Stewarding the summit

As High Peaks hiker traffic increases, summit stewards expand reach in new season

Liam Ebner, far left, an educator from the ADK Summit Steward Program, speaks to hikers on Wright Peak about the fragile plant life on summits in the Adirondack High Peaks. (Provided photo — ADK)

LAKE PLACID — There’s a euphoric feeling that comes with climbing past the treeline of an alpine summit. The gusts of cool air wafting over your damp shirt when the backpack is taken off, the fresh air filling your heaving lungs and, of course, the breathtaking summit views are all treats to the senses after an hours-long hike up rock faces and winding trails in the thick woods of the High Peaks Wilderness.

But on the summit floor is another rare treat that’s easily overlooked and sometimes trampled over, if hiker’s aren’t careful: Alpine vegetation.

For Adirondack Mountain Club’s summit steward manager Kayla White, alpine vegetation is the main dish of a hike. She thinks of the Adirondack Park’s alpine summits as “islands in the sky” — pockets of rare, fragile vegetation in the park’s highest peaks — ecosystems that act as “natural living history museums.”

When the glaciers retreated from the mountains of the Northeast around 12,000 years ago, White said, the mountain landscape of the Adirondack Park was scoured of life. Alpine plants — vegetation that exists above alpine summit treelines — were the first living things to recolonize the landscape. The recolonization and subsequent survival of alpine vegetation is what White calls a “conservation success story.”

Alpine vegetation is forged by harsh conditions. These plants withstand daily hurricane-level winds, highly concentrated UV rays, and little more than 60 to 80 frost-free days per year, White said. But despite their strength, these ecosystems are fragile and can’t withstand trampling from human activity like hiking. That’s why the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) has deployed summit stewards — staff and volunteers who educate hikers about staying off of alpine vegetation on the High Peaks’ highest summits — for more than 30 years.

From left, ADK summit stewards Troy Tetreault, Jack Coleman, Ellen Tierney, Kayla White, Liam Ebner, Bridey Ryan, and Jacob Vitale look at alpine vegetation on Whiteface Mountain. (Provided photo — ADK)

The program was started by Dr. Edwin Ketchledge and Kathy Regan in 1989 after years of alpine vegetation decline. In the 1960s and 1970s, White said, camping on summits was legally allowed and people didn’t know that stepping on alpine vegetation could kill the fragile ecosystems. Ketchledge found that the High Peaks needed stewards on the mountain to educate hikers about avoiding alpine vegetation by hiking on bare rock surfaces. Funded by the Adirondack 46ers and formed under a partnership between the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship program was modeled after the Green Mountain Club’s steward program in Vermont. ADK’s program also receives funding from endowments, state Park and Trail Partnership Grants and the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

ADK’s program officially runs from Memorial Day to Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day every year, and this year’s season begins on Friday, May 26. Since 1990, ADK summit stewards have educated a total of 646,842 hikers about alpine vegetation. In recent years, the program has expanded its staff and geographic reach and helped alpine vegetation to remain intact even as hiker traffic has increased.

Since the program was created, the High Peaks have seen a significant increase in hiker traffic — especially over the last several years, with contacts between summit stewards and hikers peaking between 2016 and 2020. In 2019, stewards spoke to 39,939 hikers. While that number has dropped off since then — with stewards speaking to 32,844 hikers in 2022 — numbers have remained significantly higher than in the years before 2016, according to ADK’s 2022 summit steward year-end report.

The summit stewards’ full 2022 year-end report is available online at tinyurl.com/53cyvv7a.

Diapensia on Wright Peak (Provided photo — ADK)

Protecting the peaks

Much of the High Peaks’ increasing hiker traffic is drawn to popular alpine summits like Marcy and Algonquin — the two tallest peaks in the state, standing at 5,343 feet and 5,114 feet, respectively — which contain around 50% of the High Peaks’ alpine vegetation, according to White. To mitigate the effects of this increased traffic on sensitive vegetation, ADK’s summit stewards climb Marcy and Algonquin every day during the stewardship season. In 2022, summit stewards talked to as many as 200 to 300 people a day on those summits. White said that Cascade has become another popular peak in recent years, which proved to be the most popular in the 2022 summit steward season — the stewards’ busiest day in 2022 was on Cascade. They spoke with 547 contacts there on the Saturday of Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples weekend.

ADK has hired new staff over the last couple of years to accommodate the influx of new hikers to the region. The stewardship program is starting out the 2023 season with five summit stewards, as well as one chief steward and a photopoint monitoring field technician — both new positions created last year — and this year’s new steward coordinator, Liam Ebner, and longtime steward White.

