Snowshoeing: Walking on ice with a pro
My matchmaker classified ad would start out: “SWF, 39, outdoors type…”
I hike between 200 and 300 miles each year, backpack, canoe, kayak, whitewater raft, windsurf, cave, rock climb, snorkel and cross country ski. Last spring and summer I took 15 camping trips and spent over six weeks of nights in a sleeping bag. When I had the opportunity to try snowshoeing, I jumped at it.
“The origin of snowshoes is veiled in the antiquity of ten thousand snowstorms,” according to the poet/publicists at outdoor outfitters L.L. Bean. We do know that they were used in Asia over 2,000 years ago and undoubtedly came to North America via the land bridge over the Aleutian Islands.
The Native peoples of the far north didn’t use snowshoes for an obvious reason: they were too far above the treeline. But snowshoes became a necessity for the woodland Indians of the lower latitudes. The basics of their snowshoes have been only slightly altered for today’s high-tech versions.
Native peoples improvised snowshoes cleverly. In the National Museum of Canada there is an ancient example of one made of branches with twisted bark for filling. A notorious local historical improvisation, branches strapped onto rag-bound feet, was used by members of the Donner party during their “Forlorn Hope” escape attempt. Snowshoes are still used extensively by trappers, timber cruisers, game wardens, conservation biologists, ice fishers and other professional woodsmen. Recreational users enjoy the sport because it can be one a hell of a good workout.
Why should one choose to trudge through the snow when you could glide over it with cross-country skis? My fellow Nordic Skiers of Nevada County in California warned me that snowshoes would drive me crazy after the smooth progress of skiing. But snowshoes have distinct advantages over skis in some situations.
First, it is an inexpensive alternative to skiing; the models in the Bean catalog range from $110 for wooden to $235 for aluminum. Secondly, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. All ages can participate and the technique requires less than a day to learn. Snowshoeing non-skiers can accompany skiing friends on a trip.
You can cover a much wider variety of terrain with snowshoes than cross country skis: bushwhack through frozen swamps, traverse open fields of heavy powder and climb mountains on snowshoes – terrain that could be possible on specialized, expensive mountaineering skis. Snowshoes are better than any skis for carrying very heavy loads of snow camping equipment. Many serious back country skiers pack in snowshoes to tromp around in camp.
The size of the shoe is determined by the wearer’s body weight plus the load they expect to carry. A wide design is best for heavy loads, narrow for thick woods. If the shoes are too large, the flotation capabilities are reduced and you expend too much energy trying to maneuver the unnecessary weight and surface area.
The frames and cross braces of shoes are made of traditional wood or modern aluminum or plastic. White ash is the favored wood because it is light, durable, straight-grained, resilient and not inclined to split. Detachable or built-in aluminum crampons or “claws” help you on ice and climbing.
Today’s leather webbings are cowhide. Nylon or Neoprene webbing reduces the shoe weight, repels dampness and is more durable than hide. An individual must decide if they want a natural-materials product or synthetic (I’m the type who prefers a wooden canoe paddle to a more practical aluminum paddle simply because I like the way wood “feels”).
To put a shoe on, position it with the heel buckle on the outside. Hold it in place as you maneuver the buckles by stepping on the tail with the other foot or by bracing it with your ski pole. Shoes have bindings on the ball of the foot or a flexible polyester toe and a strap around the heel of your boot. The bindings or harness must be cinched tightly to your boot with no play.
In “The Snowshoe Book ,” William Osgood and Leslie Hurley write “the cardinal rule of snowshoeing technique is to remember to pick up the foot to be moved ahead over the edge of the stationary foot and to move this foot far enough ahead so it won’t encumber the stationary foot.” This is a whole bunch of words to say what you’ll figure out immediately: don’t step on your tails and edges.
Use a ski kick-turn to maneuver, placing your feet at a 180 degree angle (ballet’s fifth position) and reversing direction.
To go uphill, lean far forward on the balls of your feet and use a modified herringbone technique from cross country: Toes pointed out, dig the shoe tail into the slope, leaning back your poles. On a long uphill climb, traverse the hill on a diagonal, digging the shoes’ uphill edge in and kick turning with the downhill foot on the switchbacks.
