Submitted by guest blogger Kaet Wild
It wasn’t long after I moved to Saranac Lake that I met Kelowna and her partner, James. They came into the coffee shop where I work and it became routine for me to ask them what kind of adventure they were getting into that day. It typically involved bagging peaks from the Saranac Lake 6ers, the Lake Placid 9ers, or the Adirondack High Peaks, the 46ers.
When winter rolled around, I asked Kelowna if she was a “Winter 6er.” She replied that she had hiked them all in the winter with the exception of Ampersand Mountain, which she had hiked on December 18, three days shy of the official start of winter.
I attempted to reason with her that it still counts, but she insisted she’d need to hike it again during the official winter season. I offered to tag along and we planned to not only hike Ampersand, but to sunset hike it as well, meaning we’d reach the peak as the sun was setting and hike down in the dark.
I awoke to bluebird skies and deemed it a beautiful day for hiking despite the frigid temperatures. I spent the morning packing my bag with lots of layers and set out for the trailhead at 1:30 p.m., excited to be wearing sunglasses for the first time in weeks.
We pulled into the parking lot and assembled our small crew. We checked out the trail to determine the appropriate footwear, and since it was packed well with just an inch or two of powder on top we decided on snow spikes, lightweight spikes that attach to your boots to help with traction. We strapped our snowshoes to our packs just in case we needed them at higher altitudes.
Before I closed my car door, I reluctantly removed my sunglasses and placed them on my front seat. Clouds were rolling in, and while we hoped it was just some snow squalls passing through, those hopes had dwindled and we were forced to accept our fate of a snowy, cloudy climb.
We hit the 2.7-mile-long trail and made good time crossing bridges and rounding bends along the bottom, flat portion of the trail. As we began to ascend, the wind picked up and the snow fell more densely. Suddenly, we found ourselves within a blustery snow globe. We joked about the dramatic change in weather we had just experienced and embraced it completely, pulling our hoods over our heads.
Snow blanketed the pines and weighed heavily upon their branches, and monstrous icicles dripped from the boulders that surrounded us. Our snowy climb continued for awhile, each section steeper than the last, until the trail became too icy and steep for our microspikes to provide enough traction. We lost the trail briefly in an attempt to avoid the ice and trudged through some snow that was well above our knees, forcing us to make the switch to snowshoes.
Shortly after this switch, we found the trail again and came upon the final ascent of Ampersand’s rocky summit. I stared up at the giant slab of rock in front of me and listened to the wind ripping across the mountain’s bare surface, scraping any loose snow away from the rock and sending it whirling into the sky. I took my first step toward the summit and was immediately knocked over by a strong gust.
An epic finish
By this time, I had gotten an alert on my phone indicating a wind advisory. It was 5 p.m., still cloudy, and dipping into negative degrees. Taking the wind chill into account, it felt more like -30 degrees. Climbing onto the rocky, icy peak was difficult. We remained close to the ground, practically crawling until we reached the top.
There was no sunset to be seen through the clouds, but the entire sky was lit up in pinkish hues and the surrounding frosty mountains and frozen lakes stood still, unwavering in the winds. We celebrated briefly, high-fiving and dancing and congratulating Kelowna on an epic official finish of her Winter 6ers before racing back to the shelter of the forest. And while it is lovely to sit upon a summit for awhile and be blown away by the views, I’d say it’s equally as satisfying to be blown away, literally.
The Ampersand trailhead is located on Route 3, about 8 miles west of Saranac Lake. The parking lot is located on the right side of the road and the trailhead is across the street on the left. Use caution when crossing Route 3.