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Weathering Winter in Style

Snowshoeing — After the Fall Stepping Out in Style

By Tamia Nelson

March 5, 2013

There are already tantalizing hints of spring in the Canoe Country air — the woodpeckers are drumming out their territories in the nearby pines and the redpolls are feeding up in preparation for their epic swoop north — but Farwell and I aren't fooled. General Winter won't be abandoning the field for some time yet. Which means our boats will be staying on their cradles (and in their bags) for a little while longer.

Luckily, there are other ways to get around in the backcountry, and snowshoeing has long been our favorite mode of winter travel. We're not alone in this, of course. Snowshoes make it easy to break free from the groomed trails that attract droves of skiers (not to mention packs of snowmobilers), allowing the modest plodder to strike out cross‑country more or less at will. After all, there really isn't any terrain that snowshoes can't handle, though snowshoers, like all winter wanderers, are well advised to exercise extreme care when crossing frozen lakes and streams. (The most prudent course is to avoid such crossings altogether.) Once safely off thin ice, however, there are few, if any, insurmountable barriers. Steep, forested slopes that are off‑limits to skiers pose no problems for experienced big‑footed travelers, and while snowmobiles wallow and sink helplessly in deep powder — most snow machines are now engineered to race along groomed trails at 70+ mph, while their nature‑loving riders rejoice in the hydrocarbon‑enriched fresh air whipping past their discreetly masked faces — the huffing and puffing snowshoer shuffles cheerfully through the enfolding drifts, doing her best not to look smug.

Ah, yes. The huffing and puffing snowshoer. There's no denying that snowshoeing can be hard work. Still, there are many of us who don't mind investing a little sweat equity to reap a recreational dividend. And there's a growing consensus that — within reason, at any rate — strenuous exercise is good for all ages and conditions of men and women. But I don't have to make the case for working up a sweat to an audience of paddlers, do I? It's what we do for fun. Which isn't to say that the snowshoer won't welcome a little assistance from time to time, and this help is readily available, in the form of cross‑country ski poles and basket‑equipped trekking poles. Not only do poles give you a boost under way — they allow your arms to share the work of motoring through those trackless drifts — but they also provide vital props when negotiating tricky terrain. A 180‑degree turn in place can be a bit of a struggle for the bipedal novice, but with a pair of ski poles converting her into a confident quadruped, the maneuver is easy. Well, easier, anyway.

What about you? Are you a veteran webfooted backcountry explorer, or are you only now preparing to take your first steps? If you're just stepping out, so to speak, I'd recommend Farwell's introduction to the art, supplemented by a few additional hints on my own website and my earlier column on the finer points of climbing and descending. Mostly, though, you'll learn to walk in snowshoes by … you guessed it … strapping them on and walking. It's a little like being a toddler again. And that's the rub. If you remember learning to walk — I don't, I'm afraid, but I've received reliable reports — you probably remember falling. A lot. This happens to novice snowshoers, too. And that's …

The Downside of Snowshoeing

Don't think you're exempt. It's bound to happen. Even old hands — or should it be old paws, as in bearpaws? — take a tumble now and again, and beginners often fall several times in their first hour. The falling itself isn't usually a problem. Unlike a hapless skier, falling free after catching an edge on a black diamond run, you probably won't hit a tree at 30 mph. (I did this once. I don't recommend it.) Unless there's a rock or the stub of a beaver‑gnawn sapling lurking just below the snow surface, your fall will probably be more like a comfortable collapse onto a feather bed than anything else. The problem comes afterward, when you try to get up. And the deeper and fluffier the snow, the bigger the problem. As James Stone can attest. James, whose name will be familiar to regular readers of this column, is a newish convert to snowshoeing, as is his wife, Susan. And therein lies a tale. But why not let James tell his story in his own words?

We were atop 35 or 40 inches of snow, including five inches of fresh stuff. Adrenaline-rush junkies that we are, we were experiencing the high drama associated with walking around a campground road, though we ventured off the main track when walking through the loops where campers would park their cars in warmer times. The snow seemed less compact there than on the main road so we could sink a little better and experience the advantage of snowshoes. In taking the less-traveled pathways we were sinking a little bit in the newer snow, but would also frequently break through a crust and sink another eight to 10 inches. The baskets on our trekking poles are small, like the ones used on alpine ski poles, rather than the powder baskets I would have preferred.