Downhill, dig in your tails while traversing or glissade – slide intentionally- standing or sitting. Sometimes it is easier to trot downhill rather than planting the foot firmly. (My downhill technique maxim after 20 years of cross-country skiing is “When in doubt, sit down and slide.”)
Jim White’s business card reads: “Mountain Training Consultants: Outdoor Education, Adventure Travel.” At 66, he has a shock of silver hair and the weathered face and trim physique of a career outdoorsman. I first met him on the Sierra Nevadas’ Donner Summit on one of the natural history ski tours he conducts for the Nordic Skiers with the knowledge he’d gained in his career as a warden for the California Department of Fish and Game. At the end of the day, White used a whistle that produces the excruciating sounds (that predators cannot resist) of a dying rabbit to scare up two coyotes from a copse. I was enchanted.
White began his love affair with the outdoors backpacking and Scouting in Hawaii. He moved to Sacramento as a young teen, and has lived in Woodland and, currently, Auburn, California.
Educated as an electrical technician, he worked at Aerojet in Rancho Cordova. His wife’s uncle was a Fish and Game warden and, through him, White began working for DFG while he was on vacation. Eventually he was hired to work for DFG full time. His first salary as a warden was $325 a month.
White was a DFG reserve warden and patrol captain from 1956 to 1990 for five counties – from Sonora Pass to Truckee. He also worked in Woodland (then a mecca for waterfowl) and eventually transferred to Auburn, after a stint as a training safety officer in Sacramento on the DFG state director’s staff.
White has seen many changes in environmental regulation. He says his timing was right to work for DFG, in a period of team-approach to problems. He considers DFG one of “the original environmental agencies,” and spent years battling water pollution in Tahoe and during the construction of Interstate 80 for them.
Outdoor education programs White developed for DFG caught on with the general public. He has conducted classes in mountain horsemanship, canoeing and kayaking, ski mountaineering, and avalanche and winter survival programs for the University of California at Davis and Sierra College in Rocklin.
White currently teaches snow safety and survival to utility workers of Pacific and Gas Electric and Nevada Irrigation District: survival in a snow-bound vehicle, basic physiology in low temperatures, coping with hypothermia. He is urging the agencies to change their buying habits for their employees’ winter clothing.
White witnessed the infancy of the multi-billion dollar ski industry in Lake Tahoe. On their 1950 post-Christmas honeymoon in Tahoe City, he and his wife were an oddity with skis on their car, which they used all over the as-yet-undeveloped Squaw Valley. The manager of their hotel said, “We sure hope this ski thing catches on because we just about have to shut down in winter.” White says it was so slow it was difficult to find a gas station that was open in winter in Tahoe.
My friend Jim and I rented our snowshoes at Sierra Nordic Sports in Soda Springs. They stock aluminum and Neoprene shoes with attached claws in two lengths, depending on the wearer’s weight and the snow conditions. The salesman issued us the shorter model because we were going out on packed powder, despite Jim’s 180 pounds-plus body weight. The shoes cost $10 a day to rent, considerably cheaper than the $18 they charge for cross country skis.
We met Jim White at the Sno-Park at the Boreal Ridge ski area. He brought three pairs of snowshoes to show us. One was an unusual, rough, handmade contraption of bent wood, cord and woven sticks found along Highway 50 by snow surveyors over 15 years ago. White theorizes that someone was trapped by a sudden snowfall at Wright’s Lake and had made the emergency shoes to hike out 12 miles. Another pair was a “13 by 56:” a 13-inch wide, 56-inch long “trail shoe” for heavy powder, the size favored by timber cruisers and issued to Caltrans highway workers. The pair White chose for our trip was his 10 by 36’s; he favors the smaller size because it fits into the luggage compartment of small planes and helicopters he uses on various jobs and surveys.
White’s shoes looked like works of art compared to our rental shoes, all pale wood and a graceful tear drop shape that was a good 18″ longer. My shoes looked stubby, inelegant and distressingly high tech. Somehow the romantic image of myself as a red plaid-clad French Canadian lumberjack tromping through the woods jarred with the blue aluminum and Velcro of my shoes.
