Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Return to Isolation

Last winter we were starting to plan the final set of peaks to finish our NH48, including some of the typical ones that wind up at the end of so many people's lists - like the Bonds, Owl's Head and Isolation.  Last winter everyone was knocking off winter peaks right and left with the easier than usual winter conditions and we kept hearing about the "sidewalk to Isolation".  We tried to make the logistics work, but in the end we wound up having to wait.  It turned out to be a good thing, as we hit the absolutely perfect fall-like day in July that turned Isolation into one of our favorite hikes of the 48.  We knew though, that we still wanted to get back to experience it in winter.

For the last couple of years we've been joining our friends Mike and Donna (aka Jimmy Legs and Little D) on some of their hikes during their twice a year visits to New Hampshire.  They've been working their way through the 48 for a number of years - a labor of love for folks that have to travel over 500 miles each way to get to the Whites.  We were happy to be able to share several of their most recent peaks and were looking forward to more.  Things had once again worked out for us to spend a few days together during our winter vacation up north and Isolation looked like a good possibility.  After several days of great smaller hikes to start our trip, yesterday looked like the perfect day.  Our hiking legs were warmed up, the forecast calling for temps in the 20's, light winds and mostly sunny skies.  There was also a report of several other groups planning to head out after the weekend, meaning the trails should be broken.  Doesn't get much better than this...

We got to the trailhead at 7am and found one car in the lot - presumably the family that we'd heard was heading out on Monday and doing an overnight with a Tuesday summit.  Great!  Rocky Branch couldn't have been in better condition - a packed white snowshoe sidewalk.  Up we go...

Ready to hit the trail

Mike and Donna ready to bag #43

Happy hikers

The BFBD (large blowdown) is still here

Duck Donna

Nat on the Rocky Branch sidewalk

The first couple of miles of uphill went quickly and we found ourselves in the first beautiful flat section of Rocky Branch that winds around the side of the slope through the forest and several small meadow-like areas.  The trees were all still sugar frosted from the snow over the past few days.

Peeks of peaks to the east

Beautiful out here!

Snowshoe parade

Into the wilderness

Portrait of the portrait


It was time to start looking for the bushwhack on Engine Hill.  Mike noticed the mark on the tree at the "usual spot", but there was no sign of a track there.  About 150' further on there was a well broken track heading into the trees.  Looks like this is it.  In we go...

Into the 'whack

Not too tough

Opening up

The first hundred yards or so of the bushwhack took a bit of ducking and pushing through (and avoiding the eye-level pointed branches), but it opened up quickly and got out into the birch glades.  The track this year appears to be quite a bit lower than past years (based on the GPS tracks that I had gotten from several people last year) and I'm not sure if there are more of the glades on the other path.  The section we went through was certainly beautiful.  I found myself wishing for some blue sky for even more contrast, but that wasn't to be.  It didn't matter though.

Like a sculpture garden

Heading into the birch glades

Pictures can't do this justice

Tree art

The rest of the 'whack went by quickly and we found ourselves out on the Isolation trail.  At the intersection we found a campsite with the tent that obviously belonged to the group that had headed out yesterday.  Looks like we'd get to meet them after all.  The intersection with the Isolation trail was probably a bit over 1/2 mile before the 5th crossing of Rocky Branch, again a fair amount off from the GPS tracks I had.  The path the rest of the way to the crossing was equally good and the crossing was well bridged - no complications here.

Low bridge

Nat on the 5th crossing

Mike on the crossing

Isolation trail

When we were on this trail in July we decided that the section between the last crossing and Davis Path should be called the enchanted forest - emerald green with ferns, mushrooms, wildflowers and the potential for woodland sprites behind every tree.  It was interesting to see it in its winter garb - different, but still enchanted.

The enchanted forest

Fallen soldiers

Views opening to what lies ahead

It wasn't long till we were at the Davis Path junction and we stopped for a short break.  We heard voices from down the trail and soon met the family that had spent the night out and were now on their way back after bagging the summit - Mom, Dad and two young kids that were all smiles and deservedly so!  We chatted for a while and found out that the kids are approaching the end of their 48!  Great accomplishment guys - particularly Isolation as a winter overnight!  It was great meeting you all.  Best of luck with the rest of your journey.  We said our goodbyes and headed on for the final mile to the top.

Davis Path junction

Davis tunnel

All the views we're going to get...

Isolation ahead

Isolation spur sign #1

Second sign at the spur.  We couldn't find the Isolation spur sign itself

We were hoping to see the skies break as we headed across, but again, no such luck.  At the spur we headed up the final steep pitch to the top.  The last section was a tad tricky and took a combination of digging in the snowshoe crampons and hauling ourselves up by the trees on the side.  After a couple of near backslides everyone was up.  Mike and Donna lead the way to the summit cairn.

Nat on the slippery spur

Almost there...


Mike hanging on

Last inches

Mike helping Donna.  No, wait - filming Donna

Grab that tree!!


Mike and Donna heading for the summit

Almost there

Jimmy Legs and Little D bag #43

Nat and I on Isolation for winter 4K #10

The views that we had hoped for never materialized.  None of us really cared though - it was such a great day.  The temperature was perfect and there wasn't a breath of wind. We hung out for at least a half hour eating lunch and drinking tea before we finally gave in and headed back down.

No views so might as well enjoy the summit sculpture


Mike setting up the group shot

Donna getting as high as she can

What goes up must come down

As we headed back across the Davis Path the clouds almost started to lift (but it didn't happen).  We joked that we'd have to go back to the summit if it cleared.  Not sure that was going to happen...

Just imagine those views...

Back into the frosted forest

For a minute you could almost see the southern Presis

The walk back down through the "enchanted forest" and back to the bushwhack went quickly.  The family we met had said they might try breaking out a higher line for the bushwhack on the way back since the other one had some tough spots for their pulk and to maybe get more into the glades. We found what looked like a new track, but we decided to go with the original route.

Snowy magic wand?

Nat in the enchanted forest

Another sad victim of last year's storms

Next to the crossing

Back across

Rocky Branch peeking through

The walk back through the 'whack seemed shorter.  As we headed back down Rocky Branch a short way after the usual bushwhack entrance we heard voices.  It was the family emerging from what is now a second 'whack track.  I had to admire their determination to not only break trail and route find at the end of a two day trip, but to do it pulling a heavy pulk with their camping gear.  Hope the views in the glades made it pay off!

Back through the glades

Where the bushwhack usually starts

The last few miles felt long as our legs got heavier.  We made it back to the car just after 5pm as the sun was beginning to set.  After our second trip to Isolation we're sure it won't be our last.  Next time we hope to find some blue skies in those glades.  If not, we'll just keep doing it till we get it right.

Yesterday's summits peeking through

Ax blaze?

Back to the trailhead - it's official!

Congratulations to Mike and Donna on #43 and best of luck with your final 5.  Hope we get to share some more of them with you!

Here's the GPS map of our route.  You can find the interactive track HERE