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Step Lively
Slipping through the cracks with the finer points of snowshoes

click to enlarge Walk a mile in his shoes. - JIM WILLIAMS

We were in deep tofu. Standing at the top of a tiny, almost unnoticeable open snowfield, I heard a sound I didn't like. It was the kind of sound that makes one who understands its meaning choke up. I had to remember to breathe. Twisting around to Bill, 10 yards back, thigh deep in sugar snow, I whispered, "Stop."

"Wha...?" Bill began. Then Bill saw the crack in the snow between us. He stopped.

There are times in life when you don't know whether it's best to haul ass outta there or stay still and slowly work your way out of a situation. If you see a mountain lion, do you run or stay? When fly fishing in the frigid Arkansas River and slowly falling, do you fight gravity or dive to the shore?

Either way you're screwed, and wet. What is best? You can't always be sure. This was one of those times.

After hearing the "fuump" of the snowfield cracking, our foolish off-trail snowshoe romp took on the tone of a mini-adventure. When Bill and I get together, odd things happen. It was happening again.

Across the snowfield, the snow just downhill of my nearly butt-deep tracks was an inch or two lower than the snow uphill. In front of me, the previously untracked powder was cracked all the way to the trees. The snow had settled and was ready to slide. Considering that a lot less snow was above me than below, I headed up, figuring diving up was better than riding down with an avalanche. Bill followed suit. The slab never slid but my heart was pumping like a cocker spaniel on your leg -- it was both oddly pleasing and very disturbing.

Snowshoeing isn't just for Grizzly Adams anymore. And, it can be as adventurous or sedate as you'd like. Snowshoeing on trails is more popular than wandering about in the powder like Bill and I had chosen to do. (We just can't seem to stay on the beaten path or trail.) Either way, fun is had at any level. Of course you should know this situation is really all Bill's fault -- he got me into snowshoeing in the first place.

When I first moved to the high country, I hit every yard sale in town in search of all those things hip mountain folk had or needed or wanted. I bought an old one-speed bike, a pair of metal-edged Nordic skis I still don't know how to wax and a pair of used Atlas snowshoes. Every year since, the snowshoes would be tossed into the back of my van with a few other winter items. They'd bounce around back there ready in case I would ever spontaneously decide to go snowshoeing. I never did. I am not terribly spontaneous in that way.

Once Bill dragged my sorry butt out and up to Waterdog Lakes (a vertical trail not well-suited for a first-time snowshoe experience). I was hooked.

Snowshoeing is something I could do with minimal cost, no lift ticket, and maybe I wouldn't get fat as fast. Cheap and gut-trimming are good traits in recreation.

click to enlarge Jim and Barb soft-shoeing through the aspen
  • Jim and Barb soft-shoeing through the aspen

The physical requirements for snowshoeing are minimal. If you can walk up a flight of stairs without gasping for breath, you can enjoy snowshoeing with great abandon.

The newer snowshoes allow a fairly normal gait. You don't have to walk bowlegged anymore. And, with the use of poles, you are stable and fairly unlikely to fall -- that is, unless you decide to launch off a rock and tangle your shoes together as I did my first time out. The result is a simple combination of physics and geometric math -- a face plant.

Snowshoeing doesn't hurt. The place I feel snowshoeing the most, the first time or two out, is in my rear. It must be good for the tushy. It is certainly good for your wind.

Bill and I try to spend the first half hour or so out keeping a fairly brisk pace and trying to get our heart rates up. We chat about the weather, how we ought to do this more often and why the hell we're not in New Zealand, Talingua or someplace warmer. Soon, reality becomes a player and we get that 140-beats-per-minute feel. Then we go play like geriatric juveniles -- hopping down untracked slopes like slow-motion tree skiers.

You don't need sport-specific boots to snowshoe. Hiking boots with knee-high gaiters work just fine, and cross-country or downhill poles work too. Everything else you need you probably already have in your closet -- fleece, thermals, wind pants and, depending on the weather, a jacket or sweater. I always take more than I need in a daypack. Remember, layering is good.

It wasn't that long ago that there was very little chance of finding a place to rent snowshoes, but now many ski shops and outdoor stores offer shoes at reasonable prices that'll make even the cheapest souls loosen their purse strings. Rates start at $8, and usually include poles.

One thing to be aware of is that one size does not always fit all. For casual hiking on packed trails, virtually any snowshoe will do. But if you are interested in cross training, look for the small platform running snowshoes. I have a pair of used Yubas, and they are a blast and work great for smaller people and kids off-trail.

On the other hand, my full-size snowshoes are fine on- or off-trail. I can take them into the trees, the deep, and, when I'm feeling daring, down the steep. They are not made to climb steep slopes and thus have a fairly mellow tooth and tread design. But for most of my needs, they do an excellent job.

Bindings on snowshoes vary widely. Almost all work, but some are more secure and easier to take on and off than others. My older shoes have an open-toe binding with two forefoot straps and one heel strap. They work fine, but I prefer a binding with a toe-cup to keep my foot from sliding foreword.

The running shoe I use has an aggressive toe cup with a rubber bungie heel strap that keeps the foot snug. Also, I look for foot straps that you tighten by pulling up instead of down. It's a minor thing unless you're cold and wanting to get on the trail and warm up. You can also get the boot tighter pulling up instead of down.

Another five minutes of climbing and Bill and I found the trail we were looking for. Our jump into the scenic little valley, our crazed fording of a snow-covered creek, the sphincter-tightening crossing of a frozen beaver pond on such a warm day, and our near avalanche experience were, in hindsight, mini-adventures.

Climbing into Bill's truck we slammed the doors. It was quiet as we took deep breaths. "Well, that was fun," Bill grinned. "Yeah," I exhaled. He put her into gear and headed downhill. There wasn't much conversation as we watched our winter world slide by. Something this real, this much fun, this close to the bone, should be kept internal.

Jim Williams is a writer and recreation junkie living in Salida, Colo. His work is online at


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