The Dundas Peak: Hamilton's riskiest selfie spot

Influenced by the desire to see breathtaking panoramic views of Spencer Gorge and capture it for social media, are people putting themselves at unnecessary risk?

Social media users take unnecessary risks to capture the perfect shot at Dundas Peak

This pic on minss.j's Instagram account shows the ledge and scenery that makes this spot a coveted one for social posts. (Instagram)

A small, rocky outcropping above Hamilton's Tews Falls that is twice as high as the American side of Niagara Falls has become the city's go-to spot for shareable snapshots and selfies.

Known as the Dundas Peak, the spot is attracting a steady stream of amateur photographers, dangling their feet off steep cliffs, hanging over ledges with sheer drops, climbing fences and pushing the boundaries of safety, all to get closer to the edge of the escarpment for the quintessential shot. 

(It's) all to get high risk and high danger type of photographs of themselves and post them on social media, which grows the interest of other people wanting to top that one.- Gord Costie. HCA

The peak has long been a popular local destination.

But in recent years, influenced by the desire to see breathtaking panoramic views of Spencer Gorge and capture them for social media, hundreds of people are putting themselves at risk trying to recreate what they see on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

A search of the hashtag #dundaspeak on Instagram turns up more than 10,000 pictures. Some are actual "selfies," others use friends to help get the ideal angle, but it is always about sharing a dramatic picture of yourself.

Inspiring view

When Liam Keery visited Dundas Peak last year, a big reason why he wanted to go was to photograph the unique vantage point. 

"I had previously seen photos of the location on Instagram posted by people I follow," said Keery.

"Having seen that some other photographers had shot there, I thought it would be interesting to see what kind of perspectives I would be able to capture at the same location." 

A photo from bethanyditecco's Instagram feed shows feet dangling high above Spencer Gorge: a popular shot with daring photographers who visit the peak. (bethanyditecco/Instagram)

Many of the snaps are posted with inspirational messages or mottos, such as "I haven't reached my peak yet." or "If you don't live on the edge, you will never see the view." 

But are social media users risking their lives for the perfect picture?

Gord Costie, director of conservation areas services at Hamilton Conservation Authority, which manages Dundas Peak and the surrounding Spencer Gorge area thinks "social media has played a strong role."   

"The selfie phenomenon has people going into areas that are either fenced or posted as off limits, going into the water areas that have been fenced off, all to get high risk and high danger type of photographs of themselves and post them on social media, which grows the interest of other people wanting to top that one," said Costie.

A victim of its own popularity

Liam Keery says social media played a role in why he visited Dundas Peak. (Liam Keery/Instagram)

The Spencer Gorge area around the peak includes Webster and Tew falls, and has become among the most popular escarpment destinations since Hamilton began marketing itself as "the city of waterfalls," hoping to attract more visitors from Toronto and southern Ontario, said Costie. 

In addition to the risky social snaphots, the HCA is concerned that the natural area is being damaged by people climbing embankments, trespassing under the fences and walking around the falls. 

The authority says between 100,000 and 140,000 people visit the area every year, a steep increase from how Steve Nicholson, who grew up in Dundas, Ont. remembers it. 

"When we were kids we used to go play there, but it's too busy now. I won't go there anymore," Nicholson said. 

This picture shows the tricky leaning that can be involved in getting the right "Peak" shot. (Instagram)

On May 21, the authority started charging $10 to park and $5 per person, hoping the fees would help deter people from visiting and parking in the surrounding residential neighbourhood. 

"It's really busy," said Steve Nicholson, who has lived near the gorge for 40 years. 

The authority closed access to the bottom of the gorge to protect the area's wildlife in May, but that doesn't preclude hikers from trespassing beyond the areas gates to get a scenic photo. 

'Every couple weeks you'll hear a helicopter... and it's a rescue'

The organization is also struggling to keep a growing number of hikers safe, amidst its booming popularity. 

Gord Costie told CBC News that the Hamilton Conservation Authority has stopped promoting Spencer Gorge Wilderness area in its marketing strategy because of the impact social media has had on attracting visitors. (Amara McLaughlin/CBC)

Spencer Gorge is the most frequent place in Hamilton that firefighters get called to rescue stray hikers who have fallen down a steep path or sheer cliffs. 

"Every couple weeks you'll hear a helicopter, or you'll hear an ambulance or a siren, and it's a rescue. Somebody's being rescued who fell or got stuck," said Nicholson. 

This year, the number of rope rescues has increased 65 per cent, according to data obtained by CBC News from the Hamilton Fire Department. 

"People are just putting themselves in harms way," said Costie, who's worked for the environmental agency for 29 years.

"They're also putting the emergency crews in harms way, and really they put our conservation areas in harms way too because it can really disrupt our operations when emergency services get in and shut a place down. It's very disrupting to everybody."

'We can't fence off the entire escarpment'

But what's being done to address rampant safety concerns for thrill-seeking social media users? 

The authority says it's safety is its number one concern for this particular wilderness area. 

We have to keep it in balance with the aesthetics and ecology because how much do we want to fence off?- Gord Costie, Hamilton Conservation Authority

In September, the organization widened the trail and added new gravel to make it more accessible to hikers 12 months of the year. 

Safety fencing was introduced incrementally over the last two years to keep people away from the cliff's edge, while protecting the environment. 

The authority is also currently conducting its own risk management assessment.

"It's never ending," said Costie. "We're always going to review, and reflect other safety concerns and issues.

But this strategy is conflicting because "we can't fence off the entire escarpment," Costie added. "We have to keep it in balance with the aesthetics and ecology because how much do we want to fence off? What type of look do we want to put on that iconic view of the Dundas Peak?"

This shot on the Instagram account of dee_hikingjunkie gives a clear look at one of the ledges along the Dundas Peak. (Instagram)