Out of the Gates! (South Hancock and Hancock)

The alarm started buzzing. It was 5:30am on December 22nd. Winter was already officially 5 hours and 41 minutes old. I hadn’t slept very well, as the entire night was filled with strange dreams related to broken limbs during summit attempts. Lying there, I checked the forecast again for what seemed like the 50th time in the past 3 days. Despite all my hopes, the prediction was still the same: rain.

The issue with attempting the 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers in one winter is the unpredictable weather. Most of the time it manifests as sub-zero temperatures, blowing snow, and icy approaches. For the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, the weather was predicted to be in the 40s and 50s with a 100% chance of rain. After letting out a disappointed sigh, I climbed out of bed and started getting prepared for the day.

The hour and a half drive up to the Hancock overlook parking lot on the Kancamagus Highway went quickly. My mind was focused completely on our goals for the next few days. My friend Jason would be joining me with his brother Brendan for a substantial itinerary for the first 8 summits of winter. We were planning to use the 22nd as an opportunity to warm up our legs and knock off the first two 4kers, Mt. Hancock and South Hancock. Over December 23rd and 24th we would hike up to Moriah then traverse the ridge and tag Middle Carter, South Carter, Carter Dome, Wildcat D, and Wildcat A in a two day trek.

At 9am I pulled into the Hancock parking lot and looked into the clouds overlooking the Kanc. “There won’t be any gorgeous views today,” I thought to myself. Within a couple minutes Brendan and Jason pulled in next to me and since the forecast called for rain all day we began lining our backpacks with trashbags and putting on covers. We hoisted our packs onto our backs, gave our most enthused cheer we could muster in the dreary conditions, and hit the trail. The adventure had begun.

The Hancock Notch Trail is fairly flat and we sped along the first section at a decent clip, only slowing to bounce from rock to rock at the river crossings. Once we reached the junction of the Hancock Loop Trail the pitch increased a bit and we started to see the first sections of ice. Nonetheless, we continued motoring on without microspikes.

Three and a half miles in we reached the intersection to choose which summit would be marked as the first official 4000 footer. There we were met by a large group who had just descended Hancock and we spent the next 5 minutes chatting about the winter 48 and exchanging pleasantries and liquid rations. We then bid them farewell as we took their advice and turned right for the easier ascent towards South Hancock. The pitch increased to icy terrain once again as the rain began and we donned our microspikes and rain gear. Brendan and Jason sped on ahead and I found myself in my usual place, moving slowly but steadily at the back of the group. We soon were standing in front of the rock pile of South Hancock. The first winter 4ker was in the books!

photo by Jason Leach

After grabbing a quick bite to eat and checking out the non-existent views to the East, we turned North and began the ridge-walk to Mt. Hancock as the rain picked up. The White Mountains had seen a bit of snow in the week leading up to the official start of winter and some of it stuck around at elevation; the trail between South Hancock and Hancock was sprinkled with a light cover of white. The snow would surely be gone by the end of the day but it was a great reminder that winter, my favorite hiking season, was finally upon us.

A mile later we approached the unimpressive 8-inch tall rock pile marking the summit of Mt. Hancock and the 2nd summit of the day. After a quick obligatory high-five, we started downhill.

The wetness was starting to seep in to our boots. We had packed waterproof shell pants but none of us had stopped to put them on before our hiking pants were already wetted out. The water dripping down our legs was collecting in our boots and making the descent quite uncomfortable. To make matters worse, Brendan was working with a new pair of boots that were leaking and causing blisters in the wetness.

We found ourselves slipping and sliding on the wet rocks a few times, but once we reached the intersection with the Hancock Notch Trail we were able to pick up speed again as the trail leveled out.

As I suspect is the case for many hikers, the downhill is the worst part for me. It’s colder, painful on your joints, and often is just a retracing of the steps you took to get to the top. This hike was no exception. While the ascent and the ridgeline flew past, the damp return trip with slippery roots and rocks seemed to take forever.

We finally made it back to the parking lot and grabbed a quick selfie to commemorate our first hike of the winter. We stripped down to our underwear while standing on picnic tables in the lot, changed into dry clothes, and headed to North Conway.

After perusing EMS’s clearance rack for jackets (you can never have enough jackets), we grabbed a bite to eat at Black Cap Grille next door. The food was either really amazing or we were just really hungry. After finishing up with our beers and sandwiches, we stopped in LL Bean and IME like any self-respecting New Englanders does. We then headed our respective ways to dry clothes out and catch some sleep before the big traverse.