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Snowshoeing in Hancock Country

...and a Valley hiker finishes 'The Grid'

John Compton breaks trail through deep snow on the Cedar Brook Trail near the high pass between Mt. Hancock and Mt. Hitchcock. The trails in the Hancock area, accessed off the Kancamagus Highway, provide good snowshoeing through miles of snow-draped coniferous forest. Steve Smith Photo. (click for larger version)
January 14, 2010
There are several options for snowshoe treks here, ranging from an easy stroll a mile or so in on the Hancock Notch Trail to a challenging, full-day climb of North and South Hancock, a pair of 4,000-foot peaks. Last week my friend John Compton and I chose a trip of moderate difficulty to the high, isolated pass between Mt. Hancock and Mt. Hitchcock.

We parked at the well-plowed Hancock Overlook lot (24 miles west of Conway), pausing briefly to admire the striking view of slide-scarred Mt. Osceola. Unlike some parts of the Valley, this area was not shortchanged by the post-New Year's snowstorm. There was over a foot of new snow, and the total depth ranged from two feet up. We were pleased to see several other cars at the trailhead — we would not have to break trail the whole way.

From the sign for the Hancock Notch Trail, we followed a well-tracked path down to the Kanc at the hairpin turn. We carefully crossed the road, dropped into the woods, and put on our snowshoes.

A softly packed snowshoe track greeted us on the trail, which for its first 1.4 miles provided mostly easy going along the bed of an 1890s vintage J.E. Henry logging railroad. The trail then turned right off the railroad grade and skirted a bank above the North Fork of the Hancock Branch, where we obtained a glimpse of the high, wild tip of South Hancock. We crossed three small streams and soon reached the junction with the Cedar Brook Trail at 1.8 miles.

Here, snowshoers looking for seclusion can continue ahead 0.9 mile on the Hancock Notch Trail to the flat, densely wooded pass of Hancock Notch, a wild and beautiful place in winter. We could see an old snowshoe track, buried under the new powder, heading in this direction. (Beyond the Notch, the trail is overgrown and not recommended; last month a snowshoer coming from the other direction lost the route and spent an unplanned night out.)

We turned left on the Cedar Brook Trail, following the track packed out by Hancock peakbaggers. After a short climb, the trail made five crossings of the North Fork, all of which had negotiable snow bridges. Partway along this section we made a side excursion off trail to an open bog with interesting views of the Hancock peaks and Mt. Huntington. (A visit to this type of place is suitable only at times of prolonged cold and deep snow, both to protect the snowshoer from a surprise dunking and to prevent undue damage to bog vegetation).

As expected, the broken track veered right onto the Hancock Loop Trail. We had no desire to tackle the steep climb and descent over the two peaks, since the views would be obscured by clouds. Instead, we continued ahead on the Cedar Brook Trail, which is lightly used beyond this junction.

We were confronted with a deep, unbroken blanket of snow, with no old track beneath. In the time-honored tradition of snowshoeing, we rotated trail-breaking duties every few minutes. Luckily the upgrade was moderate. The slow pace gave us more time to admire the ranks of snow-caked evergreens extending as far as we could see on both sides of the trail.

It took nearly an hour to climb 0.6 mile to the broad saddle between Mt. Hancock and Mt. Hitchcock. A sign marked the boundary of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We descended gently 0.1 mile to an open boggy area where, on a clear day, there is a glimpse of distant ridges across "the Pemi," hinting at the vast scale of that wild basin. We took a break here to enjoy some refreshments, and to absorb the wintry remoteness of the place.

We had a pleasant journey out, thanks to the track we had created — it's always a lot easier on the return trip! The snowy trek to the height-of-land on the Cedar Brook Trail is 6.2 miles round trip with 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

Dr. Peter Crane finishes 'The Grid'

A hearty congratulations goes out to Dr. Peter Crane of Bartlett, longtime Director of Programs at the Mount Washington Observatory and presently Curator for the Obs. On Dec. 31, accompanied by a dozen friends and fellow peakbaggers, Crane completed his 41-year quest to hike "The Grid," also known as the 12 x 48, on the exposed summit of Mt. Jefferson.

Hiking "The Grid" entails climbing each of the forty-eight 4,000-foot peaks in the White Mountains in every month of the year. It is a rarely accomplished hiking feat of determination, endurance, and a willingness to experience the mountains in every conceivable type of weather and trail condition.

Crane is the 10th hiker to complete the Grid, and will soon be listed on the Grid website, www.48x12.com, established by Ed Hawkins of Chester, who has completed his own Grid twice and is closing in on his third and fourth rounds. Naturally, Hawkins was on Crane's finishing hike, presenting him with a "12 x 48" patch at the summit of Jefferson.

Crane came into December (which is considered, along with April, among the most difficult months to bag the peaks), needing 12 summits to complete his Grid. In one eight-day binge early in the month, he trekked to eight summits, among them the most remote of the 4,000-footers: Owl's Head, Galehead, Bondcliff and Bond, Madison, Isolation, and North and South Twin. Later in the month he made the long journeys to Garfield, Zealand and West Bond. It all came down to the last day of December, or he would have to wait another year to finish.

"It was indeed nip and tuck until the end, but with the help of Ed and others, I made it," Crane wrote in an email the day after his finish. "And of course, having an acceptable December 31 weather-wise made all the difference. I was pleased by the coincidence of finishing my Grid on the peak on which the Underhills completed their winter 4k's." (Distinguished mountaineers Robert and Miriam Underhill were the first hikers to climb all the White Mountain 4,000-footers in winter, finishing in 1960 on Mt. Jefferson at the ages of 71 and 62, respectively.)

Crane is quick to acknowledge the many people whose help makes a grid finish possible: trail maintainers, trip leaders, trail companions, and supportive family members. He also urges those who hike frequently to volunteer some time to give back, whether it be in trail maintenance, in search-and-rescue (SAR), as trip leaders, or as info volunteers. Among his own numerous contributions to the mountain community, Crane is a longtime volunteer adopter of the Raymond Path on Mt. Washington, has been on many SAR missions, and is Vice President of the New Hampshire Outdoor Council, which promotes hiker safety and disburses funds to SAR groups.

When asked what's next on his hiking agenda, Crane allowed that he has considered a second round of the Grid. "Then I realized I'd have to go out to Owl's Head [a 16-mile round trip] 10 more times," he lamented.

He does have some other peakbagging goals, such as finishing the challenging Trailwrights list of 72 4,000-footers in winter, the New England and New Hampshire Hundred Highest peaks, completing a 14th overall round and 4th winter round of the 48 4,000 footers, and climbing all 48 after the age of 55.

Concluded Crane, "But who's counting?"

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