Mt. Isolation wants to be left alone
I had had no real trouble during the Mt. Tecumseh climb the previous weekend, so Ethan planned a trip for bagging Mt. Isolation this weekend. It was his last peak to bag for his second time through the 48 4K list and I obviously needed it as well. We would not be alone for this hike though, as Ethan’s wife, Summerset, would be joining us as well. Summerset is something of a hiking celebrity in these parts, having completed a through-hiking of the Appalachian Trail a few years back, this summer doing (nearly all of – barring trails closed due to fires) the Pacific Crest Trail, and being ever closer to done with the 4K grid.
Ethan and I, but let’s be honest, mostly I, would be the limiting factor on this hike.
Somerset had a couple of hiking friends along as well, each of them extremely accomplished in their own rights, again, I would be the one limiting our group performance.
I rolled out of bed around 0445 to get ready and over to Ethan’s house for a 0530 departure, with the goal of hitting the trail by 0800. Somerset had estimated around 8 hours for the 14.5-mile trip, which seemed pretty reasonable to my untrained brain. That would put us at an average of around 1.8 MPH, which is, I would later learn perfectly respectable in the whites.
We actually arrived at the trail head at 0730 and our hiking partners had beaten us there, so we were on the trail by around 0745.
On the Rocky Branch Trail
The trail was relatively easy going, to begin with, with a fair bit of climbing out of the gate, with a fair amount of vertical gain in the first two miles.
Since Ethan is “redlining” (and I may as well too), he and I wouldn’t be taking any bush-whacks to avoid stream crossings, while our hiking mates would. This meant a total of 4 stream crossings, but they were all quite easy, especially since the water levels were low.
The climb up was going really well. As I discussed in my previous post, Taekwondo has prepped my legs for a lot of heavy lifting, which, as I still have quite a bit of weight to drop, is still very much the case for me. We stopped briefly at the intersection of the Engine Hill Bushwhack, which is marked with a big “T” carved into the tree at the junction. I converted my pants into shorts here, and was much happier for it, as it was a muggier day than we had anticipated.
When we reached the junction for Isolation trail, we were cruising along pretty well. I was pleased to be making what I felt was good progress, though I wasn’t monitoring our time, it just felt like a good pace.
The stream crossings came and went without much event, though I did stop to refill and purify one of my water bottles at the final one. I had burned through what I thought was 1L of water already, and I’d only brought 2L, so I figured better to do it now and let the water purification tablets have plenty of time to do their microorganism murdering duties.
It turns out that I had grabbed the wrong secondary water bottle and it was only a 750ml, so I wasn’t doing as poorly as I had thought, having only consumed 750ml of water.
A valuable lesson
I had ordered new equipment for this hike, as I knew this was a completely different ballgame than Tecumseh. New hiking/trail running shoes, convertible pants, wicking shirts, merino wool socks and wicking headbands. You see, I’m a sweater. I sweat. Lots.
It turns out my headbands and socks went to Florida, which is, you know, sort of the opposite direction of New Hampshire. That means I wouldn’t have my headbands for this hike, which would be inconvenient because that means sweat drips onto my glasses, which makes it hard to see. I could, of course, get contacts, and I plan to do so, but oh man, by the end of the day I was wishing I had those headbands.
Back to how much I sweat, because I know you’re super interested in that. Kidding aside, this is relevant, because as we neared the peak of Mt Isolation itself, my calves began to protest a bit. I chalked it up to the copious stepping stone activity as we picked our way through the muddy wet areas being something my calves weren’t particularly accustomed to, and I’m sure I was at least partly correct. As we got yet closer to the top they protested a bit more and started to feel like they might seize up altogether. This largely subsided as we reached the peak and I sat, stretched, ate and drank a little bit and captured a terrible, terrible mountaintop selfie.
It was cold at the peak, with a stiff wind blowing in from seemingly everywhere. The cloud cover was obscuring most of the view anyway, and we wanted to get off of the peak quickly and get started on the trip back down.
We made it a mile or two before my calves started to bother me again, but I knew that if I just worked through it, they would probably loosen up, so I persisted.
