My husband and I got the chance on Saturday to hike North and South Hancock together. It isn’t often that we get to hike together and recently we’ve had some interesting hiking experiences, including this one. With these two bagged, we are both at the sweet 16′s; my husband has completed 16 peaks and since these are #31 and #32 for me, I’ve only got 16 more to go.
While there was rain and snow earlier in the week, the weather forecast for the day wasn’t really too bad, 30% chance of snow, moderate wind and temps in the 20′s. That’s not too bad for the Whites in very late fall, almost winter. While driving to the Hancock overlook parking lot on the hairpin on the Kancamagus highway, it was overcast and the sun was desperately trying to shine through and very light snow. After getting our new year round parking passes on the way through Lincoln and gearing up, we were on our way up the trail.
The first portions of the hike on the Hancock Notch Trail, Cedar Brook Trail and Hancock Loop Trail were pretty easy, with very little elevation gain, moderate stream crossings, some ice under a dusting of snow. Early into the hike, my husband went ahead and put on his microspikes. I stuck it out until the junction on the Hancock Loop trail where you need to decide whether to go left to the north summit or right to the south summit and then put on my microspikes. We were not the only ones wearing traction that day; there was a group of three ahead of us wearing various sorts of traction. From their tracks, it looked like they were wearing Yaktraks, possibly microspikes and crampons.
At the junction on the Hancock Loop trail, we could see North Hancock and Arrow Slide in and out of the clouds. It was quite impressive knowing there was .7 mile and over 1000 feet of elevation between us and the summit. We set off and were soon trying to think of other words besides the one the guidebook to describe the steepness, relentless, but decided that word was pretty accurate. It was steep, just as steep as some other places I’ve been, namely the Willey Range trail up to the summit of Willey or the Twinway up to South Twin. That said, we knew that it was .7 miles to the summit, and that there would be an end to the steepness. The trail does moderate near the top, which was a nice relief. There was no view at the top due to the clouds. It was bright enough, but the sun just couldn’t break through the clouds, so after a snack for ourselves and the grey jays, we started moving toward South Hancock.
The ridge section was a really nice section, with more snow than ice and in some places some really beautiful rime ice covering all the trees. We arrived quicker than I thought at South Hancock and brought out the cameras for another round of picture taking and hoping that the clouds would part just enough to snap a quick photo.
So far, the hike had been pleasant, some ice, some snow, but not anything really threatening. That changed very quickly on the way down South Hancock. Not only is it as steep (unrelievedly steep, according to the guidebook) as the trail up to North Hancock, but the ice was incredible. The trail had been a conduit for water which had then frozen solid in a wavy river with barely any snow covering it. I wish I had some photos, but we were so intent on getting down safely, that photo-taking was a brief thought, with not slipping and getting hurt or worse being a more important thought. Crampons would have been useful, but even with those, it wasn’t like you were going to be able to fly down the trail. It would still take careful thought as to foot placement. After a while I asked how far down were were, and my husband said, .3 miles from the top. Ugh. Really? I knew there was .8 of a mile between the summit and the junction. Just how much more of this ice there was going to be was the big question. I knew it couldn’t go on forever, but it sure felt like it might. As we were descending, we started to come to sections that weren’t so steep, and that had more snow cover over the ice. The footing got much easier and soon we were at the trail junction. Whew. We weren’t the only ones with this experience, as there was a similar trail conditions report for the Hancocks from the day after our hike shared on Views From the Top.
After a break, a snack and more photos, we set off for the car. The rest of the hike back to the car seemed like a cakewalk after descending the ice of South Hancock! We only saw one person all day, and that was on the way back to the car on the Hancock Notch Trail. The group that was ahead of us all day was pulling out of the parking lot as we walked through it back to our car. We made good time on the hike, doing the 9.6 mile loop in just about 6 hours. Overall, it was an adventure and a serious reminder to bring both the microspikes and crampons when it is icy!