Venturing Above Treeline

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They don’t call it Mt. Isolation because it’s easy to get to. By the time you’re at the peak, you’re at least six miles from civilization in all directions, surrounded by the towering Presidential Mountain Range, and well, covered in dirt. At only 4,004 feet, it’s the second shortest 4,000 footer, but by taking the Glen Boulder Trail, I had to hike up over a 5,000+ foot ridge that leads to Mt. Washington and other Presidential mountains, then descend to the peak. I have to admit; it feels a little weird to work so hard to get over 5,000 feet, only to drop 1,000 feet to actually summit. There are two ways up Mt. Isolation; a longer but steadier direct route, or a steeper, wilder, rocky route chock full of peaks and valleys. My dad and I went with the latter.

About two or three steps into the trail from the parking lot, we hit the up. I could write pages about my sweat and exhaustion on these first two difficult miles, but let me just sum it up with – It was steep. Oh-so-painfully-steep.

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Rocks and bushes above the treeline

Treeline: The edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing…. Beyond the tree line, trees cannot tolerate the environmental conditions. 

The feeling of hiking above the treeline is difficult to explain. There’s the lung-cutting air; the brilliance of the sun; the chilling winds that raise goosebumps even on sticky summer days. With no trees to block the view, the surrounding blue mountains engulf the sky. Even though I had a beautiful, 70-degree and sunny day, I could not stop picturing the harsh storms and weather that rip through these peaks, preventing mighty trees from taking root. Last fall, on a cold and windy day, I was above treeline on Mt. Jackson. I remember hiding behind a frost-coated rock, pulling my hat over my eyes as my dad was searching for his lost crampon. High-speed wind full of ice particles whipped my raw skin. Like the mighty ocean, the treeline is both beautiful and powerful.

As my dog Zealand, my dad and I neared the alpine zone, the trees stopped crowding each other out, becoming small and twisted. At last, they disappeared altogether and only small gnarled shrubs and grasses existed on the rocks. Height is only a handicap for plants in the alpine zone.

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My dad and Zealand on the trail

I don’t have a great picture of the rocks at the beginning of the above-treeline ascent, but I was scrambling on all fours to scale and climb around hefty and jagged boulders. Several times I had to heave Zealand’s back legs up the steep rocks. Zee was very anxious coming down the rocks on our way back. She cried on the ledge, her paws hanging over. My dad and I had to coax her with treats and carry her down certain sections. Tip: if you are bringing your dog on a rocky trail, have him/her wear a harness. It is useful if you must carry your dog.

Above the treeline, there is no shelter. The sun beats down onto the rocks and alpine grass. I was only partially prepared for the intense sun because while I had sunscreen, I forgot my sunglasses and hat. I wished out loud for glasses, but my pack had none to give. My dad offered my his sweat-drenched baseball cap, but I refused to mix my sweat with his. A couple strides after I wished for glasses, trail magic struck. Trail magic is a term used on the Appalachian Trail for unexpected acts of kindness or small miracles for hikers. I experienced a bit of trail magic when I found a pair of sunglasses perched upon the top of a cairn (piles of rocks that take the place of painted trail blazes above the treeline). It was as if the trail knew my sunglasses were at the bottom of some sandy beach bag instead of in my pack. They were a little funky-looking but totally kept the sun out of my eyes. Thanks, trail gods!!

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My new shades

The Glen Boulder Trail is named for its famous boulder that sticks out above the treeline. We met a few hikers that journeyed up just to see the boulder. Here’s a picture of me and Zealand taking a short break in the shade as we pass by the big rock.

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Glen Boulder
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My dad and I with the view from under the Glen Boulder

After logging many more miles above the treeline climbing up the Presidential Ridge, we arrived at the turnoff to descend to the peak. The phrase, “descend to the peak” sounds oxymoronic, but Mt. Isolation is a unique mountain. As we descended, we ducked back into the treeline and there, the rocky ground was replaced with muck. Thank goodness my hiking boots were waterproof. I didn’t wear gators on this hike because they were rubbing my sunburned calves (the result of a last day of school afternoon at the beach), but they would have been helpful to keep out the mud.

After a long downhill, we faced a short and steep uphill section to reach the crest. At last, I summited Isolation, my 37th 4,000+ foot mountain! We had an incredible and rare view from the peak. Usually, on top of a mountain, you look down upon other hills or lakes, and see similar mountains in the distance. On Mt. Isolation, I was surrounded by towering Presidential mountains and looking up at Mt. Washington and the ridge I had just climbed. I could see Mt. Monroe, the mountain I was planning to hike the following day. I felt so meager on my shorter mountain, even though I had to ascend a brutal and tall ridge to reach it. When we were ready to head back down, it was not “all downhill from there” like it is from every other 4,000 footer. We still had to hike back up the ridge before we could hike down.

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Top of Isolation; surrounded by Presidential Mountains
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Zealand enjoying the peak
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Mt. Isolation peak marker

Mt. Isolation has been one of the coolest hikes in the White Mountains I’ve done. It has a little of everything; some sheltered hiking, some above-treeline hiking, some scrambling, some gradual trekking, and a whole lot of steep. We had a beautiful day with the sun and a breeze above treeline. This hike was how I spent my first day of summer after studying for and taking finals in all of my classes the previous week. It was the perfect way to start summer and recharge in nature after spending at least two weeks inside, staring at textbooks, notes, study guides and my laptop.  Mt. Isolation = kickoff to summer 2018!

Tips For Hiking Above the Treeline

1. Pack Layers

The weather can change fast and frequently above the treeline. With no shelter, any weather is magnified and more dramatic than it would be under the cover of trees. Be prepared to face strong sun or heavy rain, and most importantly, untempered wind. Bring a windbreaker/rain jacket, gloves and a hat. Layers are crucial, and zip-off pants that transform into shorts are key. I have seen this sign several times before venturing above the treeline:

sign

Bring (and apply!) sunscreen

Although bringing sunscreen will add to your pack weight, it is very important to bring, especially if you have fair skin like I do. With such great exposure, the sun is strong even on cloudy days. On this Mt. Isolation hike, I was burned behind my ears even though I applied sunscreen. If you don’t want to carry a whole bottle in your pack, bring a little in a plastic bag. I also recommend sunglasses and a hat with a brim (but make sure the hat is tight and can’t be swept away in the wind!)

Understand your map

It is very easy to get caught in an unpredicted storm when above treeline, so make sure you bring a map and understand where you are so you can quickly take shelter in case of emergency. Never be on a ridgeline in a thunderstorm.  Lightening is dangerous and rain makes the rocks slick. And remember to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Enjoy the amazing view

This isn’t really a tip, but I just want to say that even though it is difficult, hiking above the treeline is an experience like no other. It truly is breathtaking.

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Zealand chilling on the side of a mountain

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