My day began at 3:30 in the morning with the jolt of my iPhone’s alarm. I wanted to hit snooze and roll back over for nine extra minutes of sleep, but the realization that I hadn’t truly packed the night before — simply gathered everything I needed into piles around the house — got me out of bed in no time. I scrambled to put my contacts in and start getting my things in order. Time passed quickly as I gathered and packed my gear for the day, and before I knew it it was almost time to leave. My hiking partner for the day, Alyssa Baldino, rolled up in the driveway just after four o’clock, and after I tossed my (somehow still not completely organized) gear in the back of the car we were off.
Our destination was Pinkham Notch, the picturesque valley between the Presidential and Carter mountain ranges. Our goal was summitting Mt. Isolation, a 4,003′ peak on the southeast side of the Presidentials. Isolation is aptly named, as it is quite far removed from any human developments, and also quite far from any other notable peaks or attractions (by White Mountains standards). In my opinion, only Owls Head surpasses Isolation in terms of inaccessibility when talking about the NH48. The absolute shortest way to get to Isolation is via the Glen Boulder trail and Davis Path: a route that clocks in at 6 miles one-way, 12 miles round-trip. In addition to being relatively long for one peak, this route requires you to climb up the Glen Boulder trail to an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet before descending Davis Path to Isolation’s summit. If extra climbing isn’t your thing, you can take the Rocky Branch and Isolation trails in to meet Davis Path closer to the summit, but this route is longer (14.4 miles round-trip) and the Rocky Branch trail is notoriously wet and mucky.
Always up for a little extra legwork, I had decided that neither of the traditional routes for summitting Isolation were good enough for us that day. Instead, we would start at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and hike up to the 5,500 foot peak of Boott Spur via the Tuckerman Ravine and Boott Spur trails before heading down Davis Path to Isolation. In order to save ourselves a few hundred feet of climbing on the way back, we would take the Glen Boulder trail out to Route 16 and make our way back to the Visitor Center from there. I certainly wasn’t the first person to ever think of this hike, but it was a little different than the usual routes. For those unfamiliar with the trails, you can see our route below (disregard the distances, as GPS programs tend to overstate the actual length of the trail).
We reached the Visitor Center in Pinkham Notch just before 5:30, the air still cold and the sky still dark. Not only do early morning starts get you out ahead of the crowds and give you more time to hike, but the frosty air helps to keep you moving in order to stay warm. We trekked through the dark for about an hour, carefully making our way over wet and rocky trail by the light of our headlamps. When the sun finally rose, the woods were still dim: dense clouds separated us from the sun’s warming rays, and the morning fog hung thick in the air. While the forecast called for partly cloudy skies, I began to think we were looking at a more overcast day ahead of us, which did nothing to ease the anxiety I was experiencing all morning (sometimes I get a bit jittery before a big hike, but my physician says I shouldn’t take Xanax before strenuous physical activity).
The morning climb progressed slowly, or so it seemed, as I fought the nervous pressure inside my chest and knot in my gut while trying to also scale this (literally) mile-high mountain. Eventually, we made our way up through the forest and into the subalpine zone, and we knew we were close to breaking treeline. At just about 4,000 feet, nearly two miles into the hike, there was a sign pointing off-trail to an outlook, which I figured would make a decent spot to catch a breather, even if the views were obscured by clouds and fog. As I made my way out to the ledge, however, I was taken aback by the scene before me. The forested bottom of the ravine was visible, and you could begin to see the exposed rock through the fog before the mountains disappeared into the clouds. Behind me, I could see where the subalpine forest would taper off and leave us completely exposed for the last mile-plus of our climb. For some reason, the eerie-looking ravine and bare rock ahead of us sparked something inside me, and almost immediately all my stress and anxiety melted away. All I could think about was breaking through the trees and making our way up the exposed ridgeline in front of us, and I was ready to go.
