Working title: Too Blue
Peak: Mt. Isolation
Trails: Rocky Branch Trail, bushwhack, Isolation Trail, Davis Path, Isolation Spur
Mileage/time: ~12.8 miles, ~3550' of gain, book time of 8:10, actual time of 8:18
As I alluded to last week, a winter finish was at hand. The lead-up to it, has been somewhat bittersweet for me, as it's been a long time in coming! What started by accident, on a cloudy, 40 degree, New Years Eve hike to Pierce and Eisenhower in 2010, was about to reach its apex. I say accident, because I didn't have a clue that there were separate winter and all-season lists. While I'd hiked Moosilauke, Carter Dome, South/Middle Carter, Garfield, Tecumseh, and the Kinsmans, in winter conditions, I'd have to do them AGAIN in calender winter.
In my first winter hiking season ('10-'11), I managed to knock off 13 peaks, not bad for a total amateur. The following winter ('11-'12) , the "winter that wasn't" (for me), only saw me go back for the two Carters, leaving 15 down. I met up with Mike in September that year, and I figured since he was going for a single season, I might as well try and finish my list. Though we made a valiant effort, he ended up being 6 peaks shy of a single season finish, and I ended up doing 30 peaks (5 of them repeats)... leaving me 8 shy of my goal.
Starts and stops have typified this winter, sickness and health as well. Skiing and hiking in rather equal measure. Seeing as calender winter is winding down, I'm glad I took a laissez-faire attitude towards this season. The finish was inevitable, it could have come early, it could have gone late. I'm grateful it took the path it did, culminating on this most perfect of days.
The forecast kept jumping around in the days prior, cloudy, clear, not windy, snowing, cloudy, clear... make up your mind! After getting in some night skiing on Wednesday, I got little sleep, and met up with Mike at his place around 8. We ended up stopping for a proper breakfast, as if to somehow forestall the finish. Parking next to a Bentley in the Rocky Branch lot (strange), we got on trail a bit after 9:30.
Skies blue, trail well packed, we made our way casually up Rocky Branch Trail. Both of us were down to base layers within the first mile. Most of the climbing on this hike occurs in the first few miles, and we worked up a good head of steam until we reached a fork in the trail, the beginning of the bushwhack.
Before us lay some of the most gorgeous birch glades, very enticing to a skier... mouth-watering even. Several times, we both stopped and vocalized, "WOW". There were some ups and downs through the glades, some views up to the Montalban Ridge, and to our goal. Some thicker areas were thrown in for good measure, and we soon popped out on Isolation Trail, at an appropriately fallen tree.
At times, while looking around, the sky appeared to be too blue. So blue, that it wasn't blue anymore. Continuing to take our time, we made it up to the ridge, and started south to our destination. Along Davis Path, we ran into the only other people we'd see, three older gentlemen out enjoying the Isolation. Views started to open up behind us as we neared the spur.
Reaching the spur, we started up. Steeply, we popped out into the open, touched one cairn on the north side of the summit, then around some scrub to the summit cairn itself. Now that the optional part of the hike was over, the interlude, and mandatory parts could commence. Not a cloud was in the sky, and barely a breath of wind was felt during our hour on top.
For a descent, there sure seemed to be a lot of uphill! As a reward, we did get to go back through the epic birch glades, both our minds wandered to skiing. While they're fairly far out there, I'd say they'd be worth the effort, just to get a chance to ski them after a storm.
In the fading light, we made it back to the trail, though really, everything was just a packed snow super-highway. It almost felt like cheating. By the time we reached the lower part of Rocky Branch, we were tired. The twilight colors were delicate, and we never needed to pull out the headlamps, as we soon reached the lot. Mandatory part of the hike, done! Our safe return to the trailhead made it official. Winter 48, done!
Dinner and a celebratory beer was had, and I can't say we didn't earn it. While today felt like cheating, because of the excellent conditions, it was worth the days of trail-breaking, sub-par weather, and epic battles with these mountains, just to get to the final peak. I was also glad to get to enjoy it, and many others, with my friend. Thanks also, to all the folks last weekend who broke out and packed down this trail, for our hiking pleasure. Without all of you, conditions like these wouldn't be possible.
What's next? Chipping away at the lists I already have going (all the lists...), only really planning to knock off the NE67 soon-ish, maybe this year, maybe not. I'll continue to redline, hoping to reach 75% by the end of the year, looking to finish next year or the year after. It's all a long game now. Daydreams abound.