At 5:45 am on a late November day, I jolted out of bed, woken by my phone buzzing next to my ear. When I picked up the call from one of my hiking compadres, I felt a pit in my stomach and began sleepily mumbling, “I’m so, so, so sorry! I’m coming. Are you guys still here? You guys left, didn’t you?” I added as much of a melodramatic feel into the receiver that my barely conscious brain was able to muster.
“No! We’re still here! Come over when you’re ready!” one of the infinitely patient hikers said with a tint of morning cheer.
This was my second trip entirely with strangers, and I was already lagging behind. I ran down the stairs of my apartment and hopped in the white car filled with strangers looking only slightly less sleepy-eyed than myself. “My bad, guys,” I grumbled humbly as we drove off into the early morning towards the White Mountains of rural New Hampshire.
Our pitstop off the I-93 was the infamous Hooksett gas station with identical outlets on both sides of the highways, complete with a diner, gift shop, and a liquor emporium (for tax free beer of course). We stepped out of the van into a thick mist, and as soon as I felt the moisture on my forehead, another pit expanded my stomach: I forgot a waterproof coat. Or, not so much forgot but entirely lacked ownership of this mandatory White Mountain item. Californian-born and living in a city where shelter from wet weather could be found on every block, I had never seen the need to invest until this very moment.
As others were in the snack section picking up Oreos and Snickers bars, I hovered around the cashier area deciding between hot pink or neon yellow as my color of choice for the poncho I would undeniably need the rest of the day. I chose yellow with a side of peanuts and coffee, then we headed back to the van. Once heading farther into New Hampshire, we rode into the wet embrace of mountains in the distance, and as the heavy fog turned to sleet, I sighed in anxiety as I realized my hike at the Hancocks was going to be more than just rainy; my first winter hiking experience had already begun as the windows clicked and clacked with the sound of a thousand droplets bearing down.
Once we arrived at the trailhead, a fellow hiker handed me a pair of chains with rubber and spikes. I shamelessly giggled when I was told these little guys were called “crampons.” I clipped them to the outside of my bag as we wouldn’t see snow and ice until higher up the mountain. We set off on the trail, and secure under my two biggest mistakes, a cotton long sleeve and water-vulnerable down jacket, I slipped the yellow trash bag over my head. “Alright. We got this,” I thought to myself. Only minutes later I felt a slight breeze where the object of my laughter, crampons, had torn the left side of my poncho open.
This cruel mishap was not the preferred way of starting the 10 mile loop into the Hancocks with over 2,500 feet of elevation gain. Thankfully the pace was well set and breaks were short; the heat I was generating kept me warm. The trail with its icy brooks brought even more energy to the jaunt as the forest was more full of life than I would have expected. Rabbits, birds, and even a few foxes made appearances on our ascent of the Hancocks, and the mostly flat start to the trail jolted into rapid elevation gain which allowed me to truly take in my surroundings. The sleet had yet to melt me or the freshly fallen snow from a few days before.
By the time we reached the summit, my down coat was soaked through and doing more harm than good when I decided to pack it away into my reluctant backpack. We reached the first outlook of Mt. Hancock, but because of the clouds, one of the other hikers remarked that it appeared as if we were “inside of a ping-pong ball.” This phrase has stuck with me throughout the years due to other uncannily ping-pong ball-like peaks I’ve encountered, though some of you may refer to this phenomenon as being “socked in.”
We made our way down to the short trough between Mt. Hancock and South Hancock below treeline to eat lunch. Protected from the wind, we were all able to get enough feeling back in our fingers to enjoy our slightly frozen lunches. Once the blood in our stomachs was able to process some of the food, we began an icy and careful descent down the trail while not yet enjoying the White Mountains’ infamous butt sledding due to the shallow depth of the existing accumulation. The wind still blew into my poncho, but nothing convinced me more of having crampons than the hike downhill as I avoided eating any rock, wood, and stone. We allowed our conversations to subside and opted for the crunching of the snow and ice beneath our boots; I could hear the wintry silence of the White Mountains that only roars during this cold season, and of course, the plastic crinkling of my neon yellow trash bag.