Kris and I were well on our way to sumitting West Hitchcock, our fourth Hitchcock in one day, when we let down our guard and used our eyes to navigate instead of our compasses. It’s such a simple mistake, but people do it all the time.
Most White Mountain hikers have never heard of the Hitchcocks, even though they’re located just beyond the Lincoln Woods parking lot within spitting distance of the most popular hiking trails in the White Mountain National Forest. Sandwiched between the East Branch Pemigewasset River, the Cedar Brook Trail, and the Kancamagus Highway, West (3061′), Middle (3620′), North (3194′), South (3500′), and East Hitchcock (3331′) are tucked away in their own lost world because there aren’t any trails to them. Of course, they’re also surrounded by thick spruce, blow-downs, and cliffs which deter everyone except the most determined bushwhackers.
Kris and I had set out that morning to climb as many of the Hitchcocks as possible between the Cedar Brook Trail and the East Side Trail, heading from east to west. The weather wasn’t looking so hot with thunderstorms in the forecast, so we weren’t expecting to get much past the East and South Peaks before having to turn around and hike out. If we made it to South Hitchcock, we’d try for Middle Hitchcock, and finally the West Peak if we could get there before 4:00 pm, the time we’d set to hike back to a blazed trail, regardless of our progress.
We started this hike from the hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway, hiking up the Hancock Notch and Cedar Branch Trails to about 3000′ before heading off trail to climb East Hitchcock. The spruce was moderately thick, but short enough that we could see over the tree tops. We couldn’t see our feet though and there were lots of blowdowns that slowed our progress. We passed by the wide boggy area that I’d read about in other trip reports and then the woods opened up as we climbed up to the long flat summit of East Hitchcock.
The canister was easy to find and we poured through the old registers seeing many names that we knew, with entries going back to 1985. We were the 9th and 10th hikers to climb the summit this year.
We set off to climb the South summit which proved much more difficult because we had to navigate past a bump located between the East and South peaks. We stayed to the north of the bump, but still hit some of the densest bushwhacking I’ve ever done along the way.
As we approached the South summit, we hit ledges which we had to skirt around but we eventually found a route through them Still the stretch from East Hancock to South Hancock, a 1.25 mile distance, had taken us 3 hours to traverse. I was absolutely exhausted would have hiked out then and there if Kris hadn’t wanted to continue to Middle Hitchcock, the highest peak in the Hitchcock group.
The stretch of woods between South and Middle Hitchcocks was surprisingly open and we covered the distance is just one hour. I think we were both relieved and regained some of our former “enthusiasm” during this segment of our hike.
We found the Middle Hitchcock canister at 3:00 pm and discovered that we were only the third party to reach the summit this year. Kris felt a drop of rain, but that was it. The rain held off.
We still had an hour left before 4:00 pm, the time we’d set to hike out in order get to a blazed trail before dark. Bushwhacking after sunset is no fun, and I’d rather spend the night in one spot and wait for daylight than try to route find in the dark, off-trail.
Our best route back to a trail would be to hike over the West Hitchcock, so we decided to go for the fourth Hitchcock. Kris had some intel that the saddle between the Middle and West peaks was blow down hell and that the best line was to stay a bit north to avoid the worst of it. While there aren’t many people who climb these peaks, there is a rich trip report culture in the White Mountains and people freely share off-trail route information, although not GPS tracks of off-trail hikes. There’d be no challenge in that.
We hiked down the steep face of Middle Hitchcock to the saddle and stayed a bit north in more open woods. Unfortunately we’d fallen off the northern side of the saddle and that’s when we made our big mistake. We used our eyes instead of our compasses. It’s such a hard habit to break. I guess we were just exhausted and not thinking straight because we normally catch each other when one of us heads off course.
We both looked up and saw a peak which we assumed was West Hitchcock, only it was Middle Hitchcock, the mountain which we’d just descended.
While we’d had an epic bushwhack already, getting that fourth Hitchcock, West Peak, would have been so awesome. Summit fever took over. We only had to climb 300 feet more vertical and we’d be there. Wishful thinking.
West Hitchcock has an elevation of 3064, but we kept battling through thick spruce past that elevation and it still didn’t register that we were on the wrong mountain! I wrote off the discrepancy as a barometric pressure change, since I’d had to readjust my altimeter on Middle Hitchcock. What was I thinking? At 3200 feet, Kris put two and two together and checked our position on his GPS…we’d been only using map, compass, and altimeter up to that point. Shit! We’re on the wrong mountain!
It was 4:00 pm, the time we’d agreed we’d hike out. No more time to make up lost ground. We headed down and down and down, south to a drainage, then to a logging road, the Discovery Trail, and finally the Kancamagus Highway. The third car that passed us gave us a hitch to Lincoln Woods, 30 minutes before sunset.
This was a tough bushwhack, but Kris and I worked well together as a team, beforehand in planning this hike and while we were in the woods. We nabbed three Hitchcocks and got off lightly as navigational mistakes go. If anything, this is a good reminder about how easy it is to trust your senses over your instruments and how wrong that can go.