What do you do on the final full day of winter? Get in your last Winter New Hampshire 4000 Footer of the season of course. Since the weather was going to be mild, a couple of friends and I decided to bushwhack to Mount Isolation. It was a Winter 4000 Footer that none of us had, and since we had done the other difficult Winter bushwhack of Owls Head, we figured we would round out the season.
The night before, one of my friends and I camped out at Barne’s Field Group Campground. As drove through Pinkham Notch it started to snow, but it was not supposed to accumulate to anything. We were surprised to find many of the campsites were being used, it must have been due to the favorable forecast. We did dinner over a fire and hit the sack early.
We met our other friend at 8:00am at the Rocky Branch Trail parking. There were about 10 cars in the lot and the weather was sunny, in the 20°s and breezy. We were somewhat surprised that there was no snow on the ground, the forest floor looked more like May than March. The plan was to hike Rocky Branch Trail to the top of Engine Hill and then do Engine Hill Bushwhack to bypass all of the water crossings on Isolation Trail. We would then hike Isolation Trail after doing a single water crossing and finally Davis Path and Isolation Spur to the summit.
The hike up Rocky Branch Trail was a moderate climb, it was probably the steepest part of the hike aside from the short rock scramble up to Isolation’s summit. At the top of Engine Hill we passed a group of three guys. We asked them if they were heading to the bushwhack and they said maybe. None of us had done this bushwhack before, so I was hoping others would be doing it as well.
Just beyond the high point of Engine Hill the bushwhack turned north. The bushwhack had boot prints on it and the Rocky Branch Trail had unbroken snow. It seemed like others had taken the bushwhack ahead of us and the regular trail was untouched. The bushwhack went through some marshy lands and then climbs up a beautiful and open birch forest.
After the birch forest we caught up to group of seven hikers high up the ridge trying to figure out best way through a thick stand of spruce. The hikers were scattering, trying different directions to find the best way through. I had only read descriptions of the hike, but felt that we were too high up the ridge and needed to start heading toward the Rocky Branch River. So, we took off ahead of the group, heading downhill toward the river below.
After struggling through the thick spruce, we found an older bushwhack and followed it. We exited the bushwhack at 10:30 am and stepped onto the Isolation trail right before a water crossing. The crossing was very doable at that location, so we crossed.
Once on the western shore of Rocky Branch, we continued to bushwhacked in order to bypass the remaining water crossings. The forest was thick and the snow deep, so the going was slow with lots of post-holing. Later, when we returned the same route, we passed some people who complained about the bushwhack. But, in fact we only crossed the river the one required time and we exited the woods 50 feet from the last crossing. I’d say it was pretty spot on.
The rest of the Isolation Trail and Davis trail was easy, and we had the pleasure of breaking trail. Once we closed in on the Mount Isolation Spur trail we started to get some view north toward the Presidentials. We paused for a moment to watch a rescue helicopter hovering over Mount Washington. I checked the news for a few days after the hike but didn’t see anything about a rescue. We broke trail to summit at 12:00 pm.
The climb up to the summit was a little slippery due to the fresh snow and steepness, but with some care my boots held enough to make the climb without my microspikes. The summit was clear, windy and cold.
The views were spectacular and shortly after we arrived the group of seven showed up. One of their members was complete his Winter New Hampshire 48 4000 Footers. They gathered and we took photos of them on the summit with their cameras and phones.
We spread out across the summit, finding different rocks out of the wind against which to eat our lunches. Before long we had to get moving to raise our body temperature. We hiked backed out the way we came, putting on microspikes before we departed.
We passed several other groups that were hiking to Isolation including the three guys we saw on top of Engine Hill. A couple people were boggled by the non-conformist bushwhack on the west side of Rocky Branch River, but I still contend that it was better than having to make more icy water crossings. We briefly considered hiking down Isolation Trail instead of taking the bushwhack, but there was a large group eating lunch at end of bushwhack that convinced us not to because of all of the water crossings. So, at 1:30 pm we started up the Engine Hill bushwhack again.
In planning the hike I considered bushwhacking to Engine Hill on the way back to the car. It is listed on the New England 3000 Footers list, so I figured I’d hit it while we were there. But, at that point we just wanted to get back to our cars. The hike down from Engine Hill very spring-like and enjoyable and we got back to the cars at 3:30pm.
It felt good to complete our first real winter bushwhack. We had done the Brutus Bushwhack to Owls Head a few months back, but that route had been so well trodden that it might as well have been a trail. We got a few complaints about the direction of the route, but I thought it was pretty damn good for our first attempt. Plus, if you don’t like a bushwhack’s route, then make your own route. That is the point after all.
I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.
—Henry David Thoreau
Video of Mount Isolation winter bushwhack
Music from Free Music Archive: “Velvet Embracer” by Diablo Swing Orchestra
Date Hiked: 19 March 2016
Trail Conditions: mud, blue ice, loose snow, post-holing
Weather: mostly sunny
Wind: NW 35 mph
Highest Elevation: 4004′
Elevation Gain: 3200′
Distance: 12.5 miles
Book Time: 7:50
Actual Time: 7:30
Hike: Mount Isolation – 05 October 2014