By Tracy Ormsbee
As weary hikers scramble the final few feet of rock-covered Mount Marcy, breathless and sweat-coated, Mary Lamb is a cheerful beacon, as welcoming as the panoramic views awaiting them.
“Hi! How are you?” she asks with a wave before they even put down their packs. “You made it! Did you have a good hike up?”
“Have a snack and have a drink and I’ll come back and take a group photo!”
And she does. Couples, groups of out-of-towners, a guy with his dog. They hand the khaki-clad Lamb their phones, choose one of many spectacular backdrops, and smile.
Back in 2013, when Lamb first started as a volunteer summit steward, a partnership of the Adirondack Mountain Club, Department of Environmental Science and Nature Conservancy, she hardly knew which button to press on the phones to get a photo.
“Now I’ve seen every kind of phone there is.”
In between photos, she shows a group of young women finishing the 46 peaks how to follow the trail to Skylight Mountain from the summit. She wishes them luck, a 46er herself six times over.
Despite the photo ops, the helpful identifications of surrounding mountains and occasional sharing of items from her first-aid kit, Lamb isn’t here for the people.
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She’s here for the plants.
Volunteers with the Summit Steward Program, in its 30th year, are on Mount Marcy and Algonquin every day during the summer, on Wright Peak five days, Cascade on weekends and Mount Colden every other week. They answer questions and guide hikers to stay on the rocks above tree line to protect the alpine vegetation. The most common question Lamb says she gets when she’s on Cascade—many hikers first mountain—is “Which one’s Marcy?”
Taking photos, Lamb says, gives her a candid audience for a few minutes—just enough time to give them the basic talk: that the vegetation at the top of Marcy is part of the rarest ecosystem in New York State. They are plants left over from the glacial period. Then she asks them to walk on the rocks to avoid the vegetation or soil where plants might grow. In an alpine zone, just six footsteps can kill plants and set some back 100 years, she says.
If she gets a little more time with hikers, she goes into more detail, pointing out the snow bank communities where plant groupings have been sheltered and protected by late-remaining snow and flourish today.
We were on the summit in late July, but a great time to see alpine plants is June when more of the plants are flowering. Alpine azalea, with its rose-pink flowers, is found in New York only on Mount Skylight.
Lamb points out small areas of vegetation protected from hikers with rows of small rocks placed around them by stewards. Mosses and mountain sandwort are the first to fill in, improving the soil for other plants like the slow-growing diapensia, which grows an inch every 50 years.
“It’s great to come to Marcy because I have something to show,” Lamb says.
And working as a summit steward she can spend as many as 12 hours with these plants.
“When you’re up here all day, you really look,” she says.
Lamb learned about the summit steward program through her online contacts on the High Peaks Forum, where you can see her posting as AlpineMary. On a hike years ago to raise money to fight cystic fibrosis, she met Julia Goren, who was running the summit steward program at the time, and decided to get involved.
She trained with Goren and with the Nature Conservancy.
When she first began there were less than half the number of stewards. As the program has grown—there are 25 volunteers now—she only stewards four to six times per summer. She checks the calendar and chooses the mountains she wants to do.
An elementary school teacher’s assistant specializing in reading, Lamb says when she was in high school looking at college, she considered studying horticulture.
“I was always interested in it,” she says.
Every plant in the native Adirondacker’s home garden in Ticonderoga (she’s living in the home she grew up in) has a story and she can tell you where each one comes from, she says. The pink daisies are from her cousin, and she has plants given to her by a neighbor of a relative that have spread so that she now digs them up and shares them with friends.
She hiked her first High Peak, Dix, at 23, when she was living in Lake Placid. She and her husband at the time began hiking and backpacking from there, and she had climbed 30 high peaks before her son Ben was born. After that, she took about 17 years off.
“Then I got back into it with a vengeance—hiking and volunteering,” she says.
She loves to be in the High Peaks. “Everything is up close and personal here,” she says. “These are my mountains.”
When she’s not volunteering as a summit steward, she’s doing trail work with the ADK46ers or answering questions, reading hiker accounts and looking at the photos of aspiring 46ers as an official correspondent for the program. The guideline is not to tell people how they should do the hikes, but offer tips. She also serves on the ADK46ers board of directors.
Once a year, she clears trees and cleans up the Esther Mountain herd path, which she adopted to make sure people can get to the summit. Most herd paths are adopted and maintained, she says.
On a leisure hike on Mount Dix recently, she met an 11-year-old working on his 46. She showed him the plants on the summit and told him about the ADK46ers correspondence program.
“I’m always summit stewarding,” she says.
Learn more about the Adirondack Mountain Club Summit Steward Program at https://www.adk.org/protect/volunteer/summit-stewardship-program/
For more on the ADK46er Correspondence Program: http://www.adk46er.org/correspondent.html
This article first appeared in the Sept-Oct 2019 issue of Adirondack Explorer.
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