Discovering Snowshoes

I have thought about getting a pair of snowshoes a few times over the years, but never did. The copious quantities of snow at the tail end of last year finally gave me the needed nudge. Of course, as invariably happens, all that early snow summarily thawed away on the very day the snowshoes arrived, and I haven't had a chance to play with them until this week.

Having never snowshoed before, I thought an easy potter around the Ochils might provide just the right sort of an introduction, and it did (in fact I was having so much fun, I pottered around for over six hours till the last light). Perhaps it is the fact that I Telemark, and so am used to things dangling underfoot, but I found walking in snowshoes to be an entirely natural, zero learning curve, sort of a thing.

I was pleasantly surprised by the huge reduction in effort snowshoes provide. It does not come so much from not sinking so deep, as I imagined it would have, but rather from the way in which the snowshoes glide. Even when sinking half a meter or so, you don't need to lift your foot out, rather, as the foot starts moving forward, the snowshoe floats up to the surface. I'd go as far as to say that in deep snow this requires lot less effort than skinning would have, particularly with today's wide skis.

But where the snowshoes really come into their own is coming down hill. In nice deep soft snow I am able to move at a pace that is considerably faster than I would be walking down in the summer, indeed, not far off my running pace (though, admittedly, as a runner I am a slow descender). By the same token, I now understand why snowshoers feature so prominently in avalanche victim statistics -- it's really easy to get carried away (not unlike skiing, but skiers have had avalanche awareness drilled into them for decades, and it is paying off).

When I was shopping for the snowshoes, I had a set of fairly specific requirements:

  • Mountaineering-type, so they could cope with steeper terrain (means to an end),
  • Not too heavy, so as not to be too much pain to carry when things get more interesting,
  • Suitable for the Scottish conditions, with our variable depth windblown snow cover, which means making contact with the rock beneath it time from time (i.e., steel, rather than plastic / aluminium, and not a design where the membrane is attached by wrapping it around the frame).

In the end, in spite of the eye watering cost, I settled on the MSR Lighting Ascent, which ticks all the boxes: the flat steel frame promises an all around traction, and the membrane is attached inside it, rather than wrapped. Also, they get good reviews.

I was so encouraged by my wee Ochils potter earlier in the week that yesterday I took my snowshoes for their first proper outing up and over Beinn Each onto Stuc a'Chroin and back. Ideal conditions, snow at places waist deep, and excellent fun. But also an opportunity to test the snowshoes in some more challenging terrain, including patches of steeper névé. All in all just over eight hours of true winter wonderland, of which I wore the showshoes for at least seven (they only came off for the short steep descent from Beinn Each, and the final 50m of the Stuc).

That they work well in soft snow I already knew, but I was impressed with the traction provided by the frame and the crampon when going up firm névé. The main limiting factor here is that beyond certain gradient the toe of the boot, rather than the rotating crampon, starts making contact with the ground, at which point the traction is compromised. The angle at which this happens is quite steep, steep enough to be stabbing the slope with the pick of an ice axe, rather than the spike, once the real crampons come on.

I got caught out this way on a short section of the Stuc. The main problem was not so much that I wasn't wearing real crampons, but that I was still using poles, while on a gradient that really called for an ice axe. Awkward shuffling off to a gentler slope to get the proper tools out followed (obviously, this is not a fault of the snowshoes, but a simple error of judgement).

Similarly, traction descending on firm névé is excellent, and broadly speaking, I found that I can descend comparable gradient to what I can sensibly ascend. In deep snow, however, the snowshoes become problematic on very steep ground, they have a tendency to run away more easily than just boots, and you can't really bum slide very well with them on. (And again, you will quite likely find yourself with poles rather than an axe.)

The main limitation of the MSR Lightning Ascent is poor lateral rigidity; this is a feature of the frame design (though the bindings don't help, on that below), and it makes traversing a firm slope very awkward. I have quickly realised that for short sections it is much more efficient to sidestep such ground, facing into the slope, but best of all is to pick a different line where possible, or to put the crampons on.

The bindings I am not hugely impressed with. They are designed to fit a variety of boots (I expect I could make them fit the Sorels I use to clear the drive), but really the best thing I can say about them is that they are easy to get out of fast. They are hard to tension right when putting them on, and two or three stops were needed each time to make adjustments. This does not improve the lateral stiffness either -- I am thinking for this sort of a technical snowshoe it would make sense to have crampon style step in bindings.

But all in all, would I buy them again? Definitely! Should have done so long time ago.