A ski trip with spare parts on a frigid day
By Alan Wechsler
As we drove to the trailhead to the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, I eyed the thermometer on the dashboard. It ranged from minus 13 to minus 18, depending on whether we were climbing or descending a hill. Whatever the final temperature, it would be a chilly morning for sure.
The readout finally settled on a relatively balmy minus 8 as my friend Steve Goldstein and I pulled into the parking area and joined Phil Brown, former Explorer editor. Our plan was to cross-country ski to Siamese Ponds, a popular warm-weather destination with plenty of winter skiing potential.
With a forecasted high in the low teens, this was not a day for newbies. Fortunately, between the three of us, we had decades of experience staying warm in the cold. As we set off, I thought of all the extra gear I’d brought: three sets of gloves and mittens of different thicknesses, a spare set of socks in case my boots got wet (frostbite would set in quickly in such temperatures), a Thermos of tea and a down jacket for when we stopped. And, lastly, a headlamp. We had a big day planned, and night comes fast in January.
As it turned out, our planning skills would be tested at our destination, far from the car.
Our route followed the East Branch (of the Sacandaga River) Trail from a parking lot on Route 8, a 10-minute drive south of Wevertown. It’s about four miles to the Sacandaga Lean-To. From there, it’s an uphill climb of 2 or 2.5 miles, depending on which trail guide you use. With a total climb (and eventual descent) of 1,700 feet, this is a trip for advanced or intermediate skiers who know how to control their speed.
The trail began with a long climb over the shoulder of rocky Eleventh Mountain—a good way to warm up on such a cold morning. From the ridge, the route dropped 400 feet to the river, which we followed for the next 90 minutes. Despite the cold, the sun kept us warm, and there was no wind to bite through our clothes.
The trail was in good shape. We had seen signs of bare-booting at the trailhead, which made me wonder how much fun it would be to ski. It seems we backcountry skiers are constantly having trails tarnished by postholes left by winter hikers who don’t bother with snowshoes. Both Phil and I have both tried talking to such hikers in the past, but it does little good. Fortunately, these tracks only went 50 yards, leaving us virgin powder from a recent snowstorm.
We reached the lean-to by 11:30 a.m. and took a break for lunch. That’s where the down jackets came in handy. It’s easy to stay warm when moving, even when the temperature is below zero. But one cools quickly when stopped, so our jackets kept us almost toasty. I also brought a foam pad to sit on, an extra warmth bonus.
The first few miles of this route follow a state-designated ski trail that leads to the busy Spring Farm Trailhead at Thirteenth Lake, a relatively easy ski. Not so for the next stretch, where we left the ski trail for the branch to Siamese Ponds. From the lean-to, we crossed the river on a cable bridge and started to climb.
I made note of our differing ski gear as we shuffled uphill.
All of our skis were metal-edged, vital for making turns on narrow, backcountry trails. My bindings were of a basic 3-pin setup. Steve had a more robust BC-NNN binding, with a heel cable for added torsion control. Phil had us both beat: cable telemark bindings generally used for alpine descents. He’s an avid skier and owns four pairs of backcountry skis for varying conditions and difficulties.
Those bindings, however, were not as good as they looked. “I’ve broken two cables since I’ve owned these,” he said as he climbed. “I’m about ready to replace them.”
We were making great time, and by 1:30 p.m. we reached our destination. “Siamese Ponds” is plural for a reason. You pop out onto the larger of the two bodies of water, more of a lake than a pond. The second, smaller pond is at a slightly higher elevation and hidden by the wooded isthmus that makes up the far shore.
We started skiing along the lake, amazed how still and sunny it was, when Phil said, “Not again!” Actually, he might have said something ruder. He had broken another cable.
Fortunately, he had a spare, and the tools to replace it. Had he not, it would have been a long walk out, or a tough ski on a jury-rigged binding made from cord. With help from Steve, a retired laparoscopic surgeon who likes to fix things in his spare time, he had the binding repaired in 30 minutes.
I took the opportunity to explore the lake and climb the far shore to view the second pond. I found a campsite with a grill and a table made from branches. Clearly, this was a nice place to spend the night—in the warm weather.
We descended in less than an hour but remained vigilant. There were many rocks hidden beneath the perfect powder, so controlling our speed was vital. Plus, Phil was out of replacement cables.
After a quick food recharge at the lean-to, we headed out, knowing we were now running out of daylight. Still, the near-perfect conditions left us with smiles. Even running into two bare-booters—British backpackers, dressed head to foot in camo jumpsuits—didn’t dampen our spirits. We even spared them the usual lecture.
The long climb up the Eleventh Mountain ridge proved the crux of the day: we were feeling the miles. Still, we made the car with the last traces of light in the overcast sky, and our headlamps remained in our packs. It had been a good day, and our planning had paid off.