Snowshoeing 101: tips for winter adventurers

Snowshoeing 101: tips for winter adventurers

Halfway up the ridge leading to Skyline Lake near Stevens Pass, a heavy snowdrift sat as a near-vertical 4-foot wall in our path. Climbers would simply kick the toe of their boots deep into the face of the drift, plunge their ax in and climb the small wall of snow. But what about snowshoers? Turns out, web-footed snow hikers should do the same thing. Our group, mostly novices, easily climbed up and over the drift to continue on up to the ridgetop. When you're on snowshoes and you encounter steep ascents, going straight up usually proves to be the safest and most effective means of getting up the obstacle. In fact, you should use that kick-step move perfected by alpine climbers. Simply pretend you don't have snowshoes on: Kick the toe of your boot through the toe-hole in the front of the snowshoe, plunge your trekking pole in next to your boot, and climb up. By driving your toe straight into the snow-face, you force the snowshoe's forward crampons into the snow as deeply as possible, while also giving you as firm a foothold as possible. Keep your kick-steps close together and always have three points of contact (both hands on well-planted poles, and one foot kicked in, for instance) firmly on the snow.

If you can walk ...

The common refrain when introducing someone new to the world of snowshoeing is, "If you can walk, you can walk on snowshoes." That statement fails to address the many nuances of snowshoeing, though. As detailed above, there are many scenarios where simply being able to walk won't help you much. In addition to going up, going down poses potential problems — especially steep slopes. Watching even experienced snowshoers slipping and tumbling down from Mount Rainier's Panorama Point proved this point. What's the problem? Walkers generally descend steep slopes by keeping their weight slightly back, so if they fall, they fall on their well-padded bums. Get your weight back during a snowshoe descent, though, and those snowshoes easily become miniature toboggans on your feet, especially in soft snow or on snowshoes without substantial rear traction. For a safer descent on snowshoes, flex your knees and slightly bend at the waist like a skier, keeping your weight centered over the balls of your feet. This puts all your weight over the snowshoe's crampon teeth and gives you the flexibility to respond to any slipping or sliding without simply falling. You should also reach out in front with your trekking poles on each downward stride to help guide and brace you. If you have adjustable poles, extend them out to greater length so you have better reach downhill.

Crossing hills

Adjustable poles can also be a great benefit when traversing (i.e. going across) a steep hillside. Lengthen the downhill pole and shorten the uphill one so your hands are parallel in front of you. That helps keep you balanced, and makes for easier walking. As you traverse, focus on keeping your snowshoes pointing straight forward in the direction you want to travel, and keeping your feet centered on the snowshoe deck. The tendency is to let the snowshoe tails swing downhill but that allows slipping, and makes you work much harder than you need to. Finally, there will come a time in every snowshoer's experience when you'll hit a dead end, at which point you'll either need to turn around or back up. Either option poses problems, though, as snowshoe tails tend to drag on a tight turn, or drop and dig in when trying to move backward. Somehow you need to keep those tails up and the snowshoes tight to your foot. But how? The easiest means of backing up, or turning 180 degrees in close quarters, is to simply use your trekking poles to push down on the toe of the snowshoe, thus lifting the tail. You can now step back without burying the tails and tumbling over.

Safety first

Before heading out to try these techniques, though, there's the most important action to perform: Evaluate the avalanche conditions of your chosen destination. Fortunately, this can be done quickly and easily thanks to the Northwest Avalanche Center. Every time you plan to venture out into the snowy mountains, first log into the center's website,, or call them at 206-526-6677, to get the latest updates on snow conditions and dangers. Additionally, you should know the warning signs of avalanche conditions. The danger of avalanche is found anywhere there is a slope with snow on it. Sometimes the danger is minimal, sometimes a slide is inevitable, and frequently you won't be able to tell the difference by looking at the hillside. Knowledge of current snow conditions, recent weather patterns, and future weather forecasts are all necessary to help you understand and evaluate the avalanche danger on a given day, in a given area. All avalanches start with unstable snow-snow that isn't bonded to the hillside. Avalanches are of two primary types: slab avalanches occur when large solid sections of snow break away at once, and loose snow avalanches occur when unattached snow crystals slide down a slope, dislodging more and more snow as they go. A quick study of the slope ahead of you can reveal clues to avalanche potential. First, estimate the steepness of the slope. Avalanches are most common on a slope of 30 to 45 degrees, but they can and do release on slopes as gentle as 25 degrees or as steep as 65 or more degrees. Second, take note of the profile of the slope. A slope with a convex profile-that is, it bulges out a bit-is more likely to slide than a concave slope. Third, look at the exposure of the slope. A north-facing slope may be slower to stabilize than other slopes because it doesn't receive as much direct sunlight, and therefore the snow doesn't settle and compact as quickly. A leeward slope tends to become wind-loaded with unstable snow more often than a windward slope, since a windward slope generally has less snow, and what is there is more compacted by the wind. Wind is a major contributor to avalanche hazards, and the higher and more prolonged the wind, the greater the threat of avalanche. Other visible clues to avalanche danger include the following:
  • Sticky snow, which indicates the surface snow is warmer than the snow below.
  • Evidence of recent avalanches. If you see a slope that has apparently slid in the last 24 hours or so, consider it a good indication that snow conditions are unstable.
  • Hollow drumming or "whomping" sounds coming from the snow underfoot indicate slab conditions, and a high potential for release.
  • Rime ice on trees. This build-up of ice and frost suggests there were high winds during a recent storm, and therefore chances are good that leeward slopes are highly wind-loaded and likely to slide.
  • Broken limbs and/or snow plastered to the uphill side of trees shows past avalanche occurrence. A slope that slides once will slide again after the next storm.
Understanding and recognizing these signs isn't all there is to know about avoiding avalanche danger. This discussion simply serves as a brief primer on the subject. More detailed information is readily available in a number of excellent books, including The ABCs of Avalanche Safetyby E. R. LaChapelle (The Mountaineers Books, 1985).  
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