Off‑Season? No Way!
Weathering Winter in Style —
Snowshoeing Ups and Downs
By Tamia Nelson
February 1, 2011
Winter comes early to Canoe Country, and it lingers long. In fact, "Canoe Country" could be labeled "Snowshoe Country" with just about equal accuracy, and restless canoeists often strap on snowshoes almost as soon as they hang up their paddles, revisiting familiar landscapes now magically transformed by mantles of white. I'm no exception, though I have to admit that by February I'm looking forward to spring and the seasonal surge of snowmelt‑swollen waters. Some hope! While the days have grown noticeably longer in February, it's often the coldest month of the year in the Adirondack foothills that constitute my extended backyard. Winter's grip hasn't loosened, in other words. The spring of the waters is still many weeks away.
Luckily, I can escape to the woods whenever time permits. It's …
As Easy as Walking
At least that's the promise of a lot of catalog copy. And I've often heard someone say, "Snowshoeing? What's to learn? Just put 'em on and walk." Or words to that effect. But while it's true that snowshoeing isn't as difficult to master as, say, cross‑country skiing, it's certainly not as straightforward as walking down the drive to get your mail. It's also strenuous. This is particularly true if you plan to leave the beaten track. Snowshoeing through fresh drifts makes significant demands on both legs and heart, easily equaling the effort required to hump a load over a portage trail in warmer months. This is both good and bad. Good, because it means that snowshoeing is excellent exercise. (Some pro cyclists actually resort to snowshoes in winter to break the tedium of going nowhere on an indoor trainer.) But it's not so good if your heart or legs aren't up to the job. The moral of the story? Check with a doc if you have any doubts. A winter trail isn't the best place to have your first heart attack.
Happily, most paddlers are active folks and therefore reasonably fit. For us, snowshoeing has much to offer. Modern 'shoes make things easier, too. While they lack the elegance of traditional ash and babiche snowshoes — not to mention the older designs' efficiency in knifing through deep powder — today's fabric‑decked, aluminum‑framed 'shoes outperform traditional webs on slopes and in dense woods. They're lightweight and low‑maintenance, too, and modern snowshoes' rigid bindings eliminate the disconcerting floppiness that characterized many old‑style leather harnesses. Of course, navigating on web feet can still feel a little unsteady, at least at first. A pair of ski poles is a great help here. (Choose backcountry poles with large baskets, rather than the diminutive affairs used by cross‑country racers.)
At least there's no need for special kit. Just dress as you would for any winter walk. Leave your jeans and cotton tees in the closet, substituting layers of fleece and wool. Pay particular attention to your footwear. Cold feet are never much fun, and they can be a serious problem, especially if your circulation isn't up to par. I used to wear wellies on all but the coldest days, and they worked fine. Now that wellies have doubled in price and become hard to find, however, I prefer NEOS Trekkers or Explorers — the former in warm‑wet conditions, the latter in cold‑dry. These modern‑day mukluks are perfect snowshoeing footwear.
So… What about it? Are you tempted to strap on a pair of snowshoes and explore the winter woods? Good! In an earlier article for Paddling.net Farwell went into some detail about getting started, and I've recently added a few tips of my own elsewhere. But there's one subject that neither of our articles touches on: climbing. Even comparatively gentle grades can present difficulties for folks who are new to web‑footed walking, and steep slopes can challenge all but the most accomplished winter mountaineers. Canoe Country isn't flat, and if you like going off‑trail, you'll soon find yourself climbing or descending. That being the case, it pays to get in a little practice first. In other words, if roughing it has no charms, and if you like to avoid painful "adventures," it's a good idea to …
Learn the Ropes on Easy Slopes
Let's tackle 'em together. It snowed overnight, and there's about a foot of light powder on a three‑ to six‑inch base cloaking the hills. Our 'shoes are Redfeather Eagles, with stainless‑steel crampons permanently fixed to the sole, and we remembered to bring our poles. Today's destination is the slope in the picture below. (If you click on any of the following photos, you'll get a larger image in a new window. Note that I used a wide‑angle lens. It sometimes makes the trees look as if they're leaning to the side, but it doesn't exaggerate the steepness of the slope.)
What will we find when we get to the top? Wait and see! We've got to climb the hill first, after all. Our plan of attack is show by the red line in this picture:
We'll head straight up until the slope opens out. Then we'll switchback our way to the gap in the pines. Starting off, we take short strides, being careful to plant our 'shoes squarely in the snow, insuring that the crampons engage fully. We use our poles to best advantage, too, seating the baskets a little behind our 'shoes, in order to check any tendency to slip back. This also brings our arms into play as we climb, easing the strain on our calf muscles.
So far, so good. Now it's time for us to leave the fall line and start our switchback ascent. This has the effect of reducing the apparent slope, but it requires extra care. To avoid sideslipping, we edge our 'shoes into the slope. This is easily done, however, and in just a few minutes we're already well on our way:
The red line shows our route; the blue indicates the direction of the fall line. Had we slipped at any point, we'd have followed the fall line straight back down the slope. This illustrates one advantage of switchbacking: In really steep terrain, it reduces the likelihood that a tumbling climber will take one or more companions along with her. That's good, to be sure, but it's still a wise idea to keep a little distance between you and your neighbors when climbing. There's such a thing as too much togetherness!
