Sun, Nov 17, 2019
by Bill Newman
Hike Length: dayhike
Trails: Rocky Branch Trail to Mount Isolation trail through the woods and back to Rocky Branch
Date: March 19, 2005
Mount Isolation……the name says it all. This is one of the remote 4000 foot peaks in the Whites and it can be an even bigger challenge trying to bag this in winter. However, there is an advantage to doing this peak in winter. Hikers can follow maps, trip reports, and GPS waypoints from previous hikes and “bushwhack” several miles off the traditional trails. This should NOT be done during other months as the potential to destroy vegetation is great, but during the winter, you are on snow so it has become acceptable to bushwhack some of the remote peaks. The AMC has several bushwhacking hikes during the winter so it's fair to say you're not doing anything "illegal".
The major disadvantage is that snow drifts in the woods and even the snow on the trail can be several feet deep, so if the trail has not been already hiked on or “broken”, it can be a significant amount of work because you are constantly trying to flatten the trail with snowshoes. Even with snowshoes, you can still sink into the snow quite a bit, so it can be a lot of legwork.
March 19, 2005
We met at the Rocky Branch Trailhead off Rt 16 on the left (West) heading North toward the Mount Washington auto-road. This was our 3rd attempt to summit Isolation, and every time, I missed the entrance to the parking lot. If you’re going North on 16 and hit the Pinkham Notch visitor center or Wildcat Ski area or even Mt. Washington auto road, turnaround, you’ve gone too far. It might be easier to find in the summer, but during the winter, the trail sign gets covered with snow. That’s not a good excuse because you’d figure after a couple of times I’d remember where the darn lot was or at least where to slow down to start looking.
The lot fits about 25 cars and is free for now, plus it was plowed every time we were there (this is not a problem in the summer…..obviously). Without going into too many details, our group had tried to do this mountain twice this winter and had to turn back both times. The first time we tried was in February just after a huge snowstorm. We tried a South to North bushwhack (if you look at a topo, we went from Rocky Branch Trail and cut straight across Isolation trail to try and get to the Davis Mountain Ridge to follow it to the summit). But after 8 hours of very difficult trail breaking in 3 feet of snow with 11 people, we admitted defeat and turned around. The mountain will always be there for another attempt, so don’t risk your life just to make a summit. 11 people made a group decision that it was too late in the day and we were all too exhausted to attempt a summit even though we were only about a mile away and could easily see our goal.
There was also a second attempt in March (I could not go on this one but kept in touch with the others to see how it went), and due to very poor weather conditions, turned around even before the Rocky Branch stream crossing.
We started on the trail just before 8 AM without wearing snowshoes or crampons because it started out fairly well packed. We had been following a few other reports of hikers attempting this trip during the week as this had become a game of leapfrog. Our group broke the trail to one area, then another group picked up where we left off and brought it further along before turning around, and then another soloist finally made it (although a 2-some did the same but turnaround just 200 feet from the summit), so we knew that the trail had been finally broken to the summit. The first part of the trail from the parking lot to the Rocky Branch river is not part of the bushwhack, so we were following trail markers the entire way. The problem was that because we weren’t wearing snowshoes, we kept post holing, (sinking in boots and leaving footholes in the trail) and after about a mile, I was already tired. This was partly from sinking into a foot of snow every few steps and also because the trail rises very quickly from the lot to about a 3000 foot level. It’s nothing to strenuous or even steep, but it does take it’s toll in the snow.
We made a quick but important stop to put on our snowshoes in order to continue otherwise we’d tire ourselves out too quickly. There were only 4 of us and man's best friend, Ghost Dog, on this trip so we couldn’t afford to have any of us too tired this early in the hike. The next few miles were pretty uneventful, but the weather was so nice (30 degrees, no clouds, and minimal wind) that it just became a great walk in the woods…breaking trail a little and enjoying each others trail-tales.
