Driving up from Saratoga, temperatures wavered within a degree or two of the freezing mark the entire way, with no sign of any snow. Finally, as we climbed the road from Wilmington up to the start of the Whiteface Auto Road, the ground became snow-covered and temperatures dropped into the upper 20s.
We parked at the Toll House where there were already another dozen or so vehicles parked. There was clearly enough snow on the ground to allow us to ski right from the Toll House. Our plan was to ski up the Auto Road to a point on the Wilmington Turn, not far below Whiteface's summit, ditch our skis and hike over to Esther Mountain (a 5.6 mile round trip), and then end the day with a nice glide back down the Auto Road.
As we ascended the Auto Road, snow depth gradually increased to 4-5 inches above 3000' and 8-10 inches by the time we hit the Lake Placid Turn at approximately 4000' elevation. Occassional breaks in the overcast sky illuminated a beautiful snow-covered landscape to the north. From time to time we were engulfed in light fog as low-level clouds rolled into the mountainside.
Just as we rounded the Lake Placid Turn, we emerged above the clouds into a brilliant landscape of white trees and cobalt sky. With bright sun and practically no wind, we continued up the Auto Road to the Wilmington Turn at approximately 4500' elevation.
At the far end of the turn, the hiking trail up Whiteface briefly intersects the Auto Road. We stashed our skis and traded ski boots for hiking boots, and geared up for the 5.6 mile round trip hike over to Esther Mountain. We would start out following the marked hiking trail for about a mile and a half, but then an unmarked side-path leads the remaining 1.3 miles over to the summit of Esther. Fortunately, we wouldn't have to give up much of the elevation we had gained en route to Esther's summit at 4240', with our hiking route remaining above 4000' elevation the entire time.
Looking down through clouds at the ski center below, we could see (and hear) snowmaking operations underway on the Excelsior trail. Whiteface had announced earlier this week that they had commenced snowmaking operations for the upcoming season, so it was good to see those efforts continuing. The snowline on the ski center side of the mountain roughly coincided with the mid-mountain lodge.
Hiking conditions were excellent. The trail had already been broken out by other parties earlier in the day, and the foot or so of snow on the ground was enough to smooth out the trail and freeze over any mud. The trees were beautiful with their coat of new snow.
Hiking over to Esther, it was fun thinking about the ski trail network that once existed directly below the Wilmington Turn. Skiers were trucked up the Auto Road to the turn, and then skied down to about where the top of the Lookout Mountain chairlift is located today. A pair of rope tows then transported skiers back up to the top of the trail network. This trail network was an upper elevation extension of the Marble Mountain ski center that existed lower down the mountain in the era prior to development of the current Whiteface Mountain Ski Center.
The route to Esther is a bit different from the last time I had hiked it, at least 10 years ago. There is now a small sign indicating the junction of the Esther herd path with the main hiking trail (the junction was previously unmarked), and the herd path has been improved by the 46ers to eliminate the confusing network of paths that previously existed. Most controversial of all, the summit register has been removed, as have the registers from all of the trailless peaks. Though some of these changes have been controversial, they are necessary to manage the increasing pressure from overuse.
Esther Mountain is the northernmost of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. A small plaque (buried in snow today) was placed on the summit by the 46ers in 1939 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of the mountain. Esther McComb, age 15, had decided to climb Whiteface from her family's home in Wilmington in the summer of 1839. She became lost, and climbed this mountain instead. Esther was neither the first nor the last hiker to get lost in the Adirondacks, but as far as I know she's the only one to get a mountain named after her for doing so.