Ampersand: A Family Tradition Realized

Submitted By Guest Blogger: Marilyn Gorgas Cahill, Wharton, NJ

Family tradition

In the early afternoon, on Wednesday, August 24, my 19-year-old daughter Victoria Cahill reached the summit of Ampersand Mountain. This has been a family tradition for five generations, and would not be extraordinary except that Victoria has cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia. With normal intelligence, Victoria is unable to sit, stand, or walk, and seemed destined to be excluded from the Ampersand experience. 

My grandfather, John W. Gorgas Sr., hiked Ampersand, Marcy, and others years ago with his four sons. My father, Richard Gorgas, introduced us to the trail between the ages of 5 and 8, and later on in 1973, he made the local news when he fell behind us and got lost overnight on the back of the mountain. He and my 11-year-old sister spent a cold night wrapped in newspapers in an empty hunter’s cabin, and the next day followed a stream bed to the road and hitchhiked into town. 

One of the reasons we hike - the beautiful 360-degree view.

I last saw the view from Ampersand 31 years ago, but I always longed to stand on the summit again with my own children and watch them take in the awesome 360-degree expanse of mountains, rivers, and lakes, and gain a perspective that can only be found on a mountaintop. Years slipped by, and soon I was “too old” and Victoria was too heavy. I believed she would never know the trail, the brooks, the rocky ascents, the clearing where the old ranger’s cabin once stood, or the breathtaking view.  

Determination & Innovation

Occasionally the idea of carrying her to the top was suggested, but nobody could contrive a viable way to do it. Grandma Gorgas, who never made the hike herself, was sure it could be done. Some cousins thought so, too. Others, including me, shook their heads and listed the obstacles. But I never stopped wondering if the dream could ever become a possibility. Neither did my nephew Jon. 

Jonathan Gorgas, Victoria’s cousin, former Saranac Lake resident, and current Bloomingdale firefighter and Lake Placid realtor, made the decision - August 2016. “We’re doing this,” he determined. 

Generations united to make this family tradition a reality!

We researched, ordered expensive equipment (which didn’t work), and upped our morning walks. Finally seventeen family members, spanning three generations, including Jon’s son Nathaniel Ampersand Gorgas (Sandy for short), met at the trailhead on Route 3. We brought pillows, ratchet straps, and a decrepit jogging stroller. Other serious hikers looked at us dubiously, incredulously, as we stuffed Victoria into the stroller — no doubt wondering if these crazy people knew what they were getting into! 

A gentle stroll in the woods.

For almost a mile Jon, his sister Sarah Gorgas, and cousins Mark Gorgas and Les Ruga pushed and lifted Victoria over tree roots and rocks and brooks, until the trail steepened and narrowed before the clearing. Then Mark removed one of his own children from his REI, and strapped Victoria in it. 

Nothing's going to keep them down!

After many adjustments, three people hoisted Victoria onto Jon's back, and the real challenge began. We stopped often to rest and switch carriers, and push from behind. At 2:04 PM, four hours after starting, we finally scaled the last rocks to the top.  

Working together, the family never gave up the goal!

A Dream Realized

There are really no words to adequately describe the enormity of this experience - the determination and commitment shown by the fourth generation of my Adirondack-loving family. Each one on the trail, whether they carried, supported, prayed, or just hiked along, shared in this gift so that one physically challenged young lady didn’t miss out. Victoria is now part of our family’s Ampersand tradition, and can now talk with the rest of us about the unspeakably beautiful Adirondack peaks, winding rivers, and Saranac Lakes - the wonders of God's creation - as seen from the top of the mountain.

A dream realized. Breathtaking.

*Note: This is not intended to suggest that this is an appropriate way to get any disabled person to the top. Victoria weighs about 80 pounds, and she was accompanied and carried by four very strong, very experienced, and very committed hikers. The child carrier was only rated to 60 lbs., but it was known to be safe to 100 lbs. She has no seizure or other health issues that would create a hazard. As the parent of a disabled child, I’ve learned that each person has to figure out what works for him or her, and never give up on a dream.


From realizing a family tradition to hosting a family reunion, the Saranac Lake Region is ready to welcome you and your dreams. Find a cool place to stay, enjoy the many activities the Adirondacks has to offer, and make your own family tradition!


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