46ers in the social media age

High Peaks traffic skyrockets in unison with Facebook, Instagram boom

Alec Bieber of Saranac Lake takes a photo of himself with a GoPro camera at the summit of Catamount Mountain in November. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

LAKE PLACID — As David Gomlak walks through each nook of the hostel he owns with his wife, Terri Maxymillian, their unconditional love for the Adirondack 46 High Peaks is reflected at every turn. Each room is named after a mountain range and each bunk after a mountain. They even included isolated Allen Mountain as the hostel’s rollaway bed.

At the core of the hostel is a homey, communal living area where on most summer weekends visiting hikers, particularly young ones, share stories of their most recent adventures. Photos of mountains such as Gothics provide the backdrop as Gomlak and Maxymillian routinely listen in. And, of late, Gomlak said a familiar sight is of exhausted hikers in their 20s and 30s chatting while sharing images from their phones.

“I learned early on that a fair amount of my job is accepting a beer from somebody and sitting back and listening to their story and giving them advice,” Gomlak said with a smile.

There were several weekends this summer when the couple could have booked the hostel twice over. It was the result, they said, of soaring interest from droves of hikers interested in their $28 per night bunks.

In some cases, guests slept in, say, “The Dixes” room before hiking the same mountain range. Often, they had only discovered these destinations through social media.

David Gomlak, co-owner of TMax-n-Topo’s Hostel in Lake Placid, gives a tour of the “Sewards” room. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

“Just in the past year it’s more often people are sitting around here with devices than we’ve ever seen before,” Gomlak said, “There is no doubt a good portion of the burgeoning population coming here is because of that.”

The hostel is just a small example of the numbers boom.

The difference between the total number of official Adirondack 46ers through the end of 2015 and the 8,856 current members of a public Facebook group called “Aspiring Adirondack 46ers” is only 569.

In the social media age of Facebook and Instagram, there has been a spike nationally in interest in hiking and other outdoor activities. The Adirondacks has experienced that uptick as well, as more people have officially finished their 46 High Peaks in each of the seven years since 2009 than any other years prior.

In each year since 2009, that number has increased successively, to a record high of 560 new 46ers in 2015. The 2,994 people who finished their 46 in the seven years between 2009 and 2015 is roughly the same amount of people who finished the 46 in the 15 previous years (1994-2008) combined: 2,998.

Mike French, the founder of the popular Aspiring Adirondack 46er Facebook page, stands at the summit of Santanoni Peak. (Photo provided)

The Adirondack 46er hiking boom has occurred at the same time social media networking sites such as Facebook have soared in users. The social media giant founded by Mark Zuckerberg went from 12 million monthly users in 2006, to 58 million in 2007, to 145 million in 2008 to 360 million in 2009. The site currently has more than 1.75 billion monthly users.

Along with Facebook, the online mobile photo and video-sharing social network Instagram launched in 2010, grew to 30 million users two years later and has spiked to more than 500 million users currently.

These trends coincide with the growth of the Aspiring Adirondack 46ers Facebook group. And the group’s founder wonders whether this may be just the tip of the iceberg.

“This summer it was like drinking out of a fire hose,” Michael French said.

On French’s Facebook group page is maybe the most vast, impressive and dizzying collection of photos and videos in the history of the Adirondack wilderness. As of Sunday night, there were 27,504 photos posted.

(Graphic by Antonio Olivero; Source: adk46er.org)

With one search of terms like “sunrise,” “Marcy,” or “Cascade,” hundreds if not thousands of photos, videos and posts are there for anyone’s viewing pleasure, no matter where in the world that person’s laptop or smartphone is located.

For French, a 41-year-old photographer from Frederick, Maryland, this was never the plan. When he created the group back in 2012, it was meant to be a place where he and a handful of others shared photos and notes from their hikes in the High Peaks. With his life and career outside of the Blue Line, he sought weekly reminders of the place he loved.

He chose the group name “Aspiring Adirondack 46ers,” because, for one, he figured it’d be a search term many might use. And “aspiring” is exactly what he was and still is, having hiked 39 of the 46 highest mountains in the Adirondacks.

French initially figured it’d be great if 50 people joined the group, to share stories here and there. The page grew steadily, eclipsing 2,000 members by the end of 2014. It has spiked since, doubling to more than 4,000 by the end of 2015 and skyrocketing to nearly 9,000 less than a year later.

French spends an increasing amount of time every day answering general questions about the Adirondacks, scrolling the page to make sure conversation is civil and filtering out new members. His standards are pretty lax: If he looks at your Facebook profile and you have friends who are part of the group and some photos of hiking in the Adirondacks, you’re most likely in.

But there are also the hundreds of fake Facebook accounts he has to deny, which sometimes makes it confusing when, for example, a couple of real sherpas from Nepal ask to join the group, as happened a few months ago.

The group truly has a global reach.

“In the same way people use hiking to get out or away, think of people at jobs, at home, on their phones before getting on a plane,” he said. “They are reading this stuff and using it as a refuge from their daily lives. And the page really runs itself.”

The Adirondacks has seen surges in popularity before, as has the 46er program. Between 1971 and 1976, there were 743 new 46ers, more than the cumulative total of 669 between the first 46ers in 1925 and 1970. New 46ers dipped the next three years, down to just 48 in 1977 before additions slowly grew to a high of 274 in 1995, the highest yearly total until 2009’s 295.

For Adirondack 46er organization president Brian Hoody, 45, of Penfield, this recent surge has caused the organization to expand.

“Now it’s different,” he said. “There’s a constant barrage of info coming in.”

Hoody, who began working as a correspondent for the organization in 1999, said the past two years have been particularly busy. The organization has added two more coordinator positions and is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to use 46er funds to place new stewards at popular trailheads such as Cascade Mountain as early as Memorial Day.

The word Hoody used to describe his thoughts on the growth in hiking of the High Peaks is “ambivalent.” On one hand, that many more people are appreciating the Adirondack wilderness like he does, and potentially boosting the economies of towns in the park. On the other hand, trails are becoming increasingly weathered and some hikers aren’t following proper Leave No Trace principles — either because they don’t know any better, or just don’t care.

Hoody said he’s not sure what to attribute the surge in popularity to, but did say social media is probably a primary cause. He pointed to an article entitled “Loved to Death: How Instagram Is Destroying Our Natural Wonders,” which appeared on the popular sports, pop culture and technology website The Ringer.

The article focuses on how geotagging technology — the process of adding coordinates like latitude and longitude to photos — used by social networks such as Facebook and Instagram has opened up what were little-known treasures of wilderness locations to droves of new visitors.

It’s traffic these areas may not necessarily be ready for and locations these new adventure-seekers may not be prepared to be in.

“Potentially tens of thousands of people can know about a location in a few hours,” Hoody said. “A location is suddenly seeing 300 people on a weekend.”

Gomlak has seen the boom, and himself used the term “binge hiking,” to describe some of the hikers he sees. These are people interested in climbing the 46 High Peaks as quickly as possible before moving on to the next challenge. But he added that most hikers are inquisitive and respectful.

French anticipates his Facebook group will eclipse the total number of 46ers at some point next year, as each group is on pace to top 10,000 members soon. Despite the headaches that come with running the page, French said he never really considered pulling the plug on it. If he did, it would immediately erase a digital treasure trove of glimpses into the backcountry and a way for people with like-minded interests to not only share photos but also 46er-themed gift ideas, parties and humor. Just Wednesday, a member shared a photo of a tree adorned with hiking patches as ornaments, topped with a yellow DEC trail marker.

What French, Hoody and Gomlak all agreed on is that ever-growing communities like Aspiring Adirondack 46ers need to strive to educate people newly infatuated with hiking the High Peaks. French’s community does benefit, though, from the wisdom of members who have some of the best knowledge of the Adirondack backcountry.

One of them is Ron Konowitz, a 62-year-old retired Keene Central School teacher and avid backcountry skier who volunteers with the Keene Valley Fire Department’s backcountry rescue team. Konowitz said he posts links to information such as the National Weather Service’s Mountain Points Forecast, which is a report that gives detailed conditions for 16 specific summits in the Adirondacks.

Sharing knowledge is Gomlak and Maxymillian’s main goal as well, whether their guests find the hostel via a hard copy of the Yellow Pages or through French’s Facebook group.

“That is a big portion of what we can do here,” Gomlak said. “All blessings can be a curse, and that is our challenge.”