Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Breaking Out Mount Isolation - December 30, 2013

Once again this year I headed up to New Hampshire for a couple days of winter hiking ending one year and beginning a new one. On the day before this hike, most of the White Mountains received around a foot of new snow, which served to bury all of the ice that had been building up. Hopefully it will stay that way this time (lately it's been rain following the snow, causing more ice...). Mount Isolation was the only New Hampshire 4000-footer I had not summitted at least once in 2013, and it was also the only one I needed to finish a 3rd round. For about a month now (since Thanksgiving) I'd been trying to visit, but the weather and my schedule didn't want to cooperate. But this day the weather was for clearing skies, and the only thing standing in the way was that foot of snow! Snowshoes would naturally be the footwear of choice for this entire hike (and still will be for a while since the trail is not packed out).

A group of 5 in all met at the Rocky Branch trailhead off of Route 16 and began our trek: Whitney and Chris, who were part of the Flags on the 48 group I was a part of this year, Kyle (who I hiked Passaconaway and Whiteface with on New Year's Day 2013), and Denise, a friend of Chris and Whitney's who I'd not met before. It was clear from the start that this would be a tough day, but we were all determined to make it, and step by step, little by little, we did!

Newly-broken trail in our wake

Reaching the height-of-land on the Rocky Branch Trail, we hung a right at the usual start of the Engine Hill bushwhack. The normal winter route to Mount Isolation, this bushwhack saves over a mile (one-way), a couple hundred feet of climbing, and a couple stream crossings over taking the actual trails. This bushwhack also goes through what might just be the nicest, most open birch glade woods in all of New Hampshire!

Not sure what animal did this? Moose perhaps?

 Since we were the first ones up the trail since the snowstorm, we had to make our own route. Armed with the GPS track from my winter 2012 visit, and a few ideas on how to improve that route, we struck out, climbing gently a couple hundred feet to just over 3300 feet elevation. We had to bob downhill a short distance to skirt a thicker spot, but we regained the 3300 foot contour. The intent was to hold this elevation all the way into the Isolation Trail, which would avoid all but one stream crossing, but ultimately we ended up descending a bit and hit the trail a short distance before the 3rd crossing (of 5) on the Isolation Trail, in the vicinity of 3220 feet. Still, we traveled through 2 vast, open, and beautiful birch glades on this trek.

Chris taking pictures of the awesome Engine Hill birch glades
From there we had snow-bridged stream crossings, and followed the trails all the way to the summit spur. The final ascent is steep, and was tricky with the loose snow with ice underneath, but we made it up, into some very stiff wind gusts on the summit (we estimated the wind gusts to be somewhere in the 50mph range). Being 2PM, and it was also cold up top, we only stuck around for a couple minutes, long enough to get a couple summit pictures between wind gusts and to admire the beautiful view.

Kyle approaches the summit of Isolation

The Presis are hidden by clouds, but blue skies everywhere else

The Baldfaces

Kearsarge North

The Dry River Wilderness
Then we reversed direction, which was dramatically easier now that all the trail-breaking was done! We caught the beginning of sunset over the mountains as we passed through the lower birch glade on the bushwhack, and less than an hour later we were under headlamps back to the trailhead. In just over half the time it took to ascend, we were back at the trailhead, all exhausted and totally spent, but it was an awesome day!

Sunset from the birch glades

Sunset over Stairs Mountain

Sunset from the birch glades of Engine Hill
For 3 people on this trip, it was their first winter visit to Mount Isolation, and they really earned it! Trailbreaking through that deep of a snowfall (which was a consistent 12", with many 2-foot drifts) is incredibly hard work, but the best part came the next evening when another group of fellow hikers went to Mount Isolation and thanked us profusely for breaking the trail out (one was even able to finally his Winter New Hampshire 4000-Footers that day!).

Thanks again Chris, Whitney, Denise, and Kyle for coming along and sharing in the trail-breaking fun. Hope to see you all out on the trails again! It was close, but I was able to do a full round of the New Hampshire 4000-Footers for the second year in a row, and this hike rates right near the top as one of my favorites!

Route: Rocky Branch Trail, Engine Hill Bushwhack, Isolation Trail (East), Davis Path, Isolation Spur
Peaks: Isolation (4004, NH4K)
Mileage: ~13 miles
Elevation Gain: ~3200 feet
Book Time: ~8 hours (actual time of 9 hours)

Note the small PUD in the middle of the track, which was in the middle of the bushwhack. Oops!

Comparison of routes: Yellow is the actual trails, red is the 2012 route that was broken on my trip then, gray is the route we took on this trip.

A closer view of the Engine Hill bushwhacks I've taken on 2 winter visits to Isolation. Next time I'd like to keep the elevation at the end of the bushwhack and intersect the trail higher up. But, this was a great route anyway!


  1. A super big thank you to you and your crew, Matt! Our group of six hiked it yesterday and were just thrilled to find out it had been broken; we had expected to do the work. I've already left a comment on Chris's blog to same effect. It was also super sweet to see Greg YEAH! finish his winter list yesterday, too. I think you hiked Owl's Head with him last winter.


    1. Summerset, yes indeed Greg and I and another hiker did indeed hike Owl's Head together back in February. Our group was thrilled when we heard that some others got to take advantage of our work before the next storm. That's awesome that Greg finished, glad we could help!