Mount Isolation in Winter

Hiking Mount Isolation was the most difficult test of our entire NH48 journey. This was the only peak that took us more than one attempt and it involved winter route-finding, a bushwhack, and the coldest either of us have ever been before. Overcoming these challenges left us with an incredible sense of accomplishment that still hasn’t faded.

Stats

1
Miles
1 ft
Elevation Gain
1
Hours
0
Minutes

Route

Segment Distance

Total Distance

Route Description

0 mi0 miStart at Rocky Branch Trailhead
2.8 mi2.8 miTake Rocky Branch Trail to Engine Hill bushwhack
1.3 mi4.1 miEngine Hill bushwhack to join Isolation Trail
1.6 mi5.7 miIsolation Trail to Davis Path
0.9 mi6.6 miDavis Path to summit of Mount Isolation (Short spur to summit)
0.9 mi7.5 miDavis Path to back to Isolation Trail
1.6 mi9.1 miIsolation Trail back to bushwhack
1.3 mi10.4 miBushwhack back to rejoin Rocky Branch Trail
2.8 mi13.2 miRocky Branch Trail back to parking lot

Map

Isolation Map

(Note: my phone died so this only shows the track through the bushwhack and up to the ridge, not all the way to the summit)

Hiking Mount Isolation

We attempted to hike Mount Isolation in December, 2018, but it wasn’t meant to be that day. It is tough to admit that we were not prepared yet. We did not enjoy the experience of failing to reach a peak, but with a few more winter hikes under our belts and upgraded snowshoes (check here for gear suggestions) we returned for redemption. A few inches of snow had fallen overnight and the wind was blowing it into drifts over the trail. As we were the first on the trail that morning, we knew we would be breaking trail. The challenge wasn’t the depth of snow, it was in the route finding – a new winter hiking endeavor for us. Armed with the full array of winter hiking gear, we set off to tackle what promised to be our toughest peak of the 48.

Isolation_Sunrise
Sunrise
Isolation_Rocky Branch Trail
Rocky Branch Trail

We watched the sun rise as we travelled the first few easy miles of Rocky Branch Trail. We reached the start of the Engine Hill bushwhack after 2.8 mi of steady uphill hiking. I took a compass bearing to keep us on the 3200 ft contour and we set off into our unknown. With only a couple brief retreats, we stayed on course and emerged to join Isolation Trail as expected. That alone had me feeling accomplished for the day and I thought the toughest test was behind us. I was wrong.

As we climbed higher along Isolation Trail, staying on trail became more and more difficult as the drifts got deeper and deeper. We veered off and corrected back with gps assistance a few times. Close to the ridge, we lost the trail altogether. I knew we were close to the Davis Path on the ridge, but we couldn’t reach it through a dense stand of trees. Using terrain association and sinking past our knees even with snowshoes, we found our way around and up to the ridge. Once again, I thought we had passed the toughest test. Once again, I was wrong.

Atop the deep snowpack this year, we traversed the ridge in the upper branches of the trees that grabbed at us with each step. It was like swimming through branches as they tore at our clothes and dumped fresh snow down our backs. The wind stung us as we crossed short open sections and we were both feeling colder than ever. Within a mile of the summit, I felt the real possibility of turning back again. We needed to stay safe, but we still had a little more in the tank. Vowing not to let stubbornness or hubris put us into a dangerous situation, we pressed on knowing our turnaround would come soon if we didn’t reach our goal.

Isolation_Summit
Isolation Summit
Isolation_Frozen Face
Frozen Face

When we located the final climb after more route finding, a couple wrong turns, and trail breaking, I got a second (maybe third or fourth) wind and clambered up to the summit. The wind kicked me in the face, but I smiled all the same under my frost-laden balaclava. I have never felt so accomplished upon reaching a peak. The arduous trek and the reality of how close we were to turning back for safety made this the sweetest peak. 

Isolation_Finished
Finished!

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4 Comments

  1. Josh
    March 22, 2020
    Reply

    This is amazing! Out of curiosity, could this be done in a season other than winter for an easier trek? Seems like the most difficult part was the amount of snow and how that affected the trail finding and personal wellbeing.

    • Trekking Sketches
      March 24, 2020
      Reply

      Yes, of course! If hiking outside of winter conditions, you wouldn’t take the Engine Hill bushwhack, though. Instead, you would stay on Rocky Branch Trail to Isolation Trail.
      This route would make for a total hike distance of 14.6 miles and involve a few stream crossings. You can check weather and streamflow conditions using the links on our NH Useful Links Page.
      Another option is to hike Isolation via Glen Boulder Trail. We haven’t done that approach yet, but it is shorter (12 miles) with more elevation gain.

  2. […] first time we hiked Mt. Isolation, we took Rocky Branch Trail with the Engine Hill Bushwack both ways during winter. This was a completely different hike and experience. It was hard, but just may be one of our new […]

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