The Adirondack High Peaks comprise all the major summits within the Adirondack Park above 4000 feet in elevation. Sort of. Modern surveying revisions have revealed four of the peaks to be below 4000′. And if you stare at a topographic map long enough, you begin to realize some inconsistencies involving arcane terms like “prominence” and “isolation”. But never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And the history of peak bagging in the Adirondacks is indeed a very good story.
A Century of Ascents
Just over a century ago, in 1918, Bob Marshall ascended Whiteface Mountain with his younger brother, George, and their guide, Herbert Clark. The trio went on to summit each of the 46 4000-foot peaks Bob had identified from pouring over maps of the region. With their final ascent of Emmons in 1925, they became the very first “46ers”.
100 years after that first ascent, over 11,500 adventurers have joined the official roster of 46ers maintained by the Adirondack 46er Club (ADK46ers.org, as of 2018). Since its earliest days, 46ers like Grace Hudowalksi maintained an official list of finishers and encouraged participants to document their adventures.
I thought it’d be a fascinating exercise to examine that nearly century-old roster of 46ers and see what sort of stories emerge from the raw data. Below is my effort to quantify and chart that story.
The roster of 46ers has grown rapidly in recent years
Of the 11,562 recorded 46ers since 1925 nearly half finished their peak bagging adventures from 2007 to 2018 (the last year of publicly available data). 2007 itself was an inflection point in the numbers.
There are likely many factors contributing to the surge in peak bagging since 2007. The global financial crisis likely played a role, in renewing interest in affordable, local vacations. And younger Americans have strongly embraced active recreation in all forms ranging from half marathons to “glamping”. But the rise of smartphones and social media platforms like Instagram have undoubtedly played an outsized role.
This is one of many signs of increased usage in the Adirondacks. That said, it’s premature to assume the trend will continue unabated. Earlier waves of activity in the 70s and 90s eventually normalized. Social media unlocked new “markets” of 46ers who would have otherwise remained oblivious to the charms of the Adirondacks. But the secret is out and there are only so many of these types of folks. Smartphones gained wide adoption around 2010-11. And as I show below, roughly half of all 46ers complete their peak bagging journey within 6 years. From these numbers, it would make sense if 2017 was indeed the peak of the latest wave of 46ers. But only time will tell.
While the vast majority of recorded 46ers are humans, six dogs appear on the official list. None of these pups were winter 46ers. Before you get excited to sign up your four-legged friend, note dogs have not been eligible since the late 1970s, likely due to relations with AMR and the Ausable Club.
Cascade and Marcy lead first ascents, Whiteface and Allen often come last
The form to become an official 46er asks participants to list their first and final ascents. From this, we can gain some insight into the most popular entry-level High Peaks. No surprise: Cascade tops this list! This crowd favorite involves low mileage, starting at a high trailhead and finishing at a short summit.
Close to Cascade in popularity is Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State. That’s an impressive standing considering the shortest route to Marcy’s summit involves 14 miles of trekking. Giant and Algonquin come next in rapid succession. Both peaks are considered among the very best day hikes in the region. It’s likely Wright peak steals some of Algonquin’s thunder (if you’re planning ahead, it makes sense to “bag” Wright en route to Algonquin). Phelps, Big Slide, and Colden come a bit further down the list—all excellent, manageable day hikes with well-marked trails.
You can toggle to “last ascents” in the chart above. And when you do, a very different ranking emerges! More 46ers have finished on Whiteface than any other peak. Allen Mountain is next, a notoriously isolated slog of nearly 18 miles to a trailless peak. The list also includes a few relatively remote crowd favorites, like Haystack and Skylight. All that said, the final ascent list is way less concentrated than the first ascents.
The below scatter chart includes all 46 peaks ranked by first and final ascents. Only Marcy, Whiteface and Colden fare well by both metrics.
Favorite peaks have evolved over the decades
Today the “typical” 46er begins their journey on Cascade and finishes on Whiteface. But this is hardly a century-old tradition. Cascade enjoyed far less popularity in the middle of 20th Century, whereas Marcy was far-and-away the favorite first ascent. Giant and Algonquin have long rounded out the top four.
The story is perhaps even more fascinating for final ascents. For most of the 20th Century, Allen and Couchsachraga, vied for first (last?) place. More often than not, the final ascent wasn’t some ceremonial finish. It was just getting the job done. Then beginning in 1980, Whiteface rockets towards the top of the list. The timing is revealing: Lake Placid hosted the Winter Olympics for the second time in 1980. And Whiteface, for the first time, played host to the downhill skiing events. Since then Whiteface has become a sort of Olympic/ceremonial finish to many folks’ high peak adventures.
Final ascents in recent years have generally become more scenic experiences. Perhaps aided by the internet and hiking blogs, modern hikers choose to save some of the best summits for last. Skylight and Haystack have steadily grown in popularity. Meanwhile, Couchsachraga has sunk down towards the bottom of the list. The common wisdom: If you’re hiking the Santanoni’s it’s better to end on a high note!
Enchainments and Least-favorites
To finish the peak-ranking exercise, I’ve grouped all the high peaks into fairly common enchainments. I think it’s a bit more fair to rank entire ranges/clusters of peaks than individual mountains.
From this re-grouping we discover some portion of the Great Range (I’m including Lower Wolfjaw to Haystack) is a very popular final trek. And even stacked against the full roster of peaks in the Sewards and Santanoni’s, Allen ranks supreme among final ascent masochists.
Emmons ranks as the least-popular first ascent. Just two finishers have bushwhacked their way to the summit of this remote peak in the Seward Range before attempting any other peak. Only six people have finished their 46er journey on South Dix. The least popular enchainment for a first ascent is Cliff and Redfield (34 first ascents). The least popular final enchainment is Street and Nye (166 finishers).
