Sunday, February 12, 2012

Freezing on Mount Isolation - Feb 12, 2012

Well, below freezing to be accurate. I was originally planning to link up with someone from and hike a traverse of Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce, but the weatherman had other ideas. The forecast was calling for sub-zero temperatures with 70 mph winds on Mount Washington. Oh, and mostly cloudy. Scratch anything above treeline.

Luckily, there was a plan B. The person I was to hike with was going to hike with his normal group instead, who were visiting Mount Isolation for one of their members' anytime-48 finish! I was invited to join, and jumped at the idea. Mount Isolation is a protected hike all the way until the final summit, which is exposed. Also, it is sheltered below the Presidential ridge at a mere 4003 feet. Thus, the wind would be lower and only really be felt at the summit, so not a bad choice for the day.

In the summer, Mount Isolation is a minimum 15-mile round-trip hike along a lot of very wet trails, even in late summer. There are no views until the summit itself, aside from a few tiny peeks through the trees. The elevation gain is moderate at about 3300 feet total, but I remember the first time I did this peak, the wet trails, especially the Isolation Trail, was very annoying and frustrating.

However, in winter, Isolation is actually a pretty nice hike. Snow covering the ground deals with the wet and sloppy trails. Even better, there is a nice, easy (tree-density-wise) bushwhack that cuts off a solid mile-plus each way, along with a couple hundred of feet. So we now have a 12-12.5 mile hike at about 3100 feet of elevation gain. At this point in winter, with the lack of snow this year, the bushwhack had been broken out and packed very hard by dozens and dozens of hikers. Previous trip reports indicated that the bushwhack that was broken out was a little off the normal route, but still fine and all we would need was microspikes. HURRAY! For the first time this winter, I left the snowshoes at the car. So did all but one person in the group (who I guess wanted the extra exercise?)

The bushwhack is referred to as the Engine Hill Bushwhack because it is more or less on a knob called, oddly enough, Engine Hill. The hike follows the normal approach from Route 16 on the Northern half of the Rocky Branch Trail. When the trail reaches the height of land (near Engine Hill), there is a tree on the right with a big "T" carved in it. The bushwhack starts here. It climbs 100 feet or so, and then follows the contour around to the West until it hits the Isolation Trail. From here you follow the Isolation Trail to the Davis Path, head the 0.9 miles South to the Isolation Spur, and hit the summit.

The start of the Engine Hill Bushwhack leaves the Rocky Branch Trail here.

The route to Mount Isolation using the Engine Hill Bushwhack

We ended up using a second short bushwhack near the Isolation/Davis Path Junction that cut a tiny portion of distance off, but there is only minimal advantage to this route. On the map above, if one were to not take the Engine Hill Bushwhack, the Rocky Branch Trail continues West and South to near where the label "Shelter Number 2" is before heading North. You can see the distance and elevation saved.

One thing to note is that this bushwhack track did not neatly follow the contour line on the map, but climbed briefly and then descended a ways near the end. The random ascent is hard to understand, but the descent was due to the people breaking trail running short on daylight and cutting back to0 the main trail before they turned around that day (so is the story I heard).

This bushwhack goes through some very nice open birch glades along the way.

 The only reason this bushwhack is not often used in other seasons is that the glade is apparently a bit marshy, and I saw some spots that appeared this way.

We left the sunny trailhead at 8F temperatures with 13 people and a dog. Shortly after the Engine Hill Bushwhack on the way out, the dog and it's owner had to turn around as the dog's paws were icing up a little with the abnormal cold. We heard back later that the dog was fine a short while later after putting some booties on. We soldiered on, reaching the side trail to the Isolation summit before stopping to put on facemasks (for those that hadn't yet, some of us did on the bushwhack as the wind was cold!), goggles, and extra layers. A quick scramble up the side trail to the summit where we could see...nothing. Isolation is an open summit with spectacular views of the Southern Presidentials, Carters/Wildcats, and more, but we could only see about 1/2 mile. So much for the sun that was below 3000 feet all day...

Most peoples' cameras would not work in the cold. We did manage a couple pictures, then we got out of there back to the Davis Path! Once there a couple of us checked our thermometers and discovered that the temperatures were around -10F! Couple that with an estimated wind on the summit of about 25-30 mph and you get -40F wind chills! Definitely the coldest I have yet experienced.

We picked up our packs and headed back. We stopped for a little while once back on the Isolation Trail to do a little preliminary celebration for the 48 finisher (why would you choose such a terribly cold and bitter day for an ANYTIME finish...congratulations regardless!). Then we just motored back to the trailhead. The group stayed pretty close together the entire way, which is impressive for such a large group, and we all finished in just under 6 hours total! That is a blistering pace. Needing only microspikes with the well-packed trail helped, but the big thing was we hardly stopped since it was so cold. We joked later over drinks and pizza that if it had been a nicer day we would have taken 8 hours to do it since we'd have been more leisurely. It was a fun hike and a terrific, if, um, ODD, group to hike with. Despite the bitter cold, it was one of my favorite hikes to date!

Distance: ~12.5 miles
Elevation Gain: ~3100 feet
Peaks: Isolation (4003', NH4K)

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