Bushwhacking Northwest Hancock Mountain

The Canister on Northwest Hancock Mountain (4020)
The Canister on Northwest Hancock Mountain (4020)

Last weekend, I co-led a bushwhack to Northwest Hancock (4020) with a small group of experienced hikers from the Appalachian Mountain Club. This was my second attempt to summit this rarely climbed peak, the first of which was ended prematurely by cold-induced asthma on a -20 below zero day last February. We succeeded this time as you can see by the summit canister above.

In addition to the bushwhack, we also climbed neighboring South Hancock (4319) and Mount Hancock (4420), hiking in from on the Hancock Notch Trailhead which starts at the hairpin turn on Rt 112, the Kancamagus Highway. Climbing these two peaks is a significant day hike itself, requiring 9.8 miles of hiking with 10 stream crossings, 2560′ of elevation gain, and a book time of about 6.5 hours.

With the added bushwhack to the Northwest summit, we ended up hiking 13 miles in 13 hours with 3200′ of elevation gain. It was a long day and we ended up hiking out in the dark, but boy was it worth it!

Bushwhacking Route to Northwest Hancock

The first half of this hike, where we bagged South Hancock and North Hancock was routine. I’ve hiked this route many times and although it’s a long walk from the road, our group made good time, hiking at about 2 miles an hour. We crossed the 5 stream crossings without incident and huffed and puffed our way up to the South Hancock summit, where we took in excellent views of Mount Cochorua, Hedgehog, Passaconaway and the Tripyramids from the viewpoint, while being dive-bombed by aggressive grey jays looking for food handouts.

The Sandwich Range
The Sandwich Range

After a quick snack, we continued north along the Hancock Loop Trail which connects the South and North Peaks at about 4000′ of elevation. Along the way, it was possible to make out nearby Mt Carrigan’s summit through the trees. We stopped for another longer snack at the summit of the north peak, which also had glorious views of the Osceolas and Scar Ridge to the southwest. Scar Ridge is considered one of the more difficult bushwhacks in the Whites.

The Osceolas (left rear) and Scar Ridge (right rear)
The Osceolas (left rear) and Scar Ridge (right rear)

After North Hancock (also called Mount Hancock), it was time to get down to bushwhacking business and plow our way to the Northwest summit. On hindsight, that’s when we made our first navigational error. Instead of following a bearing from the western side of the peak, we followed one a bit to the east, immediately introducing lateral drift to our bearing. We detected it fairly quickly because the terrain wasn’t matching what we expected to see. Instead of walking along a ridge, we found ourselves heading down into a stream valley between the northwest summit and what could be called the northeast ridge of the mountain.

After a fair amount of group discussion – we had an experienced set of bushwhackers on this hike who had prepared their routes in advance – we headed in a westerly direction in order to reacquire the Northwest ridge to the summit. Once we were back on the correct line, the bushwhack proceeded slowly but normally as we threaded our way left and right in order to avoid the densest areas of blowdowns and spruce.

We passed through the col between Mount Hancock and the Northwest summit and climbed over several rocky outcroppings until we found the summit canister and left a note of our achievement for other future hikers to read. Surprisingly two other groups of of hikers had visited the peak on the same day – which is astonishing – since the summit is only on the Trailwrights 72 peakbagging list, which few people bother climbing because it takes 72 separate hikes to complete.

Bushwhacking on Northwest Hancock
Bushwhacking on Northwest Hancock

Checking our time, it had taken us 2:45 hours to hike the 1 mile out the Northwest summit. That’s pretty slow. With the afternoon dwindling, we had to get off the peak and back to the relative safety of a trail so we could hike out without having to bushwhack in the dark.

Rather than retracing our steps, we decided, to avoid bushwhacking the way we came and instead hike toward a slide on the western side of the mountain which we could follow down to the Cedar Brook Trail. While easier than hiking on the ridge, this route was a slow bushwhack, made even more challenging by the fact that we were walking sideways down a steep slope.

But we did eventually find the slide, which proved by be an awe-inspiring site and one that you cannot see unless you’re willing to hike off-trail. It had obviously been severely damaged by Hurricane Irene and was massively eroded. It was also enormous, dropping at least 1000 feet of elevation down the side of the mountain.

Northwest Hancock Slide
Northwest Hancock Slide

While seemingly open, walking down the slide turned out to be just as challenging as walking through the forest. The rocks were very unstable and had a tendency to slide out from under you when you stepped on them, requiring us to spread out and maintain a fair distance from one another to avoid a rock-fall accident. The slope of the slide was also quite steep in places, requiring careful feet first descents down steep sandy banks.

At the bottom of the slide, we continued bushwhacking again, paralleling the stream that starts at the bottom of the slide and is fed by an underground source. This finally led us to the Cedar Brook Trail about an 45 minutes before dark. Still the hike out required close to three more hours of hiking, much of it by headlamp,  until we made it back to the trailhead.

In my mind this was an epic hike, especially the slide, which dwarfs the achievement of summiting the Northwest Peak. What a magnificent place! I want to go back there again.

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  1. Yeah, sometimes bushwacks are very difficult. I went on one around a lake, down hill to a longish ridge and over that to a lean-to. Total distince was about 3 miles. Nice easy hike, right? Well, it took well over nine hours…I felt like I had hiked about 20 miles! Blowdowns over blowdowns leaving hip deep holes to step in. I sympathize with your hike.

    Fresh slides are really spectacular. Long stretches of open granite, steeper than you can walk in places. “Brush” piles on the sides…20′ tall and composed of downed trees in an impassible tangle. Loose sand, often with a stream at the bottom. Huge boulders, the size of a car. And the final spill at the bottom looks like a beaver dam. Except the 1-2″ branches found in a beaver dam are replaced with 3′ tree trunks. Root tangling root, the massive height of downed trees piled as high as the living trees next to them stand tall. They are undercut along the sides, leaving a streached, seemingly dripping, root ball reaching down to find the ground, but finding only other trees. These are really beautiful monuments to the power nature can have in its cycle of destroying and rebuilding the wilderness. Sand covers the lower courses. a process of fossilization that will happen faster than the wood can rot. Really spectacular…

  2. Bushwhacking always (ok, most always) prove worthwhile no matter how difficult they are. I’m used to bushwhacking swamps and southern forests instead, but still the going can get tough.

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