Sunday, February 1, 2015

Are Snowshoes, Microspikes Damaging Alpine Zones?

BW - Algonquin Snowshoe Trail Close(1)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.

BW - Algonquin DiapensiaUnfortunately, 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.

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.

BW - Algonquin Snowshoe Trail(1)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.

Photos: Above, snowshoe tracks across the alpine vegetation on Algonquin (notice the ice in the foreground which is covering the trail); middle, diapensia exposed to the sandblasting like effect of blowing snow and ice on the summit of Algonquin; and below, a snowshoe trail on Algonquin. Photo by Brendan Wiltse.

A version of the post was first published on Brendan’s website as part of his New York Alpine Plants and People project to raise awareness of the alpine ecosystem and summit stewardship. You can learn more about the project and contribute here.

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Brendan Wiltse is the Science & Stewardship Director for the Ausable River Association and a professional conservation photographer. He holds a Ph.D. in Biology from Queen's University in Canada. While not out on the water studying Adirondack lakes and streams, he is often roaming the Wilderness with his camera and dog. You can view is photography at

17 Responses

  1. Hawthorn says:

    I suspect you are correct about the impact of microspike use on the summits, but I also have noticed a huge increase in general trail damage over the past several decades. Much of that is due to hiking poles being used year-round, and the change to using snowshoes with built-in gripping teeth during the winter. There isn’t a trail in the High Peaks where you don’t constantly see large scratches and gouges on every rock in the trail. I suppose it can be argued that this does not really damage the environment, but it certainly degrades the wilderness experience just like blazes on trees or graffiti. This technology now allows more people to venture deep into the wilderness in the winter so of course there will be more impact on the environment. There is no easy answer.

  2. ADK46er says:

    Paraphrasing Ol’ Will: “The fault, dear Brendan, lies not in the spurs but in ourselves.” 😉

    Yes, lightweight traction devices have made icy trails accessible to more hikers.
    Yes, toothed snowshoes enable hikers to ascend steep, icy slopes.
    Yes, hikers should avoid shredding frozen vegetation.
    Yes, hikers should know when it is time to switch to appropriate traction devices.

    The fault lies not in the gear, but in our choices. A hiker should strive to remain on durable surfaces (LNT Principle #2). When the way becomes exceedingly icy, it may necessitate switching to more aggressive forms of traction to remain on the trail. The vegetation is off-limits.

    So how to inform winter-hikers? I believe the existing message of the “Do the Rock Walk” campaign ought to be reworked and extended to cover travel in winter. It’s a start; education is key.

    I have no idea how to keep winter-hikers to remain on the trail above treeline. The paint-blazes are obscured so the only visible markers are the cairns. Currently, the portions of the trail passing through alpine vegetation are bordered with small rocks. It doesn’t take much snow to obscure this “edging”. Perhaps larger stones can be used to delimit the path (say every fifth rock is larger).

  3. Kimberly says:

    I’m a beginning winter hiker and have bought and used Kahtoola microspikes this winter. I have not seen the Kahtoola winter hiking crampons in any outdoor equipment stores. Can you explain the bad effects of microspikes vs. winter hiking crampons on vegetation? Are microspikes really that bad, since they are the popular choice online and in local gear shops? If it’s a matter of staying on the trail no matter which spikes you wear — the issue should be focused on educating hikers to stay on the trails not only during summer, but winter too.

    • Kimberly,

      In my observations, both from personal use and of others behaviors, MICROspikes are great most of the time. The issue is when they aren’t sufficient people will typically opt for walking across alpine vegetation instead of turning around. Personally, if I am headed towards the alpine zone in winter I will be carrying crampons instead of MICROspikes. This way I know I will be able to safely travel to the summit without walking on the vegetation.

      Obviously, the issue isn’t entirely a MICROspikes vs crampon one. User numbers, skill level, and awareness of the alpine ecosystem are all at play as well. My hope in writing about this issue is that it will raise awareness of the need to stay off the alpine vegetation and on the trail during the winter season. Discussing how equipment choices can impact both our safety and the places we love is a conversation worth having.


    • ADK46er says:

      If the combination of gear and technique allows you to stay off the fragile alpine vegetation then all is well.

      The Kahtoola K-10 is very similar to a “true” crampon except it is more flexible and has shorter teeth (shorter than true crampons, longer than microspikes). It represents the middle ground between “light traction” microspikes and “full traction” crampons.

      FWIW, I’ve uses Hillsound Trail Crampons (similar to Kahtoola Microspikes but with longer teeth) for the past four winters. I’ve found them to be adequate for a variety of conditions in the High Peaks. However, I know their (and my) limits and when it’s time for crampons.

