Are Snowshoes, Microspikes Damaging Alpine Zones? - Adirondack Photography by Brendan Wiltse
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February 1st, 2015 by Brendan Wiltse

Are Snowshoes, Microspikes Damaging Alpine Zones?

The last several years have seen a boom in winter hiking in the Adirondacks.

The Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack 46ers both report more people on the trails in the High Peaks Region. Along with this hiking boom there’s been an increasing number of winter traction devices hitting the market.

For a long time snowshoes and crampons were the main options when ascending a mountain. Recently, a new product line has been developed to help traverse icy terrain. Initially STABILicers started showing up on the trail as a less expensive and easier to use alternative to crampons. The design eventually evolved into the now more commonly used MICROspikes, which provide much better traction.

After a recent trip up Algonquin I began wondering what impact this new line of traction devices is having on our mountains. On the one hand, they have lowered the cost and skill thresholds needed to ascending many peaks. On the other, they don’t provide the level of traction necessary for the harshest conditions and more difficult ascents. Many people are making it to the summit of peaks like Algonquin wearing MICROspikes without any apparent issues, but are there impacts associated with the increased use of these traction devices?

My trip up Algonquin was primarily focused on capturing images of the conditions alpine flora must cope with in the winter. Some plants can be found frozen in several inches of ice, others are constantly exposed to the sandblasting affect of blowing snow, while some are comfortably buried in several feet of snow. The conditions on the summit cone of Algonquin were suboptimal for photography purposes, but I was able to capture a few of the photos I was seeking. I also was able to take time to observe many of the hikers making their way to the summit that day. 

Unfortunately, I saw many instances of individuals traversing completely exposed alpine vegetation on their way to the summit. In some places the vegetation was visibly shredded and clumps had broken free and rolled down hill. The vast majority (90%+) of these individuals were wearing either snowshoe or MICROspikes. They appeared to be walking on the vegetation to avoid areas of boiler plate ice that had formed on the trail. NYS DEC regulations state that “In the High Peaks Wilderness Area, no person shall fail to posses and use skis or snowshoes when the terrain is snow-covered with eight or more inches of snow.” Therefore, snowshoes and skis are not required to be worn to traverse solid ice above tree line. The few individuals that were wearing crampons easily and safely traversed these stretches of ice. I spoke with one group that had snowshoes on and were walking across a section of the alpine vegetation. They said they didn’t feel comfortable going over the ice and weren’t going to turn back so close to the summit just to avoid walking over the vegetation.

Algonquin

This problem gets further exacerbated by the fact that it is so easy to see where previous people have traveled in the winter. Many people will follow the tracks ahead of them regardless of whether those tracks deviate from the marked trail. There were countless instances of this above treeline as well, sometimes in areas where the marked trail was perfectly safe to travel even if you had snowshoes on. The only group I saw walking across the vegetation with crampons on were doing so because they thought they were following the trail. When I informed them of the actual location of the trail and that there are fragile rare, threatened, endangered plants above tree line, they happily put their crampons to proper use on the ice covered trail. I encourage those that know the summits well to stick to the marked trail, others will likely follow and you will help avoid a lot of damage to this fragile ecosystem. Those knowledgable of the alpine ecosystem shouldn’t be afraid or timid to speak with other hikers about the proper etiquette for traveling in the alpine zone, most people will be happy to learn about the place they are visiting and want to help conserve it. 

This all leads me to the question of whether MICROspikes are doing more harm than good. By renting MICROspikes at the High Peaks Information Center is the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) creating a situation where people are more likely to walk on the alpine plants in order to maintain adequate traction? Should ADK be encouraging users to use crampons while traveling above tree line? Should outdoor retailers be explaining to people that purchase MICROspikes that they aren’t the ideal traction device for above tree line travel? Finally, would fewer people be walking across the vegetation in the winter if more people were carrying crampons? I fully expect there to be widely differing opinions on this and I would love to hear them in the comments. Let me be clear, I’m NOT proposing additional regulations. I am hoping to spark a conversation about the importance of being prepared so as to be able to safely accomplish your goals in the backcountry while limiting your impact on the environment.

One final note, Kahtoola, the manufacturer of MICROspikes, has another product, Winter Hiking Crampons, which appear to much better suited for above tree line travel in the Adirondack High Peaks. Full mountaineering crampons can be a bit overkill in a lot of situations in the High Peaks, but these hiking crampons look like they would give plenty of traction over low grade ice and allow people to safely stay on the trail above tree line.



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