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: