Wednesday, February 22, 2012

-Trip Report- Arrow Slide on Mount Hancock, NH: Maps 101 (February 2012)

Sometimes it's tough to define what constitutes a successful backcountry trip.  The easiest and most obvious measure is when you reach your objective and return home to talk about it.  However, when everything doesn't go as planned, things aren't so clear.  In order to push your limits you have to try and fail every now and then.  Does that make those incomplete ventures failures, or part of some greater success?  As long as you return home wiser and more prepared for the next time haven't you gained some measure of success?

Do I sound like someone who failed to achieve his goals this weekend?

I set out to ski Arrow Slide on North Hancock this weekend and I failed.  I wish I could say my failure was due to some profound lesson about backcountry skiing that I had to learn.  But in reality, it all stemmed from being an idiot.

Rule number one when it comes to reading a map is to know where you're starting on said map.  This can usually be accomplished by checking the map to make sure the surrounding terrain matches your starting point on the map, or easier yet, simply checking the signage at the trailhead.

So when I set out on my quest to ski Arrow Slide, I should have been a little more attentive to where exactly I was starting.  Unfortunately, I managed to ignore my first rule and cost myself some valuable time.
Seriously.  Wtf  was I thinking?

Luckily, my second rule of using a map is to frequently check it at landmarks: especially trail junctions.  So when I reached the first trail junction it became painfully apparent to me that the trail names on the signs didn't match the ones on my map.  In fact, I had been so spaced out that I was ON THE WRONG SIDE OF KANCAMAGUS PASS.  Yeah, I know I'm an idiot.

So after painfully retracing my steps and making the short drive to the real trailhead, I restarted my journey.

Arrow Slide adorns a southeast facing aspect of North Hancock Mountain outside of Lincoln, NH.  The trail that runs out to North and South Hancock, and the loop trail that connects the two mountains leaves the Kancamagus Highway at the Hancock Overlook on the Lincoln side of the pass.  This parking area affords a spectacular view of the Osecola slides, as well as the Greeley Ponds. Although the approach trail is close to four miles long, it climbs only 1000 feet in this distance at a very low railroad style grade.

Even at the trailhead there was an inch or two of fresh powder, and as I climbed closer to the Hancocks the powder only grew deeper.  There were several stream crossings that required removing my skis (pace killers) but nothing that a few more feet of snow wouldn't completely cover.

After one of the larger stream crossings near the Cedar Brook trail, there are some large flat areas that would be ideal for setting up camp if you wanted to make the trip into an over-nighter.  Most of the higher pitched climbing starts after this flat area, with a few short but steep sections.  None of these sections, however, were steep enough to require removing my skis.

Cedar Brook

After a beautiful pine glen Arrow Slide came into view on my left and its steepness nearly took my breath away.  I had skied most of North Twin Slide, and some of Osceola Slide last year and neither of these two came close to touching the steepness of Arrow.  Granted, the "How Steep Is It" tool doesn't back me up on this assessment, but believe me, it is Holy F###! steep.  Consider that the first 3.6 miles of the trail ascends approximately 1000 feet, and the slide climbs this distance in about a third of a mile.

Just as you catch a view of the slide you are given a choice to climb South Hancock or descend into a small valley and climb the trail next to Arrow.  I made the mistake of checking my watch to discover that I had only three hours to make it back to Boston in time for a promised social appearance.  It had taken me the better part of an hour and half to make it that spot, and with a two hour drive from the trailhead,  I knew I was probably out of time.

The "OMG what am I doing?"
Having already made it all the way to the slide I had to at least put my feet on it and so I quickly skirted down into the valley and began my ascent up the other side.  Given that the slide doesn't come all the way down into the little valley I started up the loop trail hoping it would connect to the slide, or at least provide a view so I could skirt over onto it.  I was wary of trying to ski the slide from the top without having assessed the ice, rocks and other horrors that could be hiding under the fresh cover of snow and really wanted to climb the slide from the bottom.   I finally had to remove my skis and began boot packing up the increasingly steep trail.  Given the steepness and thick evergreen cover skiing down the trail wasn't going to be an option.  It was clear that I was either finding the slide or glissading back down.

And so I climbed, ...and climbed ...and climbed.  My turnaround time came and went and I was still surrounded by an evergreen thicket with no slide in sight.  Part of me wondered if I really wanted to find the slide at that point.  The steepness was unnerving and the prospect of skiing it alone- without someone to remove my dead body if something went wrong- was beginning to get to me.  Crestfallen, I slid on my ass back down the loop trail, cursing the thick woods.

Not used to sliding on my ass I learned the cardinal lesson of glissading first hand: go slowly.  It is deceptively easy to accelerate too quickly when you're sliding on your butt surrounded by trees, roots and rocks.  Although I escaped with a bruised ass and a bent boot buckle, it's easy to see how someone wearing crampons can break an ankle or go for a somersault facial.

After getting back on my skis I left my skins on for the descent back to the trailhead. This checked my speed on the well tracked out path and made for easier turns on the narrow trail.  I made excellent time, and found myself back at my car in little over an hour from when I decided to turn around.

When I later checked my GPS track it was clear I had only been a few hundred yards from the top when I finally turned around.  Granted these last few hundred yards were almost straight up, but I was close nonetheless.

Aside from my obvious error in starting at the wrong trailhead I can think of only one other thing I would change on a return trip to Arrow.  Instead of following the circle trail, I would mark the bottom of the slide with my GPS and use it to climb the slide from the bottom.

I have to say, that despite my failure to ski the slide, this particular area is fast becoming my favorite.  With easily accessible high country areas like Osceola, Greeley Ponds and the Pemi nearby, this little slice of New Hampshire is a backcountry ski haven.

Just make sure you bring a map and use it.... if only occasionally.


  1. Andy,
    If your skiing is as good as your writing skills, you have it made! Truly enjoyed your article, and realized that there are other idiots in the world.


    1. Thanks for the kind words. Nice to know my message in a bottle washed up on a friendly shore. A friendly idiot shore.