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Hiking to Mt Isolation in January

Hiking to Mt Isolation in January

Mt Isolation is a White Mountain 4000-footer located in the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness south of Mt Washington, with outstanding views of Washington, the Southern Presidential Range, the Oakes Gulf Headwall, and the Dry River Valley. It’s a potentially difficult hike in winter however due to numerous water crossings, heavy snowfall, and unknown trail conditions. Nevertheless, I was motivated to climb it this month, both for my January Grid, and to finish my 9th complete round of the 48 White Mountain 4000 footers.

It’s been a tough month. I wasn’t happy with the state of my health earlier this month, so I decided to take two weeks off to get over a lingering post-Covid cough. The rest did me good, but that’s the longest stretch of time I’ve taken off from hiking in several years. My symptoms have largely abated and I’m in the process of ramping up my stamina on longer hikes. I still have some post-Covid fatigue, but it evaporates as soon as I start hiking in the fresh winter air.

Heading up the Rocky Branch Trail
Heading up the Rocky Branch Trail

Isolation isn’t an easy hike and I couldn’t convince any of my friends to accompany me. I also didn’t have a very good idea of the trail conditions I’d encounter. We’ve had several feet of snow in the past few weeks and most winter hikes require snowshoes and in some cases exhausting trail-breaking to create a path through the deep snow covering trails. At the start of this hike, I told myself that I’d turn around if the going got too hard. There’s nothing wrong with turning around on a winter hike before you reach your destination. It’s humbling, but the mountains will be there another day.

The trail enters forest at the top of the first climb.
The trail enters forest at the top of the first climb.

The hike to Isolation can be broken into five stages.

  1. The climb to height of land from the trailhead
  2. The Rocky Branch Bushwhack
  3. The Iso Express Bushwhack
  4. The Davis Path to the Isolation summit
  5. Backtracking all the way out

Height of land is a geographic term used a lot in New England which essentially means “the highest elevation between two watersheds.” It’s basically the high point on a slope where rainwater flows down the hill into different drainages. Native American Groups from New England used to demarcate their territory based on watersheds and they’re used to demarcate National Wilderness Areas to this day.

Snowshoeing through birch groves on the Rocky Branch Bushwhack
Snowshoeing through birch groves on the Rocky Branch Bushwhack

That initial climb to height of land starts as soon as you leave the trailhead and doesn’t end for close to 2000 feet of elevation gain. The trail winds back and forth in lazy switchbacks, climbing out of Pinkham Notch to Rocky Branch Ridge. Thankfully, it was broken out, meaning that previous snowshoers had created a path through the snow, stomping it down to create a trough that required less effort to follow than breaking out the snow from scratch. There were still a few inches on the trail from overnight snow squalls, but my snowshoes just floated over them.

I changed up my snowshoe setup about a month ago, switching to the 25″ MSR Lightning Ascent from the 25″ Atlas Helium Trail snowshoes that I’d been using earlier in the winter. I haven’t used Lightning Ascents consistently for many years and it’s taken a little while to get used to them. But wow! They really are the king of the hill when it comes to traction and braking on steep descents. They are heavy beasts though, carried, and on your feet. I’m going to hang with them for a while, especially with the deep snow we’re having this winter. The extra flotation and traction on slopes have proven helpful.

Crossing an ice bridge over the Rocky Bridge River
Crossing an ice bridge over the Rocky Bridge River

I was feeling pretty good despite the climb. The sky was blue, the sun was out, and I literally had the mountain all to myself. There was a time when I’d be a lot more hesitant to climb Mt Isolation in winter alone and this was a deliberately calculated risk. The elevation gain and the distance aren’t the chief concern. It’s the bushwacks, both the route finding involved as well as the potential to fall into a spruce trap, and potentially freeze to death if I couldn’t get out unassisted. That’s one of the biggest risks of solo bushwhacking in winter.

