March 15th, 2015 – Today I hiked North and South Hancock. These two peaks make #24 and #25 on my New Hampshire 48 4000 footers list! Finally past the half way point. Having once turned around and bailed out on this exact same trip before… I was eager to scratch these two off my list at last.
I woke up at 4AM to get a head start on the day. Packed my gear, food, water and hit the road. It was raining and about 37 degrees in Massachusetts not a great indication of what weather would look like up north. As I got closer to the Kancamagus Highway exit on 93 North the temperatures plummeted into the high 20’s and ice had formed on most roads. I arrived at the “Hairpin Turn” outlook parking area at around 7:15 AM. I took a stroll over some of the nearby packed snow in bare boots to get a feel for what the trail would be like. It had been packed down by hikers but had about 2″ of fresh powder on top of it.
I debated whether or not to bring my snowshoes. I didn’t want to carry them if I didn’t need them, but I didn’t want to take the risk of not having them and post-holing like crazy. I took the gamble and left them behind. In bare boots I was able to float on top of the snow pack with no problem only sinking about 1″. I opted to leave my crampons as well and move forward with only Micro-Spikes… A big gamble! but it was nice traveling light.
The weather, was not in my favor. Temperatures around 25-30F at the parking lot would mean teens at the summit. It was snowing fairly heavily with a mixture of rain and sleet. My clothes were getting soaked just getting geared up in the parking lot. I opted to wear my hard shell over a base layer right from the start in attempts to stay dry.
I hit the Hancock Notch Trail at about 7:45. I was trucking at a fast pace and progressed up the Hancock Notch trail to Cedar Brook trail junction by 8:30 or so. There are 3 or 4 stream crossings along the cedar brook trail. All of the streams had plenty of snow over them forming bridges to walk over. This felt sketchy but seemed safe enough. Sure beats rock hopping.
I arrived at the Hancock Loop junction at 9 AM. I opted to do the loop counter-clockwise unlike most people. This would insure I wouldn’t run into anyone else. On the downside… it also meant I’d need to climb the steep approach to South Hancock instead of descend it.
The first section of the Hancock loop trail ascending South Hancock is relatively easy grades progressing about 1/4 of a mile. The trail quickly gets vertical along the last 1/4 mile segment. VERY steep sections made for tricky footing in my Micro Spikes. At certain points I yelled at myself for not bringing my crampons or snowshoes. I wasn’t sinking in the snow at all… it was just very slick and too steep for my micro spikes to bite into. Crampons would have made a world of difference. I would take 2 steps forward and slide down 4 steps, it was frustrating!
It took me nearly an hour to get myself up the last 1/4 mile steep section. I was clawing my way up on my hands and knees, grabbing tree limbs, and using the ONE trekking pole that I brought. It was an exhausting experience and I learned my lesson… bring more gear. I took plenty of breaks during this time. There were a few opportunities of limited views of North Hancock, which was covered in clouds. I knew today wouldn’t be a great day for views.
I hit the summit at around 10AM. It was cold, windy, and completely socked in the fog. I took a walk down to the only outlook on South Hancock and it was just a wall of gray snow and fog.
The wind picked up and the temps dropped to around 17-20F so I added a fleece layer under my shell, had a snack, swapped my water bottles and moved on.
The Hancock Ridge trail was unbroken but still firm enough for me to walk on without snowshoes. Certain spots were hard to spot the trail to continue on due to massive snow drifts. The snow was coming down heavily now, wind was whipping me in the face. It was an uncomfortable trek over to the North Summit.
Despite the awful weather and limited views I still enjoyed solitude. The trees were encased in white sticky snow and windblown cornice. It was very peaceful aside from the occasional rattling gust of wind.
I arrived at North Hancocks summit by 11AM. The snow pack up there was incredible… at least 5 feet deep in some sections. This allowed me to walk above the tree line where it wouldn’t be possible in the Summer. I would have had some incredible views had the weather worked out in my favor. Still… the site was impressive. And the dwarfed summit sign was a bit amusing! I drank some water… took a bunch of pictures and started my descent. A couple of hikers were coming up North Hancock as I was coming down, these would be the only people I would see all day.
The trail got very steep very quick, so I decided to try my luck at butt sliding. In previous experiences I never got too far, the snow was always too soft and deep or not steep enough. Today… I WAS IN LUCK. Optimal butt sliding conditions. I slid for 300-500 feet at a time without even touching the ground with my hands to push forward. I felt like I was reaching speeds of 10-15MPH in some sections… bit scary! I did slam into a few trees but luckily not hard enough to break anything. It was an incredible experience over a 1/4 mile stretch and It got me back to the Hancock Loop junction in about an hour! Here’s some footage of my butt sliding skills… excuse the profanity.
Walking out through the Cedar Brook trail and Hancock Notch trail was uneventful. I stopped a few times to take in how quiet everything was and snap a few pictures. By now the trees all had a white casing of snow around them. Looking back at North Hancock’s summit it looked like conditions continued to get worse at the top of North Hancock. I’m glad I started early.
I reached my car at the Hancock Outlook parking area by 12:30.
To sum it up, this hike has a fairly easy grade until you reach either peak. Doing the loop counter clockwise forces you to climb the hardest section… if you’re not up for a challenge it is recommended to do North Hancock first then descend South Hancock. Ascending North Hancock is still steep but not quite as bad. Bring heavy traction or snowshoes if the snow is packed hard. This trip is a total of 10 miles, but about 5 of that is very easy flat walking up Hancock Notch and Cedar Brook trails. Things only get interesting on the Hancock loop trail. Generally views from the top are limited, but there are lookouts on both summits and some bare ridges that allow you to see into the Hancock ravine.
It was a great day in the woods, I’m glad I finally bagged these peaks to add to my list. It’s still winter up in New Hampshire but I can feel it starting to fade. Part of me is bummed out to see winter go, but I do look forward to spring and summer hiking and camping.