High Expectations

by | April 2016

Illustration by Corey Pandolph

Is social media ruining the Adirondack wilderness experience?

Last summer, ultramarathon runner
Scott Jurek stood atop Mount Katahdin, in Maine, after completing the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail in record time. Someone in the surrounding group of fans handed him a bottle of champagne, which he shook, popped open, sprayed in celebration, then sipped. A park ranger watched. Photos were snapped and posted to Instagram. Soon after, Jurek was served with three tickets: for a group size over 12, consuming alcohol on state park land and littering—the champagne had splashed on Katahdin’s summit rock.

About three months later a hiker from the Bronx was ticketed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for a day-use group-size violation after he posted pictures on Facebook that showed at least 16 people, a keg and someone being held upside-down, mid–keg stand, on top of Phelps Mountain, in the Adirondack Park. The hiker—who had just climbed his last of the Adirondacks’ 46 highest peaks—wrote, “Celebrating the finish on Phelps the next day! Yes that is a keg we brought to the summit and keg stands!”

If you are of age, it is not illegal to consume alcohol on Adirondack state land. It is, however, illegal to hike in the High Peaks Wilderness Area with a group of more than 15 people.

More and more people are hiking here, according to Julia Goren, coordinator and education director for the Summit Steward program. She says that since 2011 there’s been “a 64-percent increase in the number of people we have spoken with in the High Peaks.” (Summit stewards, based regularly on Marcy, Algonquin, Wright, Cascade and Colden, protect mountaintop flora by chatting with hikers, and are witness to whatever happens on those peaks.)

“The majority of people are really respectful,” says Goren. They practice Leave No Trace and avoid stepping on fragile alpine plants. But in the last decade she says she and her stewards have observed an uptick in people who are unprepared—cotton clothes, flip-flops, not enough food or water or knowledge about group-size limits or what to do with their human waste. “They haven’t done their homework. They come to the High Peaks without having read a guidebook or looked at a map because they see a friend’s selfie on Marcy and want to go to this place.”

Then there’s the behavior.

People blast music from or shout into phones. On Marcy there have been incidences of rock-throwing and knocking over the summit cairn. Algonquin’s summit was the site of a soccer game. Groups of more than 20 and even 30 are a common occurrence on Cascade. On that mountain last year a group had an alcohol-fueled full-moon party, leaving behind trash. Goren says, “People don’t necessarily think much about the experience someone else is trying to have.”

Neil Woodworth, Adirondack Mountain Club’s executive director, says that when he started hiking, “you learned by example from ADK club leaders that talking in normal tones was acceptable, the leader would point out surrounding peaks, there was reverence for the summit experience. That kind of ethic seems to be slipping away from us.”

Many of the large, “meet-up” hiking groups that form through social media networks don’t have recognized leaders, says Woodworth—“Summit etiquette isn’t being learned or followed.”

Some hikers might say to lighten up, to let them experience wilderness however they’d like. This is the people’s park, after all. Maybe listening to birdsong and admiring mosses, even belonging to organized hiking clubs, is outmoded for this new wave of visitors.

Nowadays many people hike for athletic pursuit, checking off challenges that go beyond scaling the Adirondacks’ 46—doing the circuit every month or barefoot or backwards or with a sexual experience on each summit. But does, say, Instagram—capable of glamorizing any experience in a single image and a handful of hashtags—mislead about the reality of these conquests? And do social media “followers” know how disruptive or potentially dangerous or—in the case of Jurek’s post-hike celebration—illegal certain behaviors can be?

“The main thing is to respect everybody and to conduct yourself with a degree of humility,” says Todd Eastman, once part of the Ski to Die Club, a 1970s and ’80s crew of Adirondack bad boys known for their extreme backcountry adventures. He’s also a prolific climber and, today, an environmental planner living in Washington who frequently posts his opinions on Adirondack online forums. The Adirondack experience, he says, “is deeply personal,” but “we all have to share this place.” 

Just what exactly a wilderness experience should be is a philosophical question, according to Julia Goren. People need to talk about it. That might mean a face-to-face with someone about their behavior, saying, “‘How can we make it so your experience isn’t impacting my experience?’ It takes people feeling like it’s important enough that they’ll step out of their comfort zone to have that conversation.” 

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