There are two bushwhacks, called the Rocky Branch Bushwhack and the Iso Express Bushwhack. The Rocky Branch Bushwhack used to be used by a handful of people who knew how to use a compass in the old days before the Iso Express route even existed. Both are used almost exclusively in winter by hikers peakbagging Isolation. That’s thanks to open-source maps and cell phone navigation apps like GaiaGPS. The use of herd paths isn’t that big of a deal in winter when snow provides a durable surface that prevents erosion. It’s the non-winter months, where it presents a problem, at least from a Leave No Trace standpoint, because herd paths quickly turn into unofficial trails with all the erosion and habitat damage that goes with them.

One final hill on the Iso Express Bushwhack
One final hill on the Iso Express Bushwhack

The Forest Service tried to staunch the use of these bushwhack routes by banning their use with the local guide services and Appalachian Mountain Club leaders, but the cat was already out of the bag. Everyone follows the bushwhack tracks in winter because you can see them on the ground in the snow, whereas they’re less commonly used the remainder of the year when you need to know how to use an app or read a map. The reason the Forest Service doesn’t create new trails from the bushwhack routes is that they’re in designated Wilderness Areas, where new trail construction is frowned upon.

I reached the top of the “big climb” and put on a hooded wind shirt over my fleece hoody, to deflect snow from falling off trees onto me as I passed. When our winter trails get a few feet of snow, the tree branches that overhang them are a lot closer to your head and shoulders, so any snow on them can fall onto you when you pass by. If you want to keep snow from falling down your back, pull up your sweater or jacket hood.

When I came to the start of the Rocky Branch bushwhack, all of the hiker traffic veered off the Rocky Branch Trail and into the woods. It is important to understand that the Rocky Branch Bushwhack isn’t a fixed route and it can change depending on who last bushwhacked through the forest. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find several broken-out routes when it snows where people decided they preferred creating their own route than follow someone else’s.

Mt Washington from the summit of Mt Isolation
Mt Washington from the summit of Mt Isolation

In terms of route finding, it’s still important that you be able to navigate these bushwhacks if the track you follow doesn’t go where you want to go. That means learning how to use a GPS navigation app, and carrying a compass, and a paper map. I had all three with me. I didn’t expect to see anyone out there at the same time I hiked this route and I knew I’d need to be self-sufficient if I had to navigate by myself.

I followed a nice bushwhack track through the forest, climbing through a few birch groves. Snow drifts covered the track in places, but it was still easy to discern the route. Eventually, I came to the Isolation Trail but only had to follow it a short way to the start of the Iso Express Bushwhack, which starts with a crossing of the Rocky Branch River.

That crossing was nicely bridged by snow and ice and I found another well broken-out route on the other side of the river, which I followed over hill and dale to the Davis Path. The snow wasn’t as deep as the snow on the Rocky Branch bushwhack because there’s a lot more tree cover. There were a couple of diverging routes to choose from in places, but I stuck to the northernmost track which brought me to the right spot on the Davis Path, which runs up to the Isolation spur trail.

I was happy to complete my 9th round of the four thousand footers and my 510th Grid summit
I was happy to complete my 9th round of the four thousand footers and my 510th Grid summit

The Davis Path was deeply drifted with snow, but I plowed through and soon reached the short spur trail that lead to the open Mt Isolation summit. I snowshoed up it and was soon standing on the summit, soaking in a great view of Mt Washington, the Southern Presidential Range, Oakes Gulf, and I could even see the Baldfaces in the distance.

It has taken me 5 hours to snowshoe up to Isolation, so I didn’t linger too long, because I wanted to try to head back and try to finish the hike while there was still daylight. Hiking on trail at night by headlamp is easy, but bushwhacking by headlamp is best avoided whenever possible, especially in winter. I set off following my track back down the Davis Path and along the two bushwhacks before heading back down the Rocky Branch Trail as the daylight was waning and a snow squall was working itself over the Wildcats and headed my way. The return hike only took 3 hours, largely because I was going downhill not up and because I was following my tracks back to the trailhead.

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14 comments

  1. great trip report and congrats on your ninth round completion! when i did isolation in winter (about 30 years ago) i don’t think these bushwacks existed yet or if they did hadn’t been used that winter. that was a long day of breaking trail solo, but worth it as the views are tremendous.

