Part 3: Mount Isolation

We drop 5e’s car at the Rocky Branch trail head and all pile into Studs car and head to the Glen Boulder trail head with the plans to do a loop.  We see the infamous “Glen Boulder” from the road, which is this giant house sized boulder perched up on the side of the mountain that looks as if its about to teeter over and roll down the cliff.  The sky is clear and while there is and has been a forecast of a “chance” of thunderstorms, there is no “expected” percentage…its just a summer heat wave and there’s always a chance in super humid weather like this.  We did discuss whether or not to go up the very exposed Glen Boulder Trail given the possibility and in the end we decide to go for it, figuring we will be up and over in the earlier part of the day and back in the trees if the weather changes in the afternoon.

It’s 6:30AM when we start hiking up from Pinkham Notch unlike the last 2 days this trail wastes no time.  We are immediately climbing and rapidly gaining elevation.  Despite a very poor night of sleep at the cheap motel air conditioned palace I’m feeling pretty good.  There is plenty of water on the trail and I’m already down a half liter within the first hour so I go ahead and refill a bottle just and decide I will refill every chance I get.  We pop electrolyte tabs in our water and every time I drink, I’m brought back to life as if I’ve been given an injection of super powers.

Before we know it we are already popping out above the trees with views of the Wildcats and the Carters across the notch.  The heat wave continues but its early and we are fresh when we reach the Glen Boulder.  We take refuge in the shade of the giant boulder and have a quick snack followed by a goofy photo shoot with the big balancing rock.

As we continue climbing higher up, the reality of being in the alpine zone begins to dawn on me.  Despite having scoured over the maps and having read thorough various trail descriptions from multiple sources, somehow I hadn’t fully planned for this and I suddenly feel ill-prepared.  Generally, when I know I’ll be on an exposed ridge line I pack a few extra things but given the heat wave and the kinds of mileage we were doing I was traveling pretty minimally and I began to feel a little nervous about this.  I had maybe six and a half of the ten essentials depending on one’s definition.  I had the basics including some emergency kit and first aid stuff but I was missing some things for sure.

Stud then comments about the clouds which seem to be forming across the valley over the Carters.  But its hard to tell and we are climbing higher and more exposed.  Stud makes a few more comments about the clouds and at this point we are half way across this exposed ridge.  The clouds are gathering and there is that pinkish haze that happens sometime and just as they appear to start forming in a unsettling way, they then kind of blow apart but we are watching them.  The trail then dips into a short corridors of trees and we plop down in this tiny shadow of shade for a break and I say that I am nervous about the clouds.  We all agree there is nothing to do but go forward because there is no imminent threat of Tstorms.  If things get weird we will find trees and get below them and get through whatever happens but that there is a good chance nothing will happen.

I feel better after a snack and a chug as I always do and we proceed to summit Slide Peak which is a pretty amazing view and also about 1000 feet of elevation higher than our goal peak of Mount Isolation yet isn’t on the NH48 list even though its huge and amazing.  The clouds continue to be ambiguous and we soon reach the intersection for Davis Path which means we will soon be out of the alpine zone and back below tree line which is relieving.  We reach the intersection and are officially headed into the Dry River Wilderness.

I don’t like this.  I am scared of the Dry River Wilderness.  A lot of people die in there.  Like people go in there to die.  Not hikers necessarily but random folks who come up here and go in there to return themselves to the land in mysterious ways.  Its less traveled, the trails are hard to navigate, its easy to get lost, there were once a bunch of lean-to’s that are now mostly gone, search and rescue claims its one of the hardest places to find people and it just feels haunted and spooky in there to me.  But here we go and at least we are on a more well-traveled trail….so we think.

We hike down the ridge and being back in the trees feels great.  Again the heat is slowing us way down and by the time we finally reach the Isolation Spur to the summit I feel pretty exhausted.  We climb up passing by a few hikers who are heading down and we have the summit to ourselves and its just so unbelievably beautiful.  We can see Mt Washington and Mount Monroe and the Boot Spur.  We take our time up there just resting and taking it all in.  It feels huge to be standing on top of Mount Isolation after looking at this elusive peak on maps for so long trying to imagine it.  And here we are!

But we still have a long 8.5 mile descent ahead of us.  Longer than we could possibly know in this celebratory moment.  So we begin our descent back the way we came but then turning down the Isolation Trail towards Rocky Branch.  The mileage on the map feels way off.  Or maybe its the heat.  Either we’re moving very slow and I can’t help but wonder if we are being sucked into a Dry River Wilderness Vortex.

It feels like a very long time before we reach the Rocky Branch Trail and we have to do one of the scariest water crossings yet.  Its huge and its flowing and I basically crawl and shimmy under some brush along some boulders to find a place where I think I can hop from rock to rock.  We all make it across and continue finding the trail a bit hard to follow.

The Rocky Branch Trail is basically a swamp with miles of rock hops and waste high grasses and everything is slippery and we are in the trees but also being baked by the sun and there is evidence of moose everywhere.  Like big moose poop and baby moose poop and I keep seeing HUGE fresh tracks.  We are a bit on edge as we keep expecting to turn a corner and find a giant mamma moose on the trail.  But we don’t.  Of course I always kind of want to see a moose or a bear out here but if a big animal did come down the trail I don’t know how I would gracefully get out of their way because we are in a swamp and I might sink up to by knees if I step off these rocks.

We stop often to drink and we are getting kinda fucked up.  The heat and these endless rock hops are killing us.  Our kingdom for a footpath!  We finally reach the end of the Dry River Wilderness but we still have miles to go and the trail is descending steeper.  This trail never lets up and we go about a mile an hour all day long.  We tell stories and try to distract each other from the physical pain and exhaustion.  At this point no amount of water or snacks will revive us.  The only cure for the state we are in is to stop hiking but we have to keep hiking and we do.  Our stamina surprises all of us and we are machines.

We can hear the road and we switch back our way down and down and down until finally we pop out onto the asphalt parking lot exactly 12 hours and 13 miles later.  We are fuuucked up!  We jump in 5e’s car not sure if any of us should be driving but we safely make it back to where Studs car is and we all just lie down on the ground until the pulsing throbbing of everything slows down enough to take our shoes off and eat and drink to be okay for driving.  We hug 5e goodbye and make sure she is okay and we agree to all text one another once we are safely home.  5e heads to Joe Dodge to check the place out and clean up.  Stud and I find a sub shop and get subs to go and head to Lake Chocorua for a dip before driving home.  Its 7pm and we have a long drive but we drink ice tea and swim and we are revived enough for now.

In conclusion, I don’t recommend the Rocky Branch Trail.  In fact I would totally go up and down the Glen Boulder Trail again because it was awesome.  But not in a heat wave and not when the clouds look questionable and not without 10 out of 10 essentials plus an extra 2.