We both carried daypacks with survival gear. I accidentally left an accoutrement belt home that contained a multi-tool, canteen, and fire kit. But since we both love redundant systems, we had several belt and pocket knives, three fire kits and a multi-tool between us. We did get to use a piece of our emergency gear on the stroll.

We're not sure exactly what happened, but the result was Susan went down in the snow and broke through the crust. Susan thinks it was a combination of breaking through the crust and stepping on the pole basket at a critical moment that tipped her over. After breaking through the crust, she found herself in sugary snow. The temperature was below freezing, but not cold. In addition to mittens, Susan was wearing multiple light layers of wool on her upper and lower body.

First we determined she was not hurt. The sugary snow didn't provide enough support for her to stand up using the poles – they wanted to sink to Never-Never Land. Upon examination, I noticed the tails of her snowshoes overlapped a bit – not much, but she would have to move the left one first. Whenever she tried to get up, her knees would sink deeper in the sugary snow. Snow was melting on the surface of her pants, which meant she was starting to get wet.

Unlike the kayaker's wet exit, a basic technique described in many paddling guides, there isn't any discussion in snowshoe courses, books, or articles about how to get up after falling. Susan's first instinct was to get out of the snowshoes and reposition herself and then to stand up. I was concerned she'd sink deeper without snowshoes on, and that getting back into the snowshoes and out of the hole would be too much effort for this to be the first choice.

So after the initial survey, I walked around to the front of her and moved up close so she could use the front of my snowshoes as a stable platform to help herself up. First, though, we removed her daypack, which wasn't heavy, but it was an encumbrance and removing it helped a great deal. This tipped the scales in her favor. She used the poles to get her snowshoes repositioned under her, and she was able to stand on her own without further help from me.

That accomplishment came at the cost of temporary exhaustion, and Susan wanted to sit a moment. I brushed the snow off the picnic table, and knew that sitting on cold metal would sap energy and heat, which would melt what little snow remained under Susan, making her wetter still. I took a space blanket out of my pack and prepared a place to sit on the table. After sitting a few moments she was rested and we continued around the loop. We arrived at the car with her still saying she loved snowshoeing.

I attribute our success to a number of things. First, we had adequate equipment with good bindings. Second, we didn't overrun our experience level as we continued to become familiar with our equipment. Third, we had emergency supplies and used them when appropriate – as such they should be called "supplies for contingencies" because their employment prevents the contingency from becoming an emergency. And finally, when faced with an unfamiliar but potentially big-consequence situation, we examined the situation and were able to come to a resolution while still having fun.

As always, James' letter has given me plenty of food for thought. To begin with, it illustrates a vitally important point: Trouble doesn't just strike folks who are deep in the backcountry. You can get into difficulties in your own backyard. Or while taking a casual snowshoe stroll through a campground in the off‑season. (This won't come as a surprise to Farwell, who nearly drowned while paddling in a farm pond. It was, he says, his closest call to date, and he hasn't exactly led a sheltered life.) James' and Susan's experience also highlights the importance of Being Prepared — and this includes traveling in company. Solo travel is always something of a gamble, but in winter the solitary wanderer faces even longer odds. Minor misadventures that would be mere inconveniences in summer can quickly degenerate into worst‑case scenarios when the temperature is below freezing. Only a few weeks ago, the veteran polar explore Ranulph Fiennes was forced to abandon an Antarctic trek after he took off his mittens for a few minutes in sub‑zero weather in order to adjust a ski‑binding. He paid a high price for this fleeting error of judgment. The resulting frostbite left him a helpless casualty. It's a very good thing he wasn't on his own.

