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Will things slow down this fall?

This glorious fall view hides icy trail conditions that some don’t know to expect. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

“When things finally slow down” is a line I’ve heard repeated fairly often lately. Having more or less acclimated to a crazy summer, this fall has followed a fairly predictable pattern in the High Peaks Wilderness, though the amount of cars passing through Keene Valley at 4:30 in the morning has been somewhat alarming. Weekends are packed with people hoping to get a good look at some incredible fall foliage (and this year has been one of the best in a while), while the weekdays seem to be calming down a little bit. But only just a little. Even on a Wednesday morning at 5 a.m. last week, the Garden parking lot was almost full.

Columbus Day weekend traditionally marks the beginning of a lull in the heavy tourism season in the High Peaks region. Whether you work in an industry impacted by tourism or are just a resident of the area who enjoys a couple weeks of lighter traffic, it’s an opportunity for so many people to catch their breath after an exceptionally busy summer.

But this year, it’s hard to be sure whether things will follow the traditional pattern. With so many people now working remotely (or stuck in the limbo of COVID-related unemployment) and schools across the state mired in confusion and chaos, more people may find themselves free to come and visit anyway. Add to that the continued need that people feel to escape these situations and to find some solace in the mountains, and you can see the potential for a new pattern to emerge.

While the brief calm generally afforded by a tourism lull would be sorely missed, another point for consideration is the unique challenges posed by shoulder-season conditions in the mountains. As outdoor recreation continues to expand in popularity over the course of this pandemic, we may now be facing a new set of issues as temperatures drop. While there have been a couple of mild freezes down in the valleys, the High Peaks have already had some very icy days. Because temperatures get back up above freezing during the day, that ice tends to be of the break-away variety, limiting the effectiveness of traction devices like Microspikes even for those with the foresight to bring them along on their adventures.

Many have not yet adapted their planning to accommodate the needs of the season, however. People gravely underestimate conditions during this time of year, especially when it’s a pleasant 55 degrees in the parking lot. For example, while I was out on Gray and Skylight last Friday, 14 of the 20 people I came across during the day lacked traction devices entirely. Of these, many were kitted out in good gear otherwise. The refrain of the day was, “I knew it was going to be cold, but I didn’t expect this.” More worrying, perhaps, were the three additional groups that were hiking in after dark asking with a note of concern if lean-tos ahead were open.

If we continue seeing serious weekend rushes between now and the beginning of ski season, this under-preparedness may correlate to more backcountry emergencies as people try to forge on through tough conditions without the right gear. The shoulder seasons allow much less room for error than a warm summer day. Even if you wind up spending an unplanned night in the woods in July or August, chances are you will probably pull through. The same cannot be said for mid-autumn. While people may still get lucky and pull off some hikes through sheer determination, the consequences of something as simple as a soaked hiking boot can be much more dire.

The scope and severity of this issue may be overblown if the crowds don’t keep coming. Every year, people survive these conditions and have fun stories to tell as a result. There are also well-prepared recreators out there to help inform those who are still learning. But with the stewardship program and DEC hiker information stations winding down for the season and fewer assistant forest rangers in the field, there aren’t as many resources as there were during the summer for underprepared recreators. That’s to say nothing of the fact that they were strained to the extreme this year already. If inexperienced hikers keep arriving in record numbers with dreams of hiking High Peaks in mind, the need for more formal sources of information and assistance will only become more critical. For now, though, we’ll just have to wait and see if things finally do slow down a little.

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