Driving the Kangamangus highway to the trailhead, I admired the fresh snow weighing down evergreen branches and sparkling over parts of the Swift River. We parked at the hairpin turn with an incredible view of clouds hovering around just the summits of Osceola and other nearby mountains. I was ready to hike the Hancocks and pulled my gaiters and spikes over my boots in the frigid air. It was nine degrees, but a beautiful sunny day. It was calm at the parking lot’s altitude, but we were a little concerned about wind in the peaks. It had been a windy weekend, with windholds and rough conditions both days prior where I was skiing. Luckily, the Hancocks do not rise above treeline, and that is why we decided to hike them instead of our initial plan of Mt. Washington.
The Hancock loop is about 10 miles, but the first 3.5 are a walk in the park. We made excellent time on the very gradual entrance to the mountains, but soon enough, we could see the wall we were walking into ahead. My water had frozen almost immediately in the tube, despite the tube insulator, but luckily we brought an empty plastic water bottle for this very situation. There was no melting the tube once it had frozen, so we had to carefully pour small amounts of water from the bladder into the bottle to drink.
Once we hit the turnoff to hike North Hancock first, the hike got much harder, very quickly. We dropped into the valley and then the trail seemed to go straight up. Almost all of the altitude in the hike was gained in these 0.7 miles. At times, the angle of the slope was greater than the angle from the tip of my pole to its basket, and I couldn’t get a solid pole plant to hoist myself up. The worst moments were when I put weight on my pole and it slipped downward, causing me to nearly fall and lose my forward momentum. Since the trail was covered with packed snow, all the rocks, roots, and variability in the terrain were covered up and smoothed over, so my foot landed at the same upward angle with each step. Although eliminating the obstacles would seem helpful, it actually made the hike up feel steeper and more difficult. Since I couldn’t bend my ankle and plant my foot flat down on a rock, my calves were burning with each step. In the steepest parts, I jammed just my toes into the snow, which was like walking on my tiptoes. I kept waiting for the trail to level off, but it seemed to go up forever. Every few yards, I rested for a breath and a half before continuing.
As we got higher in elevation, the trail slowly began to level and we were surrounded by ghost trees. The sky was so dark blue – it hardly even looked real. Through the thinned trees, we could see glimpses of the Lincoln and Lafayette peaks every several paces. I felt like I was walking through a winter wonderland, up high in the air.
I thought the stubby trees and branches caked all over in frosty snow looked so cool in the sunlight. The wind was unexpectedly gentle and there were no clouds in the sky. Cue U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I wished for sunglasses because the sun was so bright, reflecting off the snow on all sides of me. The peak of North Hancock was marked with a trail sign, but we hiked down a short path to an outlook for our summit selfie. I was hungry and stopped moving for a few minutes to eat a granola bar, but that quickly got me cold and scolded by my dad to “never take breaks in winter hiking!” Body heat from exercise is very important in keeping us warm. I had to layer my jacket back on with my ski neckie and hood. The wind had picked up a little too, but the neckie did wonders to protect my face.
The drop and rise from North Hancock to South Hancock was not bad at all – cake compared to the hike up North Hancock. I didn’t even work up enough heat to shed my jacket. The top had a nice lookout, but was pretty chilly for me.
From South Hancock, it was all downhill to the car. And the best part of the hike was ahead of us. Throughout the whole hike, I had been looking forward to coming down the snow covered path. I was especially excited because the Hancocks had their steep sections. As soon as we turned off the peak, I could see that the steep downhill path was smooth with no footprints. Everyone else hiking these peaks was just as happy as me to put their feet up and butt-sled down the mountain. Because the trail was carved out of the high snow on each side, every turn in the path was banked. Usually, butt-sledding down a trail, I have to jam my feet in to control my speed and stop at each turn to reorient myself in the right direction and not go flying off into the woods. But down South Hancock, I could gain as much speed as I wanted and automatically be shot around the bend, on track for the next turn. The most fun was in the banked turns, actually! We slid for about 0.6 miles straight without standing up. My adrenaline-loving self was trying to minimize friction as much as possible so I could slide as fast and for as long as I could because it was so fun. I have a video, but unfortunately my blog doesn’t let me upload video, so below, find a super low quality screenshot of some sliding action.
Once we came off the face, it wasn’t steep enough to continue sliding and we had to hike out on our feet, which was not nearly as fun. I think that the path up North Hancock was actually steeper than the path up to South, but winter hikers should definitely hike North first because there is solid traction from footprints, while the South trail is smoothed out from all the sledding. Although there can be some cons to winter hiking, like the cold and the constant pitch angle on the uphills, the scenery is absolutely beautiful and the joy in sliding down the side of a mountain you worked so hard to get up is unmatched. Even just on the hike out, we didn’t have any rocks to watch for and could make good time on such a straight-forward trek. My dogs were barking by the time we reached the car and it felt so good to pull my boots off. Since we didn’t want to take a break in the cold for lunch on the hike and had no interest in eating and hiking at the same time, we ate our sandwiches in the car. Since they had come on the hike with us, they were very, very cold sandwiches (Ice crystals in the frozen tomato – cold). But, paired with my ice cream sandwich tradition, the post-hike food hit the spot and I look forward to more winter hikes.