Mount Isolation, as its name implies, is quite isolated. It lies on Montalban Ridge located deep within the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness. While it is one of the 'shortest of the tall' peaks in New Hampshire at 4,003 feet, there is no short route to get its summit. At 12 miles round trip, using the Glen Boulder Trail and the Davis Path is the shortest route to bag Isolation but quite strenuous with 5,050 feet elevation gain (AMC White Mountain Guide, 29th Edition). This route is seldom used in winter due to its exposure above treeline. Instead most winter peak-baggers start at the Rocky Branch trail head located off of Route 16 in Pinkham Notch and follow this trail for about three miles then start a bushwhack known as the Engine Hill bushwhack which not only cuts down on mileage but also avoids some of the potentially difficult stream crossings. If done correctly the bushwhack will pop you out somewhere along the Isolation trail with hopefully very few stream crossings left to cross. Once at the junction with the Davis Path the Isolation summit spur path is just under a mile away. Matt had previously done this hike complete with the Engine Hill bushwhack and was able to direct us through it with a GPS track he had recorded. Thanks Matt!
Everything was looking good heading into Monday. We were now a group of five thanks to another Hike-NH member, Satchboogie aka Kyle, joining in the fun. The weather forecast was calling for 4-8 inches of snow early Sunday night which would be reasonable for five people to handle in respect to trail breaking. The storm was also predicted to be a quick moving one which meant the roads would in all likelihood be clear by the time we all hit the road north Monday morning. The temperatures would definitely be on the colder side of cold and potentially a bit windy but hey, it is winter after all.
I rolled out of bed at the very pre-dawn time of 3:30 a.m. to see not a single flake of snow had follow on the ground here in Dover. I was on the road shortly before 5 o'clock and was delighted to find the roads were clear of snow and ice even as I headed north into Rochester. As I went through the Rochester toll the woman who collected my money looked down at me with a worried look and slowly said "Be very, very careful out there sweetie." Oh Crap. She knows something I don't. I made my way past all of the Rochester exits just fine. Then all of a sudden where 16 goes from being a multi-lane highway to one lane going in either direction it happened; the pavement and all of its pretty white and yellow lines disappeared under a thick blanket of snow. What?!?! Is this possible? This storm supposedly ended hours ago and the damn highway has yet to be plowed?!? UGHHHH. So I slowed down, way down, and tightened my grip on my steering wheel while having a small heart attack and proceeded to talk my self through this horrific drive to the north country. Needless to say I made it in one piece without incident but it definitely zapped a good amount of my energy!
I was the first one to pull into the Rocky Branch trail head (which was plowed, yay!!!) I immediately laughed when I looked at the beginning of the trail. There was at least a foot of fresh snow!
We arrived at the tree marked with a "T" which signals the start of the Engine Hill bushwhack. Matt kept a close eye on his GPS as he directed us through the woods to the open birch glades of Engine Hill. What an amazing place. The birch glades are reminiscent o f a wide open back yard in the country yet it is in the middle of the wilderness. It is truly breathtaking. It is here that the winds started to ramp up and blow snow up off of the ground and into our faces and off of the trees and down our backs. We continued on breaking through the deep powder for a little over a mile until we came out onto the Isolation Trail. The wind was now howling. It was like Mother Nature was laughing at us. The wind was her deep belly laugh and through it I could hear "Ha Ha HA, FOOLS!" Meanwhile the pine trees swayed in her laughter and threw snowballs at our heads and down the backs of our jackets. They pointed their mighty snow covered branches at us and laughed too.
We pressed ahead, taking turns breaking out trail until we finally arrived at the junction with the Davis Path. With less than one mile to go, Chris took the lead and literally ran with it. The final pitch up to the summit is short but steep. As we attempted to scramble up it we brushed off snow revealing thick ice which made it that more difficult. I grabbed at every possible tree root and/or branch that I could to aid in my climb as Mother Nature's deep belly laugh, the wind, tried to blow me back down. We popped out onto the summit with bright sun shining in our faces and with Mother Nature now flat out yelling at us to get out! The wind was fierce and it pushed us around as we clamored over patches of ice, bare rock and crusty snow drifts to get to the official summit cairn. Chris was waiting for us and quickly snapped a few summit pics. I had to remove my sunglasses because they were fogging up and through my ice encrusted eyelashes I could see Mount Washington and the southern Presidentials were blanketed by clouds but the views over towards the east were clear and the skies were a vibrant hue of blue.
We quickly slid back down the summit spur where we were relieved of the aggressive wind. After a quick snack we turned back to the way we had come and started our long 6.5 mile hike back to our cars. Chris ran ahead as he was quite chilled while the rest of us kept a moderate and steady pace. We passed back through the Engine Hill birch glades as the sun was starting to set which turned the sky all sorts of beautiful colors. I was unable to capture this as my camera had died earlier in the day before we even reached the summit due to cold temps. We pulled out our headlamps and got them ready before the sun set knowing we would most likely need them before long. We finished the last forty-five minutes of our hike with them on while we talked about what a great day it had been; the food we desperately wanted right then and there; and about our hallucinations of parking lots, scarecrows and other people with headlamps. Hey, this happens when finishing the end of a long and tiring hike in the dark, don't judge!
This was a truly amazing day. It was as mentally challenging as it was physically challenging and I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to do it with. Trail breaking is tough but it is rewarding. While I did my fair share last winter none of it compared to this day. All of us kept turning around and asking out loud "Where is the next group? They should have caught up to us by now." There would be no other group this day as we were the only five people crazy enough to break trail to Isolation in December after a storm.
Big Thanks to Chris for his super human trail breaking efforts and for once again playing the role of paparazzi, I owe you many more brownies/baked goods for this hike! Big Thanks to Matt for putting this trip together and for the GPS track! Congratulations on your NH 48 third round finish! Thanks to Kyle for partaking in the madness and congrats on crossing off a big winter NH 48 hike! Thanks to Denise for being a trooper and having the determination to attempt and succeed in completing this hike. This is why I love to hike with you!
And a big thanks to YOU for reading this ridiculously long blog post. I guess a good rule of thumb is the longer the hike, the longer the post! And sadly there aren't that many pictures because my camera died so early but thankfully I was able to borrow a few from Chris and Matt! This is definitely one hike that I will never forget!