Summit stewards are responsible for protecting New York’s alpine plant communities in the High Peaks. Alpine plant species are often rare or endangered, and all are susceptible to human foot traffic. Summit stewards enlist hikers’ help in protecting these species by teaching them to not trample the plants when hiking. Above tree line, summit stewards define the trail by erecting rock cairns and scree walls and painting blazes.
Having a steward on Cascade, which isn’t believed to have alpine vegetation, is a big educational opportunity for the program. Cascade sees more than 20,000 visitors annually, some of whom have little or no background in backcountry etiquette or preservation. Cascade is the first major peak for many hikers, who often go on to attempt larger Adirondack summits that do have fragile alpine zones.
In a 2009 pilot program, a steward on Cascade made more than 2,000 contacts during a 17-day period. New funding in the form of a $5,000 wilderness grant from the ADKhighpeaks Foundation will expand that coverage from 30 to 40 days and could increase hiker contacts on Cascade to 4,000 people or more.
In 2010, the entire summit steward program made 16,447 hiker contacts (without coverage on Cascade) with hikers, so the increase would represent about a 25 percent increase. Predicting the increase is difficult, though, because the number of visitors to the High Peaks fluctuates every year based on the weather and the economy.
“I think there’s an opportunity to have a huge educational impact,” summit steward Coordinator Julia Goren said.
During the peak hiking season in the summer, summit stewards provide full time coverage on Mount Marcy and Algonquin. They also spend time on other High Peaks, namely Mount Colden and Wright Peak.
This year the program is expected to have five seasonal stewards plus Goren, who works full-time. That is up two seasonal workers from last summer.
Alpine vegetation is believed to be on only 16 peaks in New York, though that number varies, depending on the source. Most of that is concentrated on seven summits: Marcy, Alonquin, Haystack, Skylight, Colden, Wright and Whiteface.
The alpine zone dates back 12,000 years — just after the last ice age. During that period, glaciers retreated and melted, leaving behind an arctic tundra landscape. As the climate warmed, new species of trees and plants took over the lower elevations. Only the summits of the highest mountains retained the arctic conditions.
Today, this “ancient” landscape can generally be found above elevations of 4,500 to 4,800 feet.
In the alpine zone, the growing season is short, the thin layer of soil is generally nutrient-poor, and the winds can be especially strong. Mosses and lichens cling to the bedrock. Ferns, grasses and flowers grow in meadows, and you’ll even find some stunted black spruces.
The High Peaks Summit Steward program is a partnership of the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It also receives funding from the 46er Community Trust.
Summit steward Duncan Lennon interacts with climbers on the summit of Algonquin.