White said the best footwear for snowshoeing is a lightweight leather mountain boot with a rubber bottom, insulated top and narrow profile. He prefers a studded sole because snow can pack into the Vibram lug found on most hiking boots.
White takes his winter outfitting seriously – dead seriously. He has seen too many emergencies caused by inadequate clothing and warns that you’ll be sorry if you buy cheap equipment. He clucked his tongue at our canvas boots and correctly predicted we’d have cold feet. I got an additional scolding for not packing my gaiters.
We started at the Donner Pass Pacific Crest Trail trailhead, a place White takes his snow survival and avalanche classes. We paralleled Interstate highway 80 to beyond the Donner rest area, past the glacial tarn West Lakes and a short nature trail Caltrans has built. We had magnificent views of Castle Peak through red firs (your “silver tip” Christmas tree), and lodgepole and Western white pines. This used to be the back country, White said, before the construction of 80 in the late-1950’s. Now the area is a maze of what he calls “man tracks” left by snow players and cross-country skiers.
I started out lifting my feet high and placing them wide apart. Eventually White glanced back and said, “Pat, you’d be better off if you just shuffled.” I changed my approach and within five minutes forgot I was even wearing snowshoes, the sport is that easy. White cautioned us to never use our arms to brace ourselves if we fall, landing our rears instead.
“I’ve seen a lot of broken arms. But we don’t have too many broken butts.”
When I bought my canoe I thought, “Wow, this is so quiet and you’re so much a part of the supporting element, the water.” Then I bought a kayak and I found out what silent water travel is really all about . When I began cross-country skiing I thought the same about the quiet and the feeling of being “at one with” the snow – then I went snowshoeing.
As leisurely as cross-country can be, I saw things on the shoes that I’ve seldom noticed on skis: minuscule rodent tracks in the snow, icicles hanging from rocks and a woodpecker nest cavity. And, unlike on skis, I could go anywhere with effortless maneuverability.
Seeing tracks in the snow has always held a fascination for me. There is no clearer indication of the activity of predator and prey, and animals’ hunt for food as a snowy clearing after a full moon. And the delicacy and beauty of the tiniest of the prints, of squirrels, rodents and birds, never fails to gives me a lump in my throat.
The most common track we saw was that of the snowshoe hare, a high altitude, western slopes lagomorph whose favorite food is the inner bark of young aspens. In pursuit of the hares, we saw the straight-on tracks of coyotes, easily distinguishable from dog tracks which are much wider apart and offset. We saw the leaping tracks of chickarees (Douglas squirrels), a high-altitude camp raider with tufted ears in winter. We saw an indistinct set of tracks that White said might have been from a porcupine, which leaves round, close-together footprints as it waddles along, with quill marks at the end of its dragging tail visible. Porcupines rarely come down to the ground; White said that you should look for a girdled young tree to spot one. We saw rodent tracks disappearing into tree wells and around rock piles. In a scant snow year such as this one, white-footed mice might risk a nocturnal aboveground foray.
One track White was puzzled that we didn’t see was the pine marten’s, a common weasel-family member of the alpine region. Martens seem to be unaffected by freeway noise and quite unafraid of people- White has had on run right up to him and I once had one loudly trot through my campsite. In the summer they hunt rock piles for hapless chickarees, pikas, rodents and marmots. In the winter they are almost strictly arboreal; we searched groves of aspen and willow for their tracks. White says that you can smell the scent marks martens leave on rocks while skiing on high ridges. “All the weasel family leaves a strong scent mark odor.”
White showed us a site with historical value: the creek in which the first fish screening device in California was installed in 1932 by the Donner Summit Sportsmen’s Club and his colleague and eventual neighbor the late Bill Vail. Fingerlings were shipped by rail to Soda Springs then packed in over the ridge on horseback in milk cans to plant the creek. The screen held the fish in the creek and directed them into the five West Lakes.
The screen concept eventually led to DFG’s stream-flow maintenance dam program. Before the dams, the wilderness area lakes on the western slopes were barren because no waters fed by the ocean flowed into them and the water’s lack of alkalinity. DFG maintained over 30 dams in Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness Area; what most people assume are natural obstructions are actually hand-built rock dams from the 1920s and 30s. The shallow lakes would not exist without the dams, and planting of fish has greatly increased the quality of the habitat.