Summit stewards go through a three-week training course every year starting on Memorial Day, covering summits on the weekend up until mid-June, when stewards begin their normal schedule. White said stewards teach hikers to stick to bare rock faces and school visitors in the basics of “Leave No Trace” principles, efforts that are complemented by the Adirondack 46ers’ similar education styles. That means visiting hikers, no matter where they are in the High Peaks, are receiving similar messages about sustainable hiking practices, White said.

Jacob Vitale, of the ADK Summit Steward Program, speaks to hikers on Algonquin Peak. (Provided photo — ADK)

In addition to the daily climbs up Marcy and Algonquin, summit stewards visit Wright five days a week and Cascade on the weekends, though White said they’re trying to expand coverage on Cascade to accommodate its increasing popularity. Stewards summit Giant on the weekends and Colden every other week, and stewards try to visit all of the High Peaks’ 21 alpine summits at least once per season.

Volunteering on the summits

With the increase in High Peaks hikers, ADK’s summit stewardship volunteer base has also boomed. Volunteer stewards are crucial to filling in the gaps in staff coverage of alpine peaks, White said. ADK had 34 volunteer stewards last year, climbing summits on 81 days and speaking to 8,454 hikers, about 25% of the people stewards educated in 2022. This year, ADK hired Ebner to help White train the volunteers.

A good chunk of those new volunteers is from the Friends of Hurricane Mountain. Summit stewards took over the Friends’ fire tower stewardship program at Hurricane Mountain in 2021, expanding ADK’s education efforts to include the fire tower — another “conservation success story,” White said. Fire towers were built because excessive logging across the park led to widespread fires across the Adirondack landscape in the early 1900s. Now, fire towers are better known as historical relics and destinations of hiking challenges, a symbol of the shift from forest devastation to forest celebration.

In addition to educating hikers about alpine vegetation and fire towers, summit stewards perform routine maintenance of trails that need a little TLC. Last year, they completed trail maintenance on Marcy, Algonquin, Wright, Cascade, Colden, Gothics, Haystack, Boundary, Skylight, Giant, NW Wright, Hurricane, Armstrong, Basin, Gray, Iroquois, and Saddleback mountains. Stewards also built a cairn on Hurricane to help delineate the trail to protect rare plants, and stewards are planning to build another cairn there this year.

Collecting data

Because summit stewards often visit these hard-to-reach summits, they also help researchers like those from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry to collect data on alpine vegetation and animals.

In partnership with the DEC’s New York Natural Heritage Program, summit stewards perform photopoint monitoring research, which essentially studies the presence of alpine vegetation over time using photos of alpine locations that are retaken every few years or so. Last year, with the help of a new ADK hire, Photopoint Monitoring Field Tech Troy Tetreault, the stewards expanded their photopoint monitoring coverage from nine to 16 summits. These photos provide ADK summit stewards with shareable data on trampling impacts in alpine trail corridors.

Stewards also partner with the DEC’s natural heritage program to observe changes in alpine species populations over time, and last year was the 15th year they participated in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mountain Watch phenology program.

This year, ADK’s stewards are kicking off a new data collection effort with the DEC to study the presence of Bicknell’s thrush, a rare species of bird that breeds in elevations above 3,000 feet.

Stewarding the summit

White has worked with ADK for more than 10 years, first working at the Adirondak Loj and Johns Brook Lodge before becoming a summit steward in 2014, moving up to chief summit steward in 2015 and becoming the stewardship coordinator in 2016. Once ADK acquired the Hurricane Fire Tower Program in 2021, White became the stewardship manager. But now that ADK has hired Liam, White said she’s able to hand over the steward management reins and oversee multiple stewardship programs as ADK expands its reach.

In her years as a summit steward, White has learned a few lessons from alpine vegetation — namely, how to be adaptable. While alpine species use clouds to protect themselves from the sun, summit stewards use sunblock. While alpine vegetation uses a special pigmentation to photosynthesize and thrive even in chilly conditions, stewards use layers of clothes.

Adaptability is important on the summit, where conditions can change on a dime. White has seen snow on alpine summits during every month of the year. She’s had to race below the alpine treelines to seek cover from a hailstorm. Existing on the summits is humbling, she said. But it’s also filled with wonder. She’s seen bugs come to mate on alpine summits and witnessed the intelligence of summiting ravens.

“Every single day the mountain shows you something amazing if you’re paying attention,” she said.

In addition to Summit Steward Manager Kayla White and Photopoint Monitoring Field Tech Troy Tetreault, here is the roster for this year’s ADK Summit Steward Program: Liam Ebner, summit steward coordinator; Bridey Ryan, chief steward; Alexander Gene Cherry, summit steward; Katie Leton, summit steward; Madeline Ten Kate, summit steward; Nathan Greene, summit steward; Olivia Hunt, summit steward.

Starting at $1.44/week.

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