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.
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 hike to Isolation can be broken into five stages.
- The climb to height of land from the trailhead
- The Rocky Branch Bushwhack
- The Iso Express Bushwhack
- The Davis Path to the Isolation summit
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.