacks, which cut erosion.

Others say the area needs more forest rangers who now spend so much time on search and rescue missions that they have little ability to interface with people and provide tips on where to go and how to minimize their environmental impact on the area.

The state recently completed a ranger training academy to replenish some of the ranks of those who have retired, but they should probably start running more, said Daniel De Federicis, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association of NYS which represent rangers.

There's also a push for expanding the High Peaks wilderness, by classifying two adjacent tracts of land near the community of Newcomb that could provide hikers with alternate routes.

"We can spread some of this impact to much lesser-used places,'' said John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council.

Following the Labor Day weekends, the Adirondack Mountain Club and Department of Environmental Conservation performed some crowd control, with rangers warning visitors when the Adirondack Loj parking area was at capacity.

While they turned them away from that spot, they also handed out lists of hikes that are less traveled.

McKenna's group is also developing a website they plan to call Adkalert.com, that will inform people which trailheads and parking spots are crowded at a given time.

They hope to have it up by what could be the next big wave of visitors on Columbus Day, which coincides with Canadian Thanksgiving.

"We want a good experience for everybody,'' said McKenna.

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