  2. Philip,

    Great report. Good to hear you are back in the saddle again. When you do winter day hikes especially when solo, what do you bring in regards to emergency gear to sustain you or a member of your group is immobile do to an accident or medical event? For this question it is a given that that authorities have been notified and you are awaiting rescue. Tks Jim

    • I carry an inreach satellite messenger, 2 headlamps, a foam sleeping pad, insulated down pants, an insulated jacket sufficient to spend the night out, extra gloves and hats, and a plastic pack liner that I could use as a half bivy bag. I also carry extra food and chlorine dioxide tablets for water purification.

  3. Good Afternoon!

    I live in the far northern reaches of NH (Stewartown to be exact) and do a lot of trail breaking/bushwacking snowshoeing through the steep hills and powdery snow in the area. I do a bit of snowshoeing on established trails, but the bulk is solo cutting trail. I’ve had a pair of MSR Denali snowshoes with the 8″ tails for the past 17 years. The frames finally cracked this past week….with a service life like that, I have no complaints.

    My challenge with the updated MSR line is that I’m having a hard time pinning down the right pair for me. Deep snow. 190lbs starting weight (before boots and gear), and a size 14 boot. The Evo’s with 6″ tails just don’t offer enough float for the deep stuff. I’ve eyed up the 30″ Lighting Ascent, but the Paragon biding doesn’t allow the ball of my foot to be far enough forward…meaning that the pivot is strange and the gripper just wraps my toes, rather than my whole forefoot. I saw your approval of the HyperLink Binding on the Explore lineup. Do you have any experience fitting those on large boots?

    If I can’t find a suitable MSR, I may need to look over to the Tubbs lineup (Mountaineer?)…but that might present the same issues and I’m concerned about the durability. Any other suggestions?

    Thank you for your time and considerations!

    • Try the Atlas Montane Snowshoes instead. They come in a 30″ and 36″ size. I think the binding will be a lot more secure than the hyperlink in deep snow. The problem with the hyperlink binding is that it doesn’t provide enough top coverage to avoid getting pulled off in deeper snow. The tubbs mountaineers have a more structured binding (looks like a boa), but I question how good they’ll be for bigger boots. The Paragon binding is really pretty tight when it comes to bigger boots. I wear an 11 and I’ve been feeling the squeeze up front in my toes this past week when I’ve been using them.
      https://www.rei.com/product/180199/atlas-montane-snowshoes-mens

      • I very much appreciate the feedback on the bindings and the Atlas suggestion. My wife has 15 or so y/o version of the Montanes which have held up and performed well. Earlier this afternoon I placed an order on a closeout set of Lightning Explores; but will definitely keep the Montanes on the shortlist as backup.

  4. What an apropos posting, Philip. I’ll be doing this tomorrow. Thanks for the heads up and the excellent report on NewEnglandTrailconditions too.

    • Bushwhacks were well trodden, and the non-bushwhacks appear to not be broken out. Nice day out there today. 11 people made it to the summit. Thanks again for the intel, Philip.

  5. Great trip, Pete. How long did it take you?

  6. I have learned so much from your site, thank you. I am thinking of doing this hike this week, How much shorter do the bushwhacks make this hike? I took up hiking again last winter after taking a couple decades off. I can’t tolerate the heat so I hike late fall through early spring and am pretty slow so I almost always hike alone. I do not have any experience with spruce traps, I believe I understand what they are but is there anything you do or carry to help if you find yourself in one? I could imagine being contorted and not being able to remove my snowshoes and getting stuck. I am guessing an ice axe wouldn’t help probably more likely to impale myself. My plb is usually in my pack even if I could reach it it probably wouldn’t work in a hole. Any suggestions aside from walking holding the middle of a 12 foot 2×4?

    • The bushwhacks make the hike about approx 3 miles shorter, but distance isn’t their main benefit. It’s the elimination of several water crossings. The most reliable way to avoid dying in a spruce trap is to hike with a partner. A spruce trap occurs where snow buried the top of a bush buy hides the void underneath. You plunge though the top and can’t get out.

  7. Phil,
    Glad you’re feeling better. Good to see you smiling!

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