Of course, the Stones' story had a much happier ending, thanks in no small measure to James' and Susan's meticulous preparation for "contingencies" and their unwavering presence of mind. I'm in James' debt, too, for pointing out a glaring gap in the snowshoeing literature. Given that falling is inevitable and that getting up after a fall can be anything from awkward to (almost) impossible, why hasn't more been written about this necessary skill? Why, indeed. Well, I'm going to do something about that right now. Herewith, then, is a short primer on …

How to Get Up After Falling Down

OK. You're down. Your assignment, whether or not you choose to accept it, is to get back on your feet, quickly and easily. But I won't make it easy for you. If hard cases make bad law, as has often been asserted, they make for good examples. Anything that works when everything is against you will work even better when fortune smiles. So I'll assume the worst when I set the scene. The snow into which you've fallen is fathomless powder, far deeper than your ski poles are long. There are no trees or sturdy branches within reach. And you're alone. In short, getting up is going to be up to you. (I will assume that you're uninjured, however, and that, while you're neither a gymnast nor a contortionist, you suffer from no particular physical limitations.)

What next? Use your poles, of course. And here I'm going to give you one further advantage: Your poles have wide "powder" baskets, not the skimpy little butterfly wings intended for skiers who stay in a rut. These are the best — I'd say the only — choice for snowshoers who venture off the beaten track. And here's how to put them to work for you when you're down on your luck:

Pole Dance

Simply flounder around till your snowshoes are lying side by side — this is easy with short aluminum‑frame bearpaws, but it's quite a job with long Ojibwa‑pattern shoes — then take your hands out of the wrist loops, gather your poles together, plant the baskets, and push (A in the sketch above). Now "climb" the poles till you're on your feet again (B). (The upper hand stays put. The lower hand does the climbing.) If you're on flat ground, that's all there is to it. On a slope, however, you'll want to get your head uphill, with your snowshoes arrayed below you, perpendicular to the fall line, before you start your pole climb.

No luck? Then your baskets are too small (or the snow is a really feathery powder.) You're in no position to go shopping for new baskets, though, and you probably can't afford to wait for the snowpack to firm up, so you'll have try Plan … er … CD. If you're wearing a pack — and you should be if you're walking in winter — you can remove it and use it as a support (C in the sketch below). In fact, as Susan discovered, removing your pack can make recovering from a fall easier under almost any circumstances, especially if the pack is large, awkward, or heavy. Be careful on steep slopes, however. Packs have a disconcerting way of becoming toboggans, and it's really demoralizing to see all your carefully chosen gear slide away into the distance. (This, too, has happened to me. I don't intend to repeat the mistake.)

Bracing Weather

If, on the other hand, your pack is too small or too limp to be of much use as a platform, give the Treasure Island technique a go. On all good treasure maps, X marks the spot. So cross your poles, grab hold of them at the join (D in the sketch above), and use them as a support while you get your feet (and your snowshoes) under you. Once you've done that, rise from your squat, steadying yourself with the poles — now held as they were in the earlier sketch (A). It's not always easy, but it can be done.

There are, of course, many variations on these basic themes. And the best way to master them is to practice them. Climbers practice ice‑ax arrests. Paddlers practice wet exits, recovery rolls, and canoe‑over‑canoe rescues. Snowshoers, too, can benefit from practicing self‑rescue techniques. Just pick a time (and a place) where the penalty for failure is low. Ask a level‑headed friend to come with you, have a warming hut or lean‑to nearby, and make sure there's plenty of cocoa in the thermos. It also pays to wear waterproof pants.

What are you waiting for? Go play in the snow while you still can. Spring will be here before we know it!

The Trail Ahead

Many paddlers meet winter head‑on, snowshoeing their way through the drifts to explore familiar landscapes newly clothed in white. But all webfooted wanderers stumble sooner or later, and that's when the trouble begins, as James Stone and his wife discovered recently. Their story had a happy ending, but their experience pointed up a gap in the literature. There's a lot written about walking on snowshoes, but not much has been said about getting up once you've fallen down. With more than a little help from the Stones, however, I've made a start at righting the balance. What goes up on two legs may indeed have to come down, but that doesn't mean you can't pick yourself up after the fall and move on, does it? Certainly not. And now you know how.



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