Snowshoeing season

Crunch Time: Snowshoeing lets outdoor enthusiasts embrace winter peacefully
The Sacramento Bee, February 17, 2004


Not everyone who enjoys winter sports yearns to be traveling at insanely high speeds.

While the downhill thrill lures many to the slopes, others are answering a more laid-back call: Come to the snow, and shoe.

Boarding and skiing are great fun, but so is the winter-sports family’s more pedestrian cousin: snowshoeing.

“It’s the fifth-fastest-growing sport in the country,” says REI salesman Raul Reynon, who regularly snowshoes himself. He says he’s seeing more and more people in both the backcountry and in the store, asking about the sport.

“We’re seeing hikers getting into it, and now we’re seeing a lot of skiers, too, because the resorts are getting so expensive,” he says. “Plus, it’s quiet, you don’t have to deal with crowds, you don’t have to worry about going on the weekend, you don’t need a helmet and the entry costs, in terms of equipment, are pretty low.”

Linda Hite doesn’t need to be sold on snowshoeing. Hite, 47, lives in Sacramento but she heads for the mountains every weekend, says her boyfriend, Herbert Cooley, 57, also of Sacramento.

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” she says, “And if you can hike, you can snowshoe to some gorgeous spots.

“The virgin snow, just pristine, untouched by anyone, is so beautiful,” she says, listing the places she goes on her shoes: Echo Lake, Echo Summit, Pyramid Peak above Horsetail Falls in Desolation Wilderness, Round Top, Castle Peaks.

“You can do it anywhere,” she says.

And it gets her out in the winter.

“I’m not a good skier, so this is more fun for me,” she says, holding a pair of snowshoes in her arms. She’s already got hers; she’s buying these for Cooley, who is less enthusiastic but concedes he’s “starting to get into it. I like being out there, it’s pretty, and quiet.”

One place novices are getting into it is at Northstar at Tahoe, a ski resort between Truckee and Tahoe’s north shore. Northstar has instituted two snowshoe trips, one led by a naturalist on every Sunday morning and the other monthly, on the full moon (through April).

On the last full moon, earlier this month, a group of 21 snowshoe-shod hikers left Northstar’s Nordic Center at the top of the gondola at dusk, walking off into the waning light and growing cold in search of a different kind of snow experience.

While the image of snowshoeing by moonlight can be romantic, all pure light and soft sounds, the reality might be different:

* Turns out it snows in the Sierra, and did on this trip – which blocked the sky (and it was too early for the moon to come up).

* Though the shoes are easy to walk in – even to run in – hiking at altitude is a workout. Banter among the group’s members subsided as they focused on breathing.

* Rather than softly floating through the powder, we’re crunching over a groomed Nordic trail, used during the day by cross-country skiers.

Metal scraping crunchy snow, the group made its way up a fire road, shunk, shunk, shunk, through the forest.

Gary Walsh, 46, had driven up from San Jose for a Tahoe weekend, including some snowshoeing. This was just his speed.

“I don’t like to downhill ski, or even cross-country,” he says, “This is about my max. I’ve been doing it about two years, once or twice a winter. Now I’m getting Tammy involved in it.”

His friend Tammy Turnipseed was enjoying herself, and glad her first nighttime snowshoe hike was with an organized group.

“I’m a novice, and I don’t want to get out too far in an area that I don’t know, especially when it’s snowing, and especially at night,” she says.

That’s good thinking, says group leader Jerry Colligan, a ski instructor at Northstar. On the way up the hill, he said snowshoeing gets more popular every year, and not just in the resorts.

“I’m seeing more and more snowshoers in the backcountry,” Colligan says. “I saw 30-40 kids out there the other day.”

Then, he gave his warning about snowshoeing in the backcountry.

“There are definitely safety issues,” Colligan says. “It’s important not to tackle too steep a slope, and if there are cornices visible, stick to the meadows. One of those cornices can come right down on top of you.

“And you can get lost,” he adds. “If you’ve ever been in a whiteout, you know how lost you can get.”

The Northstar group was facing no danger greater than the possibility that the promised full moon might not show. Snow was falling, and there was no light on the eastern horizon. But Colligan led the group into a clearing in the trees, where sat an old railroad caboose, a warm glow shining through its ancient windows.

Beside it, a bonfire burned on top of – and progressively, down into – the snow. Inside the caboose: cold water, hot chocolate and fixings to make s’mores over the fire.

Most gathered by the fire, a few others went inside the warm caboose.

But the fire was more fun, and a small group of hikers broke into a goofy, impromptu campfire singalong.

After a while, when everyone was rested and fed, the hikers put their snowshoes back on and headed down the mountain.

Halfway down the track, the payoff came: the snow stopped, the clouds broke and a full, silvery moon peeked through trees, casting great white shadows on the mounded snow and drawing oohs and ahhs from the group.

On the way back down Village Run, the beginners ski run that leads back to Northstar Village, the hikers spread out into twos and threes as they headed back, tired, but reveling in the increasing light of the rising moon.

“Gorgeous!” shouted one woman as she cruised down Village Run toward the end of the hike.

Several of the novices on the trip said they’d snowshoe again, probably trying it in the daytime.

The skiers among them noted that there’s another benefit, beyond moonlight and hot chocolate: The next day, you can put on your skis or get on your snowboard and go really, really fast.

Cleat feet: How to buy snowshoes

The “shoes” used in snowshoeing – actually platforms that strap to one’s hiking boots – have come a long way from the old “tennis rackets” we vaguely recall, the frames fashioned from ash, oak or redwood with rawhide and leather bindings.

There is quite a business in antique snowshoes, whether Indian or U.S. Army surplus, which can be bought on eBay for as little as $30, but which can range up to $500 a pair in specialty shops. You can even buy one that’s been turned into a lamp.

But contemporary snowshoes are another story. Built for hiking in a variety of conditions, they are lightweight and strong, often made with aluminum tubing and stainless steel crampons (cleats), high-strength plastic “decks” and synthetic bindings. They come in a wide variety of styles and materials, and they can weigh as little as 2 pounds each.

* Matters of size: Shoe sizes are based not on foot size – the bindings are adjustable – but on the weight that the shoes will carry. Know your weight when buying or renting. Don’t forget to consider the weight of your clothes and the water, backpack and supplies you are carrying.

* Taking sex in stride: Potential snowshoers also must consider gender. Shoes come in men’s and women’s styles, the difference being the tapered tail of most women’s snowshoes, to compensate for women’s generally narrower stride (and feet) and the wider foot-angle that the majority of women set, according to REI salesman Raul Reynon.

There are even special running snowshoes, for those who just have to get their five miles in.

* The cost of clump-clump: Snowshoe prices range from $100 to $250, though special bindings and other features can push that even higher.

Reynon says a serviceable pair of snowshoes costs $115 for beginners, up to about $170 for the committed. Snowshoes for kids are cheaper, with decent models setting you back $20-$40.

And for trips into deeper snow, there are snowshoeing poles for rent and sale, as well. You can even buy “starter kits” that include shoes, poles and a CD-ROM that gives technical pointers on how to use them.

* Why buy? Rentals are probably the way to go for beginners. Snowshoe rentals at REI, for instance, cost $17 a day for members, but twice that for nonmembers. (A lifetime REI membership costs $15.) REI on Expo Parkway just west of Cal Expo has a good selection.

Land Park Ski and Sport rents Tubbs snowshoes for $16 the first day and $8 each additional day. Clark’s Snow Sports in Roseville rents MSR snowshoes for $15 a day.

One nice feature of many renters: a “day” rental doesn’t count the pickup and drop-off day, so there’s no hurry to get the shoes back.