Having caught our breaths, it's back to climbing. We alternate straight attacks on the easier slopes with switchbacks in places where the gradient steepens. And after a little while, we again stop for a breather:
We're looking straight down the fall line here, and some of our track is hidden by the break in the slope. Next, we'll tackle a steep gully, a place where the fragile soil has been ripped away by the cleated tires of ATVs. Winter snows hide the scars, but come spring they'll be visible for all to see. (All who choose to look, at any rate.) The view ahead:
Looks steep, doesn't it? And it is. But there's not much room to switchback here, so we'll be heading right up the fall line. As before, we plant our 'shoes squarely to maximize the crampons' "bite," while relying on our poles to check any backward slip. In the steepest spots, we take a leaf out of the mountaineers' book, kicking the toes of our 'shoes into the snow and creating a platform from which to launch our next step. All goes well. Before we know it, the slope opens up again and the gradient eases. Now we've reached the gap in the pines that we saw when we started out. First, though, here's a look at the way we've come:
And the prospect ahead? This:
Pristine snow and a brilliant cerulean sky are our reward. It's time to stop for a snack and a few swigs from a water bottle. But we won't stand around here very long. The wind is picking up, and the freshening breeze has a cutting edge. Instead, let's follow the ridgeline for a short distance and pick a place to climb back down into the valley.
Ah, yes. Climb down. That should be easier than trudging up, right? Well, think again. As luck would have it, …
It's No Easier Going Down …
Than climbing up. Not convinced? You will be. We're headed for another narrow gully, and our first few steps show exactly what the problem is. Lean too far forward and you tumble head over heels. But lean too far back, and you find yourself tobogganing down the slope on your rump. The answer? Hold yourself erect. Move deliberately. Plant your snowshoes firmly and evenly while placing your poles a little ahead of your 'shoes with each step. Be careful, but not timid. Toujours de l'audace! Confidence is all. Timidity invites backsliding. Literally. (Be sure your bindings are snug, of course, and tighten your pack straps so your rucksack doesn't sway and throw you off balance.) All set? Then it's time to go down:
Here, too, the ATV riders have been at play, gouging yet more soil from these fragile slopes. But as before, most of the damage they've done is hidden by snow. All we can see today is the gully that is their enduring legacy, now marked by the barely perceptible track of a wandering fox. We'll follow him (or her) right down the fall line, but we'll play it safe, sidestepping in the places where the slope is steepest. It's a bit awkward, but it beats tumbling down the hill. Just turn till you face across the slope, plant one pole above you and one below, and sidestep down, leading off with your lower 'shoe. Now follow up, bringing the other 'shoe alongside. Repeat as often as necessary. Plant poles. Step down. Follow up. Plant poles. Step down. Follow up. And so on, for as long as it takes.
A couple of cautions are in order here: Keep erect. Keep your distance from your companions. (There's nothing like entangling ski poles with your neighbor to send you both toppling.) And keep your wits about you. If your 'shoes start sliding sideways, simply swing your heels inboard a fraction to shift your weight toward the inner (upslope) edge of the frames. Easy does it, though. You don't want to overdo it.
There! We've made it down the steepest stretch. Here's a look back up the slope:
Notice the bare spots? The gully is sheltered from the wind, so snow doesn't drift as deep here as it does elsewhere. Those areas of exposed frozen ground can be treacherous, however, particularly on descents. Special care is needed.
And what happens if a slope is too steep to sidestep? That's a good reason to look for another way down. But if you're surprised by a steepening gradient in mid‑descent, you can sometimes swing both poles round and plant them below you to provide additional support. Really steep slopes are the province of mountaineering, of course. You many even have to remove your 'shoes and strap crampons on your boots. At such times, a climber's ice ax is a necessity, not a luxury. But we've managed without one today, and the way ahead is easier now. We can even walk normally, without sidestepping, always being careful not to lean too far forward (or back). Soon we're at the bottom of the pitch. Once again we turn round to see where we've been:
We're almost done. One more easy gully, and a short open stretch that's wide enough to permit switchbacking — this works going down, as well as up — and we're back on the flats.
Exhilarating, wasn't it? And just tiring enough to let us know that we've earned our fun, exploring the world outside our door under our own steam, at a pace that allows us to savor what we see. It's time to fuel up and take five. Crack the thermos for some hot cocoa. Shrug off our pack straps, find a warm spot in the sun, and chill out for a few minutes while we review …
The Fine Points of Snowshoeing Up and Down
Not all guidelines are hard and fast, of course — each of us has his or her own way of doing things — but these are pretty near universal:
Plan Ahead Arguably the most important rule of all. Remember that going down is almost always harder and more dangerous than climbing up. So before you climb, ask yourself how you'll get down. And be sure you have an answer.
Mind Your Attitude That's "attitude" as pilots use the word. Don't lean too far into the slope, and don't lean too far out. If you don't want to fall, stand tall.
A Little Local Knowledge Goes a Long Way It's good to know if a steep slope ends suddenly in a sheer drop. It's even better to know this before you start to slide down it.
Keep Your Distance When climbing in company — and you should be; winter isn't a good time for solo travel — don't cling to your companions. If somebody's going to fall, it's better for everyone concerned if he doesn't take anyone else with him. (Snowshoe crampons and ski poles are sharp. Separation is the key to safety here.)
Too Steep? Then Try Sidestepping It works going uphill, as well as down.
Anticipate Avalanches These aren't a problem on most forested slopes in Canoe Country, but if you're tackling steep terrain above tree line, it pays to learn as much as you can about avalanche hazards. A remote peak is no place to be swept away.
That's it. Too much chilling out isn't a good idea, anyway. Let's head back into the warm. We've had a pleasant climb, but now it's time for a hot shower and a massage. The hills will still be here tomorrow.
When the northern rivers that were the highways of the 19th‑century fur trade froze over, the Hudson's Bay Company's "servants" swapped their paddles for snowshoes. We modern‑day paddlers in the higher latitudes often do the same. And it's an art almost anyone can master. So don't let the ups and downs discourage you from trying a web‑footed walk through some of your favorite places. Winter's not over yet, after all. The La‑Z‑Boy can wait.
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