If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

The Peak Bagging Dilemma

The effect of social media and overcrowding in our alpine wilderness

Glacier Peak in 2020. Glacier Peak in 2023.
BEFORE: Glacier Peak in 2020.
Photo by Maddie Downie
<AFTER: Glacier Peak in 2023.
Photo by Maddie Downie

It’s no secret the glaciers and the alpine environment are changing, yet despite extensive media coverage, it remains an issue that’s tough to fully comprehend. Those who are lucky enough to live in the shadow of big, glaciated mountains can only see so much change from down below. From Bellingham, it’s easy to spot the difference in Mt. Baker’s soft, snowy winter coat and its rocky summer skeleton, but it’s hard to notice how increasingly famished it becomes each summer.

It’s easier to notice the glacial change when you’re actually on them, which was something I experienced in August on Glacier Peak, one of Baker’s volcanic neighbors. While I wasn’t expecting an easy, snow-filled boot up the volcano, I also wasn’t expecting the stretch-marked glaciers my partners and I found ourselves on. The climbing route was riddled with loose, rocky hillsides, gaping crevasses that divided bootpacks, and mud saturated by ice melt. One of my partners who’d been on Glacier Peak the same time of year three years prior was shocked by the decrepit state of the glaciers.

“I don’t think we can call it ‘Glacier’ Peak anymore,” he said.

In the weeks following my climb, I wanted to learn more about how Washington’s glaciers have been changing and, more specifically, how they’ve affected climbing routes. I met with Richard Riquelme, a long time guide at the American Alpine Institute for his unique perspective on the changing environment. He has been climbing mountains for 38 years; 30 of those as a guide. Riquelme’s guiding career began in his native Chile before moving to the United States and guiding in the North Cascades.

“Now I guide tip-to-tip,” Riquelme says, meaning he guides mountains between Alaska and Chile.

Riquelme explains that receding glaciers pose risks to mountain climbers. Riquelme says that rockfall poses immense danger, as well as open crevasses and icefall. The increased danger of popular climbing routes has created a domino effect as people look elsewhere for a safer path. Riquelme points out that the companies that guide Mount Rainier were forced to end their climbing season early this year. International Mountain Guides ended its season on August 28, about a month earlier than usual. Since then, they’ve been traveling north to guide Mt. Baker instead, which has led to overcrowding there as well.

Overcrowding on mountains has certainly added a new factor to the already changing mountain landscapes. Riquelme notes an increase in the demand for guided courses since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. When the pandemic began in March, and indoor spaces closed, people were forced to look outside for ways to spend their time. Government organizations such as the National Institute of Health suggested the Covid-19 pandemic was a positive for the environment as there was less greenhouse gas emissions, less fossil fuel use, and less light pollution. However, Riquelme argues that the increase of crowds outdoors affected the environment in a plethora of other ways.

“It’s like a highway,” Riquelme explains. “The more cars there are, the more likely there is to be traffic and accidents.”

These “accidents” include littering, improper disposal of human waste, widening trails by trampling delicate plants, noise pollution, water pollution and general crowding of wild spaces. That’s not to mention literal accidents, such as climbers pelted by rockfall.

But that’s the Catch-22: As climbing, mountaineering, and outdoor recreation becomes more popular and more accessible, the environment suffers. It’s not as simple as blaming accessibility. Riquelme explains that it’s ignorant recreation specifically harming the environment: Those who don’t understand why it’s important to stick to trails, to dispose of their apple cores and banana peels just like they would plastic, and keep their music in their headphones rather than playing it over a speaker while hiking, are doing harm.

When I ask Riquelme about a possible solution, he laughs and says, “You can’t ask the problem to solve itself.”

However, when he does come around to an answer, it’s one I’m surprised to hear.

“It’s all this thing,” he shakes his cell phone in the air. “People see that their friend has done something cool, and suddenly they want to do it too.”

Riquelme isn’t the first climber I’ve met to quickly put the blame on social media. In fact, there seems to be resounding resentment in the climbing community around oversharing on social media. Many people blame Instagram for the excessive popularity of iconic Washington hikes, such as Colchuck Lake and Maple Pass Loop.

However, there is truth to social media’s effect on the sudden popularity of outdoor recreation, especially since the pandemic. Being “outdoorsy” has become a trend on social media, whether that means being a casual weekend hiker or bragging about big mountain summits. When I search “Washington state'' in my Instagram search bar, countless accounts spill their top five hikes or their favorite alpine lake destinations with thousands of likes and comments.

Unfortunately, outdoor social media influencers are often creating idealistic, unrealistic, and uninformed representations of outdoor recreation. For instance, German “Van-lifer” Yvonne Pferrer has over one million followers on her adventure-driven Instagram account where she links promo codes for outdoor clothing on posts like her climb up Exit Glacier in Alaska. Her filter-heavy posts give her followers an idealized view of outdoor recreation, one that ignores the big issues, such as the fact that the Exit Glacier has retreated about 2,300 feet in the last 13 years. Yet her followers can easily use the link in her bio to purchase the outfit she wears in the video.

Other influencers in the outdoor community, such as Alex Honnold who has two and a half million followers on Instagram, are more cause-driven than Pferrer, but still contribute to the trend. The National Health Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that social media encourages people to compare their lives to those they see online. It’s hard not to experience FOMO while watching Honnold defy heights from your living room couch. Climbing has even crept its way into Hollywood; actor Jared Leto posts about the weekends he spends climbing in Yosemite for his 11 million followers.

However, the trend doesn’t stop with those who look up to the influencers and celebrities. Climbers who participate in “peak bagging” also seem to get sucked into the instant gratification of social media. Whether we like it or not, the climbing community is a competitive one, and many people within it are addicted to letting others know when they have another mountain under their belt. I’ll be the first to admit to falling for the social media appeal in this way. I’ve even gone so far as developing Instagram captions in my head mid-climb for that mountain’s inevitable post.

As Riquelme explains, as long as climbing continues to be a trend and people continue to recreate outdoors while ignoring their impact, the environment will continue to suffer.

It’s easy to point fingers at Instagram and Facebook, but he reiterates that, at the end of the day, it comes down to us. He believes that a collective mindset change needs to occur before we start seeing the environment recuperate. He suggests that people need to rework why they climb mountains. After climbing for 38 years, Riquelme knows there’s no rush, no reason for the urgency and greediness of peak bagging and there’s certainly no reason why mountains must suffer for our satisfaction.

As we talked, Riquelme continued to come back to this phrase: “People know, but they don’t understand.”

While it’s hard to ignore the fact that the glaciers are receding or that the alpine landscapes are changing, there seems to be a lack of understanding of why it’s important that we care about it. It’s tough for people who only experience glaciers and alpine landscapes a few times a year to truly witness the change occurring, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. Riquelme has a unique perspective as he watches these glaciers shrink year over year. Yet his voice, among others, seem to be unheard by those caught up in likes and reposts.

As fall rolls into winter and I watch from Bellingham as Mt. Baker pulls on its winter coat over the next few months, I want to challenge myself to take on the mindset shift that Riquelme prescribed. Though revisiting our own reasons for mountaineering and furthering our understanding of the alpine landscape is only a drop in the bucket of change, it’s a step in the right direction. At the very least, it should refocus our attention on the real-life glaciers while we still have them instead of the edited versions we see on our phones.    X