Mountain Education Resources
Let’s Talk Snowshoes in the Spring Sierra – or Not
Snowshoes effectively broaden the size of your shoe capturing sufficient snow underfoot to hold your weight. The looser, more “powdery” the snow, the bigger needs to be the snowshoe.
Snow along the western United States contains a lot of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, especially as compared to inland snow along the Continental Divide which is very dry and “powdery.” Wet snow is heavy snow. Whether you are skiing or snowshoeing, you do not want much of this heavy stuff sticking to or coming along for a ride on top of your snowshoes with every step. Thus, the need to walk on top of the snow by utilizing snowshoes.
Another reason for bringing snowshoes is maneuverability in the trees. Simply put, you can turn quickly and easily with snowshoes vs. skiis. Although much of the High Sierra PCT is above timberline, you will have to descend to the creeks and forests between Passes. If you are so lucky to have snow all the way down and back up the other side, you may wish you had snowshoes to maneuver around through the trees.
Now, most likely by the time you get into the Sierra, you will have snow from halfway up to the pass, all the way over it, then halfway down the other side, leaving the creek and treed areas free of snow and just muddy and somewhat dry. As we encourage aspiring thru hikers on our 3-day, on-snow skills training courses, for the most part you will not need snowshoes at all, if you hike in the cool of the morning while the snow is still cold and hard and easy to walk on without falling in, or “post-holing.” Also, as stated in “Navigation Concern,” plan on getting below the snowline before the snow gets soft from the heat of the noon-day sun which makes for constant and often painfully slow post-holing with each step.
That method is one way to deal, through timing your day’s climbs and descents, with the nasty, mid-day “Sierra Cement.” Another way to keep moving over snow when it gets wet and soft is to put on your snowshoes. As much as you try to time your afternoons below snowline, it doesn’t always work and you’ll find yourself wallowing through above timberline in soup-like snow, post-holing and cursing the stuff as you try to “walk.” Some hikers search for rock-routes upon which to hop their way in the direction they wish to go, thereby staying out of the dreaded cement. Others, totally disgusted with further snow-slogging, head straight down in elevation by whatever route they can create to get as fast as they can below and out of the snow. We feel the easiest and safest way to continue on is to put on snowshoes and “keep on truckin’.”
Ok, so now you’re considering carrying snowshoes (or not and just timing your climbs) and the issue of weight comes up. Before you started your expedition, you counted every ounce and cubic inch to have the lightest and smallest pack possible. That was a noble and wise endevour. Now, consider this. By the time you arrive at Kennedy Meadows, your snow-staging area at the bottom of the Sierras, you’ll be roughly 700-miles stronger than you’ve ever been in your whole life! What little weight you add to your pack at that point will be no big deal. Sure you’ll notice the difference, but carrying snowshoes and using a converted self-arrest pole is not a lot of additional weight. Again, don’t bother with traction aids or crampons, just time your climbs and shoe-up when you start sinking in.
Snowshoe selection is important. The main criteria are surface area, durability, and teeth-under-foot. Light weight is of interest, but you don’t want to invest your safety and security to some design that will decompose one hundred miles in, leaving you to post-hole slowly the rest of the way (say the next 400 miles) (happened to me!). Most snowshoes have teeth, so lets talk durability.
Its common sense, really, to realize that the parts of the snowshoe that will fall apart are those that articulate or come in contact with the abrasive properties of ice and rocks. So you don’t want snowshoes who’s webbing wraps over the perimeter or anywhere else that’s metal (like the metal hinge beside the ball of your foot). (Compare to, say, the Atlas brand’s designs. They are less expensive, but not enough to compensate for durability).
We especially appreciate the design of the MSR Ascent line of snowshoes. Though not really needed along the Springtime PCT, these ‘shoes can be made bigger with add-on tails for when the snow gets “ugly-soft.” Consider bringing these tails if you are carrying a lot of weight, however. Note that the articulating hinge is metal-to-metal, there is no webbing wrapped over the frame, and there are lots of teeth!
However you plan on cruizing through the Sierra, it will not be as easy as you imagine. So this winter, go over to your local mountain shop, rent the snowshoes they have, and get out into the white stuff for a few day’s hike and see how it feels, test how you do, and decide for yourself how you wish to deal with snow. It’s not hard. It’s just easier with practice, training, and a whole lot of caution.