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Climbing North and South Hancock in Winter

Arrow Slide, North Hancock
Arrow Slide, North Hancock

My friends Alex, Jessica, and I climbed North and South Hancock on Sunday, two 4,000 footers on the southern border of the Pemigewasset Wilderness that are often hiked together. The two peaks are linked by an adjoining ridge, so it’s possible to bag both with only one major climb and one very steep descent. Still, it’s a pretty long approach hike to get to the base of the peaks with 7 water crossings (bridged in winter), making the 10 mile loop potentially challenging in poor conditions.

North and South Hancock, White Mountains
North and South Hancock, White Mountains

That was the case on Sunday, with temperatures below zero Fahrenheit and 20-30 mph winds. We’d known that conditions were going to be bad and had dressed accordingly, with extra heavy base and mid layers. Both Alex and I’d also brought a little extra emergency gear because the evening forecast was calling for -18 below zero with 60-70 mile an hour winds (that’s more than -5o below zero including wind chill.)

Alex and Philip at the South Hancock Summit
Alex and Philip at the South Hancock Summit

We also got a very early start, meeting Jessica at the Hancock Trail head at 6:15 am, just as the sun was rising. While this loop hike only took us 6:45 to complete, we’d originally hoped to do a 2 mile RT bushwhack from North Hancock to Northwest Hancock, because it’s on the Trailwright’s 72 list I’m working on.

However, we decided to bail on that extension because I was experiencing cold-induced asthma. It’s not a condition that I get very often or very severely, but it was noticeably affecting my breathing on the climbs and I didn’t want to push it. The bushwhack would have probably added another 4 or 5 hours to our hike time, requiring us to hike out well after dark, and we figured we’d leave it for another day when I could breath properly.

Jessica on North Hanock
Jessica on North Hanock

Despite the temperature, trail conditions were very good on Sunday and I was able to bare boot it up to the base of South Hancock before we started the steep ascent, which is something I prefer to save energy All of the stream crossings on the approach hike were bridged with ice (there are like 7), although there was still running water visible.

I changed into MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes for the climb up South Hancock so I could use the televator bars and kept thinking what a great innovation they are as I huffed and puffed up to the summit. A televator is a wire bail that clicks under the heel of your boot so that your foot stays level: it’s like walking in high heels on level ground, but it saves your calf muscles from burning out on steep climbs.

The snow on the ascent was tightly packed with ice underneath, but the snowshoe crampons had no problems providing sufficient purchase for the climb.

Trail up to the South Hancock Summit
Trail up to the South Hancock Summit

The top of South Hancock was very windy, despite some tree cover. We bundled up with heavier gloves, down coats, and balaclavas, had a quick snack and headed down the Hancock Loop Trail that connects the Southern and Northern peaks. I’d never hiked this trail before and was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful it is: it’s also very well protected from a westerly wind.

Almost immediately, we crossed paths with four hikers hiking in the opposite direction who’d spent the night on the ridge. It turns out to be a very nice place to camp in winter, when access to water doesn’t matter, and we saw another group of campers a bit farther along near the summit of North Hancock, as well. It’s legal to camp anywhere in the Whites in winter, even on mountain summits, as long as you’re on a two foot snow base.

Along the way, I paused to snap a picture of Arrow Slide on North Hancock and found that my camera had frozen. Jessica’s camera was working however, so all of the photos for this trip report are from her.

When we arrived at North Hancock at 11:30 am, the temperature at the summit was just below zero. My mustache was full of ice and had frozen, rather painfully, to my balaclava. I defrosted it, while we snacked and planned our descent down the very steep face of North Hancock, going for bare boots, rather than crampons or snowshoes.

After about 50 yards however, Alex sat down on the trail and started sliding on his butt, effectively glissading down, braking with his feet instead of an ice axe.  Jessica and I soon followed, and we slid over 1,000 feet down on our butts! It was a blast, but my butt did get a bit cold. Thank god I was wearing three layers instead of my normal two.

Alex had brought a sled with him – really just a big piece of blue plastic – but didn’t start using it until our walk out. He’s really smitten with the whole thing after sledding down Mt Waumbek  for the first time, last weekend. Jessica gave it a try and got pretty good at it too, using the snowshoes strapped to the sides of her pack to steer the sled on the narrow trail.

After that, we high-tailed it back to our cars at the trail head to warm back up and get into some dry clothes.

Alex and Jessica on North Hancock
Alex and Jessica on North Hancock

Great walk and great effort in some truly harsh conditions.

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4 comments

  1. Philip- I really enjoyed reading this one, but I think you north country people are…crazy. And I mean that in a respectful way. :-) Us southerners would consider temps like that to be the arrival of the new ice age.

    • It’s definitely an acquired taste – far from the ultralight/lightweight style of hiking and backpacking I do the rest of the year and really bordering on mountaineering. Those temps are not really all that cold, compared to what we get one come of the higher peaks in the area. Still living in New England and the Northeast makes for some excitingly different styles of hiking during winter.

  2. It’s nice to know the temperatures are still normal in SOME parts of New England :) And butt-sliding… few things are more joyful!

  3. Great read. Ditto on the previous post re:”normal” temperatures. It was cool down here in western Mass last weekend, but not really cold. Also comforting to know someone else has cold-triggered asthma. I have lived with that all my life. Mostly, it means I cannot take a deep breath without coughing. Tough when I’m trying to run a trail in cold weather.

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