Through one of the less technical sections Ethan, who was leading, started to pour on a bit of speed, and while I was able to keep up without too much trouble, I did have an inner thigh “charlie horse”, which I’m now fairly certain was my sartorius muscle seizing up.
I didn’t think that dehydration was my problem, as I had been drinking what I thought was plenty of fluids to keep up with my output. Looking back at it, I believe I actually had over-hydrated and diluting my electrolytes such that my muscles were cramping.
Ethan adjusted the group’s pace on my behalf, and in lieu of stopping, for fear that the muscle would seize more, I worked through it, and again, it subsided a bit. We continued on and with about 3 miles remaining, I had simply hit a wall. It really seemed that far more leaves had fallen onto the path in the 4 hours since we set off on this journey, which made roots and rocks harder to see and navigate, let alone my mental and physical fatigue. All of these compounded such that I was having a hard time finding good footing, which was beating up my knees and hips more than one would hope.
“Embracing the suck.”
We were all seemingly in our own mental places and were hiking largely silently, but at some point in the last couple of miles Ethan asked me “How you doing back there?”. I’d been taking a bit of mental inventory for the last few miles and had arrived at “embracing the suck”, and responded as such. It really is funny how you can embrace the current hardship, re-framing it on the fly. At this point, every step hurt. My neck hurt from staring nearly straight down so I could see through my sweat-streaked glasses, my knees and hips hurt from the abuse they were taking from my terrible footing choices, largely due to my fatigue from not knowing my own fluid intake requirements. Every step hurt, but I was able to embrace that and in some perverse way, enjoy it. I knew that each time I put one foot in front of the other, I was tearing down muscle that would rebuild stronger once I had some protein and a good night’s rest. Beyond that, I knew that each step I took got me closer to the parking lot and I won’t begin to lie, that was a major motivator at that point.
Battered, but not broken or beaten.
We reached the bottom. I immediately changed into a dry shirt, took my wet shoes and socks off and collapsed into Ethan and Somerset’s car. Ethan had a bottle of Gatorade in the car, which I pounded down in short order, and I attempted to change into dry socks, but between muscle cramps and wet (but warm, thank you wool!) feet, I just had to wait. I had leg cramps for the better part of an hour, but we passed the time reviewing the accomplishments of the day.
Ethan had bagged peak #48 for his second time through, I had bagged an arduous trail to grab peak #2 for myself, and it turns out we’d done it in just under 7 hours, which means we averaged around 2.1 mph, which is apparently a darned good speed for a novice. With a better hydration plan, we would have made even better time if we hadn’t had to slacken our pace for my worn out muscles.
Mt Isolation is a beast of a hike, especially for a novice. There are sections that are delightful, with nice spruce and fir sections that smelled lovely and provided nice scenery. There was also still plenteous evidence of Hurricane Irene’s work on the mountain, with lots of wind-sheared trees which have been cut away by the trail maintainers.
- I continue to be pleasantly surprised at my cardiovascular conditioning, this will only get better, but I wasn’t huffing and puffing that much, so I feel reasonably happy about this hike
- My muscle endurance will continue to improve as I add more hikes and learn to hydrate in a more balanced way
- I need those headbands – they will be key in helping me keep my vision clear and prevent my neck from being craned over, causing neck muscle fatigue
- Electrolytes – in the near term, I am going to switch to fluids with electrolytes in them, until I can better understand and manage my fluid intake requirements
- Water reservoir – being able to sip water without having to take a water bottle out and tip my head back to drink will be very helpful.
- This was a beast of a hike for my second 4k – I’m pretty proud of it, even if I didn’t “destroy” it. At least it didn’t destroy me!
It looks like Monroe and Washington are up next, coming in at 5,372 ft (1,637 m) and 6,288.2 ft (1,916.6 m), respectively. I’ve never really understood the whole “This car climbed Mount Washington” bumper stickers because that’s hardly a feat for a modern car anymore, but I do look forward to being able to say “I climbed Mount Washington”, that’ll certainly be quite a feat for this hiking newbie!