I hadn’t realized that when I ducked off the trail I was out of Alyssa’s view, and she motored right past the lookout while I was busy getting some much-needed mountain medication. I came back out to the trail and hustled to catch up to her, and together we made our way out of the trees quite hastily. The wind was certainly stronger and the air colder once we were out of the trees, but it was nothing you’d consider too heavy. We threw our hoods on to keep the wind off of our necks and kept walking, the trail maintaining a gentle grade as we cut across the ridge. After a few minutes, however, the trail began climbing the ridge again, and with every step the wind seemed to blow just a bit harder, and the air seemed to feel just a bit colder, and the snow stung just a bit more. We powered through, however, and eventually reached a flat area where the Boott Spur trail meets the Boott Spur Link (which leads to the Tuckerman Ravine trail and Hermit Lake). Despite the rime ice covering every inch of signage, we knew that this meant we had just about three-quarters of a mile to go before we summitted Boott Spur.
The final push to the summit proved to be the most challenging — and intimidating — part of our day. The trail climbed steeply from the junction, with the drifting snow up to a foot deep in some places along the trail. More than once Alyssa and I looked at each other with apprehension, wondering (silently, of course, as we couldn’t hear each other without yelling over the howling wind) exactly what we had gotten ourselves into. Still, I felt more comfortable than I had all morning, and I came to enjoy the battle between us and the elements. Slowly and surely, we made our way towards Boott Spur, eventually reaching a large flat area, with a large buttress of rocks to our right. The trail took us up and over the rocky wall, and when I reached the top I could see the unmistakable shape of a trail junction sign in the midst of a snowy sea of rocks. This meant we had reached the peak of Boott Spur, and we sure were glad to have made it. We took a moment to document the gnarly conditions on the summit; well, Alyssa did, because when I took my phone out it promptly died (presumably from the cold). Satisfied with a quick video and photo atop Boott Spur, we walked the last hundred yards over to where the Boott Spur trail meets Davis Path.
Once we met up with Davis Path, our pace picked up quickly, as we went from steep climbing to smooth and steady descent down the ridgeline towards Isolation. We had made it to Boott Spur around 8:30 — putting us at a snail-like pace of one mile per hour — but we could tell that the next three miles down to our destination would be much faster. As we started down from Boott Spur’s summit, it felt as if we were on another planet. We were mostly shielded from the wind, and the clouds and fog were still so thick that you could see the sun’s light reflected off of them from the west, so we were almost surrounded by a curious orange glow. Couple that effect with the fact that the only thing in sight was snow-covered rock, and the only sound was the low, steady blowing of the wind, and it certainly made for a surreal experience.
The rest of the descent down to treeline went quickly, and the trail went from wide-open to quite narrow in no time. We followed a stream bed through the tightly-packed evergreens for a while, until the trail opened up a bit down below 4,000 feet. We moved quickly and quietly, enjoying the stillness of the cold mountain morning (somehow, it was still morning). Already on trail for four hours that day, we still had yet to see another person. Eventually we made it to the point where Davis Path meets the east branch of the Isolation trail, and a quick map check confirmed that we were within a mile of Isolation’s summit. We covered the remaining ground with speed and ease, eventually coming to the tiny spur trail that leads to Isolation’s summit.
We scrambled up the steep path for maybe 50 yards until the trees opened up to reveal a beautiful little clearing with a neat cairn right in the middle. After nearly five hours of hiking, six miles. and over 4,500 feet of elevation change, we had made it to our destination. We unsaddled our packs, brushed the snow off our, well, everything, and took a walk around the summit. We discovered the true summit area — another small clearing with a cairn in the middle — and I asked Alyssa to take a photo of me with the summit cairn. Number 43 was official and on the books for me, and Alyssa notched her 33rd summit on the NH 4K list. I gnawed on a frozen Clif bar and enjoyed the scenery; despite the clouds and fog obscuring out views early on, some of the clouds had burned off to our southeast and we had beautiful views of some of the smaller White Mountain peaks.