We finally hit the junction of the Isolation trail and started our bushwhack from here by following the river North. We only wanted to cross this river once, so we waited until we found a solid snow bridge before we crossed. Another group of 2 caught up with us at this junction (Darlene and Brian), and we let them take the lead as they we're much faster hikers and they appreciated us giving them a good trail to this point (at least that's what we told ourselves to avoid the embarassment of being caught by 2 hikers that started an hour and a half later than us!). Seeing as only 1 other person had made it, having a few people in front of us to relieve us and to lead the way was giving us hope that we’d finally make the summit today.
We continued in a counter clockwise horseshoe style approach where we kept the summit in sight to our left as we went North, then West, and finally South to the summit. We encountered only 3 problems:
The snow in the mountains gets very deep. So much so, that you are actually walking on tree tops you can’t see. This is especially true near the summit where the snow gets blown off and makes for huge drifts on all sides and where the trees are only 4-6 feet tall. See the math here….6 foot snowdrift on top of a 4 foot tree means you can’t see the tree for the forest. Even with snowshoes, sometimes the snow you are walking on gives way (which is on top of the trees you can’t see), and therefore you sink up to your waist or even chest high in this snow and pine branch mix of winter quicksand, and then you get your snowshoes stuck between branches. This is why I would strongly recommend not doing this solo as several times we needed to help each other out of these mountain top booby traps.
Now, when doing a bushwhack, it would seem logical that the best way between 2 points is a straight line. So if we’re at the bottom and the summit is right there, why not go straight for it. It won't always work though. The drifts hide a lot of the true contours of the land so you’re dealing with VERY deep snow and in some case extremely steep inclines that can’t be done with snowshoes or even with crampons, but you can’t see how steep or impassable this is until you are on top of it, and then you have to circle around again and waste time.
Instead we followed the level contours of the land and slowly progressed our way around this semi-bowl between an unnamed bump north of Isolation to the Davis Path on the ridgeline East, and then South to Isolation all the while inching our way up the sides as we went.
The real beauty of the landscape hit us just below the summit when Mt. Washington and Mt. Monroe came into view behind us (we were now on our final south bound ascent and Washington was due North in back of us). Simply a fantastic shot of the entire Presidential ridge totally snow/ice covered on a cloudless day and bright blue skies. Pictures like that are just one of the reasons we do what we do, and today’s shot was an 11 on a 10 point scale.
We made the summit a few minutes later at about 3:30 PM just as another two-some (Rocs and Clark) came from following our tracks. In the end we had 8 people on the summit, all of who had been turned back on previous attempts so the celebration was significant for all of us to finally make our goal of bagging this peak in the winter.
You would also think that after all that work, we’d just walk back the way we came. No Way! After some hearty high fives and a quick bite, we ended up continuing the bushwhack down the East face. This time we decided to go with the approach that the easiest way between 2 points is a straight line. So we went straight for the river crossing glissading (sliding on snowshoes…..but mostly our butts) down the east slope until we hit level land and the river crossing, where we picked up our previous trail. We ended up back at the parking lot a little after 7PM. Hiking with headlamps in snow is much easier than doing it in the summer because your broken trail is easy to spot. You just have to be careful of tree branches acting like that scene from the Wizard of Oz.
I do want to sincerely thank Julie, Tom, Magic, and Ghost Dog for their diligence and help on this hike. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to be with throughout our “Assault On Isolation” (or maybe “Assaults”). Persistence outweighs resistance and this was a great example of that.
We will be going back to do this one again but probably after the winter. This is because our original intention was to help a young lady achieve this mountain as it was going to be her 48th and she’d be applying for her 4000 footers patch. Unfortunately she couldn’t make this trip, so we’ll be going back to help celebrate her accomplishment soon by helping her get to the summit of her final mountain!
Equipment: Winter hiking gear
Special equipment: snowshoes, a compass + map, googles or sunglasses
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