  4. Bob S says:

    In my opinion – Education is the only way to encourage gentleness in the High Peaks or anywhere in nature. The sought after “wilderness experience” may never happen without seeing damage, scratches, etc. To me, a wilderness experience is not a location per se, but a state of mind. I can attain this by not going where the hoards of people go and avoid going when they go. Go when it is pouring out and you may be the only presence experiencing the popular trails.

    It is difficult to educate someone who just doesn’t get that vegetation is important to the ecology of any area in nature. People are seeking the “wilderness experience” in massive #s these days.

  5. Tim says:

    I agree, this is a problem. One problem with hiking on the rock summits is, it’s not always possible to see where the “rocks only” trail is in all the snow and ice. Then, you end up at a dead end where there’s no way out except over vegetation. Rock cairns are more prevalent in the Whites. Perhaps more in the ADK’s would help.

  6. Tim says:

    For crying out loud, this “enviro-fanticism” can be carried too far! How about we just don’t allow people to hike anymore in the ADKs! NO camp fires, no crampons, no motorized access and guess what….no enjoyment of any wilderness areas unless you’re in your teens to early 30’s, in great physical shape.


    • ADK46er says:

      I hear you. It may sound excessive but it’s a product of the ever-increasing popularity of winter hiking.

      A long time ago, you could camp, make a fire, hang a bear-bag, post-hole, and do pretty much as you pleased in the High Peaks.

      It was all good until your neighbor did the same and the neighbor;s neighbor and their cousin’s family. Over time, it became evident that tens of thousands of hikers and campers could’t be trusted to leave the place as nice as they found it. Effectively, they spoiled the wilderness experience they came to enjoy. Maliciously? No. Out of ignorance? Yes.

      Alpine vegetation was stomped out of existence.
      People used streams like open sewers.
      Branches within arm’s reach of a camp-site were removed for firewood.
      Improperly stored food trained the bears to associate people with a free meal.
      Smooth snowy trails were plowed and deeply aerated by bare-booters.

      Rules and regulations were introduced to curtail practices that made a mess of the mountains. None of them would be necessary if everyone understood they need to leave the place as pristine as they found it for the benefit of the next person. Leave no trace of your presence.

      Frozen alpine vegetation, unprotected by a deep blanket of snow, is no match for steel teeth. Walking on durable surfaces helps to minimize the effects of our passage and preserve a summit’s beauty for others.

    • Tim,

      I’m not proposing limiting the number of people visiting the High Peaks or additional regulations. Rather, I’m hoping to open up a conversation about what we can do to limit impacts on a particularly rare ecosystem. We have less than 200 acres of alpine habitat in New York state and a few species up there that are globally rare. These plants are well adapted to the harsh conditions above tree line, but not to the damage a boot causes. Plants in other ecosystems are adapted to being stepped on by large mammals, these plants are not. All it takes to protect these areas is a small change in behavior, I don’t see that as “enviro-fanticism.”


      • Paul says:

        I think the only way to protect these 200 acres is to shut them off. No matter how much you educate folks some are always going to do whatever they want (see some of the comments here on that). You can limit the damage and slow the process but in the end some things can only be protected by shutting them off from the damage.

        I am not suggesting we do that I am just saying that is the only way to stop the problem.

  7. Tim -Brunswick, NY says:

    Baloney Gentlemen!…it sounds “excessive” because it is excessive and the “rare ecosystem” routine has been way over-played. “Open up a conversation”….really! This must be the Dr. Phil show, not the ADKs the average outdoors person in New York State thinks of and tries to enjoy with a minimum of regulation/governmental oversight and a healthy dose of common sense.

    Thanks for listening.

  8. Frank Krueger says:

    I often see winter hikers purposely walk on alpine plants and soil to get better traction and have no apparent traction devices in their possession, just as I often see hikers bare booting on the trails when there is more than 8 inches of snow.

  9. Paul says:

    Good article. This is a problem and gouges in rock from crampons are pretty permenant marks. Far more permenant than any mt. bike tire tracks on low elevation old dirt roads on the Fynch pruyn lands.

  10. Hawthorn says:

    OT, but apparently you have eliminated the up and down voting on comments and made a mobile version of the site. I like the mobile version, but I haven’t figured out how to find “Recent Almanack Comments,” which is very useful to get directed to active and interesting comment threads, or to ones being revived.

  11. JR says:

    We should stop reproducing, then we can finally rid the earth
    of all these man-made problems.
    When I started hiking the high peaks I found it comical people use
    hiking poles. In addition, I noticed all the marks on the rocks.
    Neither I or the rocks were offended.
    I did think to myself, I will never use poles.
    In retrospect, maybe when I’m 70 I’ll think about it or will need to out of physical ills, and I myself will be a “rock marker”, but the high peaks will
    probably be banned from use by then at the rate this State and Nation is heading.

    • John Warren says:

      “We should stop reproducing”

      Or we could just stop walking on rare Apline plants and stay on the trail.

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