By Gordon DuBois
On Aug. 15, 2011, a tropical depression exited off the North African coast. Over several days it gained strength, and emerged near the North American coastline as a tropical depression and was later upgraded to a hurricane named Irene. Irene approached the Outer Banks of North Carolina and slowly progressed up the eastern seaboard, moving into Vermont and New Hampshire on Aug. 29, when it was downgraded to an extra tropical depression. However, even though Irene weakened, it remained a powerful storm with sustained winds of up to 50 mph and dumping more than 11 inches of rain in the White Mountains.
This massive amount of rain caused tremendous damage to roads and bridges throughout the state, especially in the White Mountain National Forest, where many trails and roads were obliterated. Gov. Lynch declared a state of emergency. The storm caused over $10 million worth of damage to the White Mountain National Forest. The aftermath of Irene is legendary and the scars caused by this storm can still be seen today.
A few weeks ago, with hiking partners Dave Unger and Fran Maineri and, of course, Reuben, we visited one of the vestiges of Irene, a slide on the west facing slope of the ridge running between Hancock Mountain and its trailless neighbor, NW Hancock. I have climbed Hancock several times, but the main goal this time was to summit NW Hancock, a seldom-climbed peak that can only be reached by bushwhacking a mile along the ridge connecting the two mountains.
Our route would take us along the Hancock Notch Trail to the Cedar Brook Trail and then to the Hancock Loop Trail, which would bring us to the summit of Mt. Hancock. From here we would bushwhack, following a north westerly track, along the ridge to the summit of NW Hancock.
We then planned to hike down the western side of the ridge, following the slide created by Irene, and eventually back to the Cedar Brook trail that would bring us back to our waiting vehicle.
We began our hike at 7 a.m., knowing we would most likely be hiking out of the woods well past nightfall. We followed our planned route arriving at the summit of Hancock, stopping to grab a snack and admiring the limited view. We changed into our shells, knowing that the bushwhack would be wet with melting snow falling from the scrub pines we had to plow through.
Following our short break, we dove into the woods following a herd path a short distance which disappeared after only a few minutes of hiking. We broke out the compasses and pushed on toward our mountain destination. It I took us almost two hours to cross the 1-mile ridge, where we found the canister that marks the summit of NW Hancock.
We lingered for a while, signing the register, eating lunch and discussing our climb down the ridge, to the infamous slide. Fran, Dave and I followed our track back along the ridge to where we thought the slide would be found below. We made our way through thick woods and blow downs, until we reached the top of the slide.
It appeared to us as a clearing, until Fran took one too many steps and found himself falling into the ravine which marked the upper most part of the slide. This is where the deluge from Irene hit the side of the mountain and was then funneled down through this narrow ravine, opening a huge swath of rock and gravel.
We were awestruck by the size of the gouge in the side of the mountain. The immense force of the wall of water rushing down the mountain side caused whole trees, boulders, gravel to wash down the ridge. As we began our decent, sliding and slipping on the loose scree and rock, we found ourselves in a canyon of destruction. A section of the mountain had been wiped out in a matter of a few hours by the heavy rain. The terrain had been permanently altered. It is now a barren slope of gravel and rock.
We did notice that the woodland was attempting a comeback. Small trees and grasses were inching their way into the chasm of the slide. We stopped often to marvel at the destruction caused by Irene, amazed at the force of water as it charged down the mountain, permanently changing the topography. However, our gazing had to be limited as time was running short and sunset was approaching. We didn’t want to be on the slide trying to scramble along in the darkness with only our headlamps to light our way.
We did succeed in making it to the Cedar Brook trail before total darkness enveloped us. Once on the trail, we strapped on our head lamps and started our 4-mile trek back to the car.
It was another rewarding hike, finding the summit of NW Hancock, a seldom climbed summit, and then climbing down the slide of NW Hancock that Irene created.
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