The High Peaks have a diversity problem
Peak bagging in the Adirondacks is an unfortunately white and male activity. To arrive at this conclusion I employed a bit of open-source machine learning software. First, I used a gender-inference tool built off of various public datasets to map each 46er’s first name to a likely gender. The program flags ambiguous first names like “Jamie”, which comprise a very small percentage of the data.
The results are revealing: in recent years less than a third of 46ers were likely female. That said, this number has improved incrementally in recent years, as the popularity of the Adirondacks has grown.
Just six hikers completed the 46 high peaks between 1941-45, likely due to America’s involvement in the Second World War. In light of the war, it makes a bit of sense a majority of these hikers were women. One can only imagine what thoughts these hikers carried with them while heading off into the backcountry during such tumultuous times.
I understand some may take issue with mapping first names to genders. While this is indeed inappropriate on the level of individuals, I think it’s a different matter in the case of large samples of people. And I deemed it important to highlight the disparity that emerges from this exercise.
The next analysis I undertook involved mapping full names to ethnicities and nationalities. This was a much more messy exercise. For starters, many Black Americans share common last names with white Americans, due to the legacy of slavery. For this reason, it’s impossible to know Black representation in the Adirondack hiking community from names alone. A statistical analysis of last names did reveal that both Asian/Pacific Islanders and Latino Americans are strongly underrepresented in the high peaks, both relative to state and national demographics. The prevalence of French names among 46ers was surprisingly low (around 7%, though rising, by my estimates). But this result was again quite speculative.
Becoming a 46er takes years
Hiking all 46 Adirondack High Peaks takes a lot of time and effort! The shortest and easiest route to most of the peaks involves double-digit mileage and 2-3,000′ ascents. One blogger has estimated a typical 46er experience involves nearly 300 miles of hiking and 70,000 vertical feet. And that’s ignoring some finer details like “pointless ups and downs” that likely inflate the vertical. Harder to quantify: the number of boulder scrambles, ledges, swamps, mud pits, insect swarms, and dead-end herd paths involved.
One number that’s easy to quantify: the reported durations of all 11K finishers. By differencing first and last ascents, we find a typical 46er will spend 2-6 years summiting each high peak for the first time. The median finish time is just over six years (meaning half of all 46ers have done it within 6 years). The average finish time is much higher: a full decade! One in four 46ers will spend upwards of 12 years slowly bagging high peaks.
The fastest first reported completion on record was in 1996. One determined peak bagger began by summiting Dix on a Tuesday in late May. He finished up on Santanoni the following Sunday. I shudder to think of the blisters involved in that five-day marathon. The official roster cannot tell us the fastest attempt among repeat hikers, which is, depending on the rules, even faster. According to fastestknowntime.com, that record is roughly 3 days, 4 hours “supported” and 6 days, 4.6 hours as a thru-hike (no cars or outside help).
Experienced 46ers prefer the Fall, first-timers brave the Spring
Using reported first- and last-ascent dates, we can likewise infer when 46ers go on their hikes. Starting with first ascents, we find July and August are far and away the most popular months. July slightly edges out August to be the single most popular month for a first ascent. September is the next-most-popular month, with May and June edging out October to round out the list. The least popular month for first ascents is likely December, due to both winter conditions and very short days. January has been excluded from this list, since many first ascent dates are unknown and set to January by default.
You can toggle the above chart to final ascents. When you do, the timing shifts in interesting ways. August grows to become, by far, the most popular finishing month. And September and October inflate in popularity whereas May, June, and July drop substantially. The trend is clear: experienced hikers know Spring and Early summer mean black flies and mosquitos! By August, the bugs have largely abated and hiking is back on the agenda.
The least popular month for final ascents is April (aka mud season). This fact is perhaps a testament to the Adirondack Mount Club (ADK)’s outreach and educational efforts. Becoming a 46er will inevitably involve interacting with rangers, ADK volunteers, the DEC website, and probably a few stops at the High Peaks Information Center. Experienced hikers avoiding fragile alpine summits in mud season (more so than n00bs) suggests all those educational efforts are working!
March and Winter 46ers
The last trend to note from this chart: March is an oddly popular month for final 46er ascents. This suggests a substantial fraction of experienced hikers are comfortable entering the backcountry in winter to enjoy the high peaks via skis and snowshoes. It also suggests some “summer 46ers” try to kill two birds with one stone, hiking peaks between December and March to obtain a winter 46er designation.
Speaking of winter 46ers, the very first chart shows these attempts have grown strongly in popularity in the past couple of decades. Looking at final winter ascents by month, March likewise emerges as the clear favorite. The days in March are substantially longer than in December or January. This combined with warmer weather and deeper snowpack makes it an ideal time for some low-impact alpine recreation.
Hiking the high peaks can be a family affair
The last small analysis I did for this post involved families. From the very first 46ers through to today, many hikers choose to summit high peaks as a team. While it’s difficult to know who exactly is hiking with who, one clue we can go by is last name.
I took the full roster of 46ers and grouped them by last name, finish peak, and finish date. My theory was folks who hike the same peaks on the same day with folks of the same last name are probably doing so as a family. From this, I found roughly 20% of all 46ers finished on the same date as a family member. Of that 20% of hikers, there were 869 pairs (including the Marshall brothers). There were also 96 groups of three, 36 groups of four, and 17 groups of five. The record for the largest 46er family unit seems to be set at seven hikers. Just two families have pulled this off.
The tradition continues
I hope you’ve enjoyed this walk through the 46er data as much as I have. It’s summer 2020 as of this writing and the world is changing fast around us. More than ever, connecting with the wilderness can help all of us stay healthy and grounded. I look forward to seeing how the 46er community continues to evolve and grow through all of this. Happy trails!