Before long, we were cold from standing around in our sweat-soaked clothes and decided get out of the wind and on our way. I had removed my gloves when we reached the summit, and despite being there for maybe ten minutes, the fingers had already frozen solid. I lamented my lazy self for leaving them out of my pack and shoved my hands into the rigid fingers of the icy gloves. Luckily for me, they thawed quickly as we began our walking back up Davis Path. We again made quick time to the junction with the east side of the Isolation trail, but this time we had company, and human company at that! After five and a half hours of hiking, we finally saw another group: three gentlemen coming from the Rocky Branch trail, which they confirmed was wet and muddy as usual. I smiled on the inside knowing I had made the right choice in avoiding that route. We exchanged small talk, wished each other a good day, and kept moving.
We continued to hike quickly down below treeline, re-tracing our steps back up Davis Path towards Boott Spur. Thankfully, this time we didn’t have to climb all the way back to the peak. Instead, we’d make a right turn onto the Glen Boulder trail about 500 feet and half a mile before the top and take that trail back down. Before we knew it, we were back climbing through the narrow evergreen stream bed, and I knew we would be exposed to the elements above treeline again soon. When we did break treeline for the second time of the day, we were a bit discouraged to find that the freezing wind was blowing into our faces instead of into our backs as it had all morning. Nevertheless, we made our way up the gentle slope of the ridge towards the trail junction, fighting the wind all the way. Thankfully, the snow had slowed considerably and wasn’t pelting us in the face, and we did have a few views through the cloud back down towards Isolation and Rocky Branch Ridge. Before long, we reached the rime ice-covered trail junction and began our ultimate descent.
The snow was deep along the path down towards Slide Peak, an unofficial 4,800 foot peak near the top of the Glen Boulder trail. Not long after we began down, we crossed paths with a brave soul climbing up Glen Boulder and heading for the summit of Mt. Washington. He was quite surprised to see us, and remarked he had only seen a few other people on trail that day, just like us. Not long after we said goodbye, we went over the exposed top of Slide Peak, and the wind coming up from the Gulf of Slides was pounding us. Thankfully, we dipped back into the trees shortly after and made quick time over the next mile or so of trail. Eventually, we came out to a large exposed area, which proved to be the toughest part of our descent by far. Not only was the footing rocky and snowy, but the wind was in our faces again and there was no cover to be had. Slowly but surely we inched down the rock face, eventually coming to the trail’s namesake, the Glen Boulder. Had my camera been functional, I would’ve gotten a photo, because it’s one of the biggest rocks I’ve ever seen and is perched quite precariously on the edge of the mountain. With treeline in sight, we quickly made our way down from the boulder and out of the wind.
Once into the trees, the going was smooth and we cruised down the trail, happy to be out of the wind. Before long we hit the junction of the Glen Boulder path and the Gulf of Slides ski trails, which would take us straight across the mountainside and back to our car at the Visitor Center. The ski trail was relatively overgrown and considerably more mucky than any trail we had covered that day, but we covered the remaining mile-and-a-half with no problem. After nine and a half hours and just over 13 miles, we had completed our journey. My first order of business was to remove every piece of wet clothing from my body, replacing my damp layers with a dry shirt and trading soaked socks for the comfort of dry. warm wool. Alyssa and I took a moment to appreciate the accomplishment of our day, packed up our things, and hit the road back home to Maine.
Overall, the variety of the day’s experiences was what made it so special and enjoyable for me. We experienced just about every stage of “shoulder season” possible, from the warm(er) and snow-free forest to the frozen tundra of the alpine zone, and every grade in between. In addition to that, we had done a pretty solid amount of climbing — up and down — and covered a respectable number of miles for a wintery day in the mountains. Most of all, we had checked off another peak on the 4K list, and tough one at that. I was super thankful that I didn’t have to make the climb alone, and having a badass hiker like Alyssa behind me all day certainly kept my morale and confidence up (and hopefully vise versa, although I’m not sure the chick who crushed a single-day Pemi Loop this summer needs much of a boost from a goof like me). Isolation itself wasn’t the most impressive summit I’ve visited in the Whites, but I’ll definitely look back on my 4,000-footer journey and hold this hike as one of my favorites.