Late November and Early december is the best time of the year to do what I like to call a "twilight" hike: an outing that arrives at the summit so one can witness sunset or sunrise. After a long interval of three years, it was finally time to do another one of these.
This time around, I chose Ampersand Mountain. It fit the basic requirements: open summit views with a short approach. And also because I'd not yet done a twilight hike on Ampersand.
The invite for this outing was quite large, but owing to various factors, by the time our hike day rolled around, our numbers had whittled down to just myself, Caroline and Brian.
We timed our drive down to arrive at the trailhead at about 1:30pm. That gave us plenty of time to gear up and be on the trail with enough lead time to arrive at the summit before sunset, which today was scheduled to be at 4:26pm EST.
A few days before, Western New York experienced an incredibly strong lake-effect snowstorm. In certain areas, more than six feet of snow were suddenly dumped onto the landscape. The western reaches of the Adirondacks were just a teensy bit beyond a major lobe of snowfall and escaped the full brunt of it, with maybe about six inches of snow here at the 1500-foot elevation level of the Ampersand mountain trailhead. Not quite enough to require snowshoes, so we started off in microspikes instead. We figured there would likely be higher amounts near the summit, so we strapped the snowshoes on our packs, just in case.
It was a few degrees below freezing and quite breezy. The fresh powder and the gusts of winds combined with bright sunlight to create some very pretty sparkly scenes in the forest around the trailhead.
The trail to Ampersand Mountain leads across a mile and a half of mildly undulating flats before reaching the base of Ampersand mountain. The conditions were a few inches of fresh powder over unfrozen ground. As a result there were a number of wet areas that required a little bit of careful footwork.
We made very quick work on the approach, and were starting to climb the lower-angled slopes of Ampersand within about forty minutes from leaving the trailhead. Very quickly indeed. I was starting to think that we might be a little too early. With the gusts of winds in the lower trees, we imagined that it would be quite windy and cold on the summit. Arriving too early and having to wait around, exposed, might not be very fun.
We soon came to the main steep ascent up the north flank of Ampersand. The trail conditions today -- apart from the slightly annoying wettish areas down low -- turned out to be pretty good. There was not that much visible ice anywhere and the shallow but fluffy layer of new snow had a slightly sticky consistency to it that gave pretty good footing on the trail, even when things got really steep. As evidence of this, Brian managed to quite literally step out of his microspikes and didn't notice for a few tens of minutes (as in, he was managing the ascent without issue even though he had lost his microspikes).
Brian was not much feeling like descending to search for his foot traction, and with the satisfactory grip with only his boots, he elected to continue up and retrieve the microspikes on the way down. Our thinking was that no one else was going to be on the trail today anyway, and they were likely to be undisturbed even though they were likely right in the middle of the path (and visible). We'd simply pick them up on the way back down. And if Brian needed extra grip in a tricky section, well, he still had his climbing snowshoes.
We made it to the flat section on Ampersand's ridgeline by about 3:45pm. From here, it isn't more than a ten minute walk to the open summit. We had a full forty minutes to go until sunset. We turned and looked at each other. What were we going to do to burn some time? I proposed that perhaps we could simply walk back and forth along the trail here (in order to maintain warmth while passing time).
The others were not interested in doing trail laps. From the flat area on Ampersand's ridgeline, we continued, following the trail to the "boulder section" - a spot where several huge house-sized boulders form an area of big cliffs and semi-tunnel passageways. I burned a few minutes here poking around, taking some pictures of dramatic iceicle curtains. We also took the time to put on a few more layers and get ready for the windy, exposed conditions on the summit.
Normally the Ampersand mountain trail takes a slight dip beyond the boulder section and then climbs an awkward step. I noticed a heavily-marked side trail just before this spot, and, in the interests of curiosity and of wasting time, I went up this way to check it out. It turns out to be a useful little shortcut around that awkward step. There's also a nice little lower lookout that can be reached this way, and I got a brief glimpse of some golden pre-sunset light angling across a windswept snowy north country.
We arrived at the final slopes below treeline at 4:16pm. Ten minutes to go. Brian was starting to find it a little difficult to make progress without his microspikes, and we took a few minutes finding him a way up to treeline. We emerged into the open (and quite windy and cold) open summit terrain at 4:20pm. Just in time!
We emerged into a world of ruddy light (here at the tip of the mountain) and dark, gloomy depths below. The sun was hanging right on the horizon, and it would be only moments before it sank out of view. We pushed against the strong, gusty winds and clambered across the open bedrock to the summit.
If anything, it appeared to get brighter the moment the sun sank below the horizon. I'm sure that was just an after effect of the reduction in difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the sky, but nevertheless, it was a strange effect. All was now bathed in a delicate muted light. To the east, the now-frosty summits of the MacIntyres and of Whiteface stood out clearly, with no haze or atmospheric goop in the way.
The gusty wind and the below-freezing temperatures made the summit a fairly inhospitable place to stand about, so we only sightsee (sightsaw) for a few minutes before deciding to head down. As we began to do so, two young guys sprinted out of the forest below, headed for the summit. They weren't wearing very much in the way of clothes, but given their speed, they were probably generating enough heat to keep themselves warm. Assuming they didn't stop for too long, of course.
Instantly our minds turned to Brian's lost microspikes, and we asked the duo if they had seen or picked them up. Sure enough, they had - which was welcome news to Brian, because he was not particularly looking forward to descending the snowy trail without traction aids, and his snowshoes would have been quite awkward on the only slightly snowed-over trail.
The Sewards and Ampersand Lake
Brian managed to lose and then re-find several more pieces of gear between the summit and the treeline, but after sorting all of that out, and getting his microspikes securely re-fastened to his feet, we started down in earnest. It was of course much calmer and warmer in the trees, and it wasn't too long down the trail before I shed two layers of outerwear.