YAKIMA – From the slopes of Mount Adams and across much of the West, there’s growing concern that social media may be playing a role in the increasing number of mountaineering accidents.
While hard data is lacking, experts point to anecdotal evidence suggesting that social media is prompting more people to head into rugged backcountry where accidents appear to be growing.
In the past decade, Mount Adams has seen a 33 percent increase in annual visits, said Justin Ewer, a wilderness manager and recreation planner with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Ewer said that during that time the 12,280-foot-tall mountain has seen a corresponding increase in accidents, although he didn’t have exact numbers.
However, the president of CragRats, a volunteer search and technical mountain rescue group based in nearby Hood River, Oregon, reports his organization has seen the number of rescues triple in the past five years.
In many of those cases, people were using social media, said Christopher Van Tilburg who also serves as medical adviser to the CragRats.
On the other side of the nation, a college professor specializing in contemporary expeditions says he’s noticed a relatively new trend.
“Young men have been taking risks in the outdoors for as long as they’ve been in the outdoors. But what is this new variable that’s changing things?” said Jerry Isaak, State University of New York at Plattsburg associate professor and chair of the Department of Expeditionary Studies.
During the past decade, Isaak has seen an increase in students using social media and has been concerned about how it’s affecting the way they make decisions in the wilderness.
“People are getting a lot more information about sites that previously only locals knew about, or may have been accessed more by experts who had previously been taken there and mentored through the process,” he said. “People now, through social media, are able to gain access to locations they may not have otherwise.”
Ewer said much of the information on Mount Adams has become increasingly accessible through the internet and social media where it is listed as an easy climb, which can be misleading to novices.
“In relative mountaineering terms, it is easy,” he said. “But if you aren’t very experienced, it’s not an easy climb. I think that sometimes leads people to underestimate the mountain a little bit.”
WHAT’S NOT IN THE PHOTO
In the past year, there have been several accidents on Mount Adams, including a fatality last month. It’s unclear, however, whether social media was a factor in any of the incidents.
Isaak’s other social media-related concern, especially for those without backcountry or mountaineering experience, is that an Instagram photo, Facebook video, online review or other platforms don’t paint a complete picture.
A photograph of a beautiful summit doesn’t show the planning done before the trip, the skills required to reach the summit, or the less exciting but necessary precautions, such as turning around regularly to know what the return trail will look like on the return trip. As a result, people believe an outdoor excursion is easier than reality.
“Social media is a very curated image of someone’s day,” Isaak said. “When that image happens to be in the mountains, it can be hazardous.”
But green hikers and climbers aren’t the only ones led astray by social media, Van Tilburg said.
‘DO IT FOR THE (INSTA)GRAM’
While many people chuckle about the absurdity of the largely-millennial phrase, “Do it for the (Insta)gram,” that’s essentially what some more experienced enthusiasts are doing.
“We see people doing risky behaviors that they otherwise wouldn’t do so they can post it on social media,” Van Tilburg said. “There’s a pressure involved to ‘Do it now,’ because social media is real-time.”
And that’s where the risks to both groups converge. It’s those risky behaviors that experts say create the picture novices are seeing and often being inspired by.
“Social media is a one-dimensional snapshot,” Van Tilburg said. “If people see a picture or a video with someone on a mountain, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The social media snapshot doesn’t tell you the slope conditions or air speed or temperature.”
But mixing social media with mountains doesn’t have to be all bad.
Isaak said the internet and social media have contributed to an “explosion” of interest in the outdoors.
And it can be used as a helpful tool – connecting novices with more experienced hikers or trail guides. These people can begin to teach the skills novices need to take off on their own.
The resources can also help hikers research a specific area as long as they keep specific tips in mind.
Cathy Oakes, a member of the Washington Trail Association, said she uses Facebook and a service run by the association that allows outdoors enthusiasts to leave reviews of trails to help determine where she’s hiking next.
But she reviews comments from people she knows differently than those written by strangers.
A friend might be able to tell her how challenging a hike would be because they know Oakes’ abilities. But she uses reviews to look for pieces of information that are useful no matter the skill level, such as if a certain trail had more ticks than usual or looking at how much snow may be on the ground.
“I would never trust a stranger’s opinion on what I can do,” she said. “I’m far more likely to trust the opinion of a friend who knows my skills than a stranger.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.