When Naturegirl and I started hiking up to Mt Hancock (4,430 ft, above) and South Hancock (4,319 ft) on Saturday I felt like my face was going to freeze off. The trail head parking lot for this hike is very exposed to the wind and we had problems getting dressed due to the wind chill which was forecast as -25 to -40 below zero. These were the same conditions we expected at the summits.
We had had some back and forth the previous evening about the wind chill forecast but decided to go anyway because the Hancock summits are forested and we thought we'd get some protection from the wind. This turned out to be wishful thinking. It was cold as hell on South Hancock when we summitted 4 hours later and the forest cover wasn't as thick as we had hoped. Still, we had sunshine on the peak which warmed up us.
Climbing the Hancocks in winter should not be underestimated. There are two very steep ascents to the summits, which can be tricky if they haven't been broken out. While it is possible to link Mt Hancock (the northern peak) with South Hancock along a 1.4 mile ridge walk above 4,000 feet, weather and wind chill should be carefully considered because the forest cover isn't thick enough to break the full force of the wind.
In addition, there are five major stream crossings on the way to the base of the peaks. We were lucky that the ice was just thick enough to hold our weight so we could get across. But if it hadn't been so cold, we would have had to bushwhack around them through deep powder and woods which would have added substantial time to our hike in. It's ironic that the best time to hike the Hancocks in winter is in bitter cold, when these streams are frozen over.
Except for the stream crossings, the trail is easy and magnificent. Starting from the parking lot, the path follows the Hancock Notch Trail for 1.8 miles, then heads north on the Cedar Brook Trail for 0.7 miles to the junction with the Hancock Loop Trial. The trail climbs gradually along a well maintained corridor that must have been a light rail grade at some point in the White Mountains lumbering past. It parallels a large stream called the North Fork, which flows into the Hancock Branch of the Pemmigewasset River. On the other side of the river are a series of trail-less hills, around 2,000 ft high, which form the northern side of the stream's drainage.
From the Hancock Loop trail junction, it's another 1.1 miles to the base of North and South Hancock where the trail splits into a loop. If you just want to climb North Hancock (also known as Mt Hancock), it's 0.7 miles to the summit with an elevation gain of 380 meters. The climb up South Hancock is 0.5 miles and about 230 meters. Both are steep climbs.
The trail to the base of the Hancocks was easy to moderate yesterday. We followed the track of a solo snowshoer, who must have been about an hour or two ahead of us, to the base of Hancock Loop. From there, he climbed Mt Hancock, while we proceeded up South Hancock.
I led the climb up South Hancock wearing snowshoes. It hadn't been broken out, so I was busting through 1-2 foot deep snow drafts, sinking and slipping down on each step. The first part of the climb was steep, but much more gradual than the next 60%. I flipped up the telecasters on my MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes to deal with the grade, but even then my calfs started to burn.
The snowdrifts tapered eventually and I was able to find snow with a crust on it that gave me better purchase. Green pine needles coated the surface of these crusty areas making them easier to spot. I started to visualize the surface of the snow as a tapestry of different surface and crust strengths. Finding the hardest ones that held me the best lessened my level of effort. We teach the same trick in whitewater kayaking: how to read water and use it's energy, instead of your own.
We made it to the top of South Hancock after about 40 minutes of climbing and stopped to admire excellent views of the Sawyer River Valley. Naturegirl and I have been planning some hikes in this area which include Mt Tremont and Owl's Cliff. These are lower elevation hikes that are supposed to have fantastic views.
As I plow my way through the White Mountain 4,000 footers, I've become increasingly drawn to the wilder, trail-less parts of the White Mountains. Hiking the 4,000 footers is really my first foray into exploring the breadth of habitats this region, but I sense that it's true beauty lies in bushwhacks and other roads less traveled.
When we crested South Hancock, we ran into Just Joe, the snowshoer whose tracks we'd followed that morning. He had ascended the Northern peak first and traversed the ridge to South Hancock. He warned us of deep snow drifts and some rough trail between the peaks. It was 2 pm, less than 3 hours until nightfall. Naturegirl and I conferred. I wanted to bag the Northern Peak, but she was concerned about daylight and doing the stream crossings in the dark.
We hiked down the trail a bit to look at the Northern peak through the trees and it looked far away. We did the math, factoring in the fact that the northern descent would be steeper than the southern track we had just broken out, and decided to hike out the way we came. I was disappointed, but this was the right call.
The descent down the southern peak was exciting. I swapped out my snowshoes for step-in crampons and used my ice axe to descend the steep slope. We then snowshoed out to the stream crossings that had gotten slushy as daytime temperatures increased (up to 10 degrees from 0 in the morning). There is no telling what those stream crossings would have looked like a few hours later, but the warmer temperatures and snow melt had altered them significantly. Streams of water had melted through the surface which had been frozen solid that morning requiring us to re-plan and re-route our crossings. This was tricky because we couldn't see where rocks were under the snow frosted ice and tapping with our hiking poles for hollow sounds was not always conclusive.
We made it across each one without incident. Thank god, because soaking a boot would have been disastrous for Naturegirl who was wearing leather boots. I could have probably survived a dunking in plastic boots by putting on spare socks and hiking without my removable liners. This would be awkward, but doable for a few miles.
Total mileage for the day was 8.2 miles in 7 hours and about 2,000 feet of ascent. We'll be back for North Peak on another frigid day.