Our hike of Mt. Isolation was a mixed bag of everything, and proof of the fickleness of the weather in the White Mountains.
The weather was iffy from the start; the mountain forecast changed several times during the week leading up to our hike, from mostly clear, to heavy rain, to some clouds, to possible thunderstorms, to rain showers. On my drive up north, all seemed well until I got through Conway; then it began raining. By the time I arrived at the Rocky Branch parking area to spot my car and meet my hiking companions for a ride up the road to the Glen Ellis parking area, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle. It was enough to decide to cover my pack, but not enough to put on my raincoat. Our plan was to hike up the rugged and rocky Glen Boulder trail, named for an enormous, extremely recognizable glacial erratic boulder precariously perched at an elevation of 3,729 feet; after reaching the summit, we would descend via the easier (that’s debatable) Rocky Branch trail to our car spot.
Not long after our 7:00 AM start, probably within the first half-mile to mile, the drizzle stopped. Hiking up the moderately steep trail through the woods, we passed a couple of beautiful waterfalls, each accessible by a short herd path. Continuing up the rocky trail, we broke through the trees to our first sighting of Glen Boulder high up along the edge of the ridge. After hiking over a rocky section and through some scrubby trees, we emerged from the forest once again, this time much closer to Glen Boulder for a short scramble up some moderately challenging ledges.
After a short break at the boulder for obligatory “holding up the boulder” pictures and a quick snack, we continued up a bald, rocky section and entered scrubby forest once again. Toward the end of the scrub, the rain began again, and before emerging we all donned our rain gear. As soon as we left the cover of the scrub for the remaining open section of trail on our way to the junction with Davis Path, the pelting rain and gusting winds began. The fog enveloped us, we all got drenched, and we trudged along the rim of the Gulf of Slides hoping the rain would soon let up and that there wouldn’t be any thunder or lightning.
We reached Davis Path, rain and wind still not relenting, and began the rocky descent back to the relative safety of the scrub below. Difficult at spots due to the wet, slippery rocks, we finally reached the scrub, got some relief from the wind, and continued on our way to the Isolation Trail (East). When we eventually reached the small sign that marked the turn to the summit trail, I think we all felt a bit of relief (at least I did). All that remained was a steep climb up ledges to reach the open, rocky summit. As we emerged from forest yet again and began the final scramble up, the rain stopped, the sun shone down on us, and the sky was blue once again.
We spent a bit of extra time at the summit, since the primary purpose of this trip was for one of the hikers in our group, Adam, to finish his final summit of the 48 4000-footers. Fortunately, it remained sunny all through our descent. Unfortunately, due to the rainy spring we’ve had, as well as the rain that had just fallen that day, the normally wet Rocky Branch trail was spectacularly muddy and watery to the point of seeming like the trail itself was a stream. Additionally, the five major river crossings were a bit high.
While a few of the faster hikers in our group stopped by the river for a quick swim, four of us continued ahead, knowing they would catch up to us pretty quickly. We made the second-last river crossing without any issues. However, when we reached the last river crossing, the direct route ahead didn’t seem like the best one. Helen and Lucy opted for a spot a little further downstream, while Devon headed upstream to a different spot. I debated whether to just walk right through the river, since my shoes were completely soaked from the rain and the perpetually wet trail anyway. But it looked a little deep, and there were some fast-flowing spots directly in front of me. So I decided to head upstream to follow Devon’s route. As I was picking my way along the shore over mossy rocks and ducking under tree branches, I managed to slip on a rock and landed on my butt, sitting on top of the rock. I was perfectly fine, uninjured. This would have been alright, except that once again the weight of my pack destroyed my natural sense of balance and pulled my upper body down towards the water. I put out my right arm, hand holding both of my trekking poles by the shafts, to break my fall, which worked. Unfortunately, this put me in a position where my butt and legs were up on the rock, and my upper body was lower and angled downward toward the water, with the upper part of my backpack actually IN the river (which I didn’t even think about right away). I tried to get back up, but due to the angle of my body and weight of my backpack, I couldn’t get enough leverage to pull myself up. My right arm was the only thing keeping me from completely sliding into the water, so I couldn’t even try to use my trekking poles to push myself out. I called out to Devon, who couldn’t hear me — she finally saw me once she had already reached the other side. I then just gave in and slid the rest of the way into the water, getting completely soaked up to my chest since I slid in sideways and partially on my back, so I ended up sort of sitting in the water. Of course, now it dawned on me that my entire backpack was submerged. I stood up as quickly as I could, then realized that my phone was in the pocket of my shorts. I hastily pulled it out, shook it off, saw that it was still working, and hoped it would stay that way. At that point, I really should have just tried to walk across the river! But no… I got back up on the rocks along the shore, and noticing that water seemed to be dumping out of my backpack whenever I bent over, I tried to turn it upside down and get the water out of it as much as I could without completely opening it.
By this time, the rest of our group had caught up with us. I returned to the trail, and the four of us bushwhacked down a steep slope to the spot where Devon had crossed. I managed to cross here without incident, thanks to help from Dan, Adam and Lauren. Afterward, Dan advised that the best thing to do in this situation would have been to just walk right through, which I sort of knew from the beginning anyway. Lesson learned for next time!
The rest of the hike was a wet and muddy slog. About three miles from the end of the trail, we decided to split into two groups to finish (I know, breaking a hiking rule here — but in this case I believe it was warranted). Lucy and I stayed together, while Devon, who is a fast hiker, joined the rest of the group so she could drive the rest of the group from our car spot back to their cars at Glen Ellis, then return back to Rocky Branch to meet us. During these last few miles, I really dug in so that we could get out of the forest before it started getting too dark. (Though we’re just a few days past summer solstice and the sun sets around 8:30 PM, it gets dark earlier in the forests of the White Mountains.) At one point, we passed a couple hiking up (presumably to camp out or do a night hike) who were able to tell us that we were 1.7 miles from the trailhead. YES! We kicked it up even more at this point, swearing nearly continuously, and finally reached the parking lot just a few minutes before 6:30 PM.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this hike. On one hand, the hike up the Glen Boulder trail was awesome until the heavy rain and wind descended on us; on the other hand, the hike down Rocky Branch was an incredibly awful and mettle-testing experience. But ultimately, we finished — sopping wet, muddy as hell, and tired beyond belief (at least I was!) — but without any injuries besides Devon’s not-at-all-serious scraped up, bloody knee from a slip during the first river crossing.
I survived to hike again. But maybe after taking a few weeks off so I can remember why the hell I do this.