Now, White says, “extreme conservationists” are lobbying to remove screens and dams, and stop fish plantings. “It’s still wilderness with lakes and fish … The views of only 200 people (one extremist group) are being heeded by the government. That’s not right.”
White also told of the difficulties of patrolling the Pacific Crest Trail, on which all vehicles are prohibited. All-terrain vehicles sneak onto the trail and there is now “open warfare” between mountain bicyclists, who are also banned, and hikers. White was almost killed once when a bike spooked his horse on the PCT.
White has extensive knowledge of snow from his membership in the National Association of Avalanche Professionals and the National Ski Patrolmen (he served at Alpine Meadows ski resort), and from U.S. Forest Service avalanche training classes.
The ability to “read” snow is critical for route finding in the back country. On cold, clear nights, water vapor sublimates into a solid, without passing through a liquid phase. The resulting Ivory soap flake-like crystals are called “surface hoar,” which when overlaid with fresh, relatively warm snow, consolidated by wind action into heavy slabs, equals extreme avalanche danger. “Depth hoar” is caused by very cold ground plus ice crystals and is most hazardous. White has seen depth hoar 18 inches thick covered by snow slabs of 12 to 14 feet deep. The heavy slabs fracture under high tension and sheer off, causing an avalanche.
A ski mountaineer must also learn to recognize snow “age-hardened” by the wind, the safest to ski on. Most back country skiers carry an electronic beeper to help rescuers locate them if they are buried.
White says “Every serious back country skier should have avalanche training” but laments that most short-course classes give people a false sense of confidence – a deadly example of “a little knowledge is dangerous.”
More snowmobilers are now being killed in an avalanches because bigger engines enable them to go into softer snow. Snowmobilers play a dangerous game of “chicken,” traveling under lee slopes of cornices and arcing above snowy cirques “into the heart of the avalanche.” White encountered some shaken snowmobilers who had slid in an avalanche a quarter-mile from Upper to Lower Lola Montez Lakes. “Their snowmobiles were already for sale by the time the slide stopped,” White chuckled.
White pointed out the best place to camp in the snow. Snow under trees is always softer and deeper, not settled and warmer like open-space snow subject to wind and radiant heat loss. It can be 20 degrees warmer bivouacking under the trees. He sleeps in a trench dug in the snow with a poncho stretched over ski poles for a roof. Once he and his son were trapped at Faucherie Lake by a freak April storm that left four feet of snow. After three or four days his wife – “Shirley’s very knowledgeable about these things”- arranged for a helicopter rescue. I want to shake the hand of a woman so steely that she can calmly pick up the phone and arrange for an emergency rescue of her husband and child.
At lunch, White chided Jim for not wearing sunglasses and forgetting to put on his sunscreen earlier. An ophthalmologist in one of his snow survival classes told White that irreversible eye damage can be caused by the sun in just one day. “Snow blindness” is a common temporary symptom but the retina can be permanently damaged by ultraviolet exposure.
Skin cancer used to be an occupational hazard for DFG and utility workers. The state now buys SFP 30 sunscreen for its force – a cheaper alternative to paying out a workmens compensation claim. White had an old-time DFG buddy who died of melanoma he probably contracted on the job.
Back at the Sno-Park, White showed us an album of photos from his current pet project. Wolverines are believed extirpated from the western slope; there have been many recent sightings but none have been properly substantiated.
DFG and the University of California at Berkeley joined forces in a wolverine census project. At 14 stations from Ebbetts Pass to Castle Peak, deer hindquarters in chicken-wire cages were hung 6 1/2 feet up in trees. Underneath, an infrared laser beam between a transmitter and receiver trips a camera as the animal climbs the tree. The album contained rare and delightful photos of astonished animals caught in flash glare: coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, martens, fishers, flying squirrels, bobcats, raccoons, ringtails, spotted skunks and the extremely rare Sierra red fox.
Unfortunately, funding for the project was killed this year. White is bitter and incredulous,” We need mileage, film, batteries, duct tape – hell, I’d work for free.” PG & E donated $10,000 worth of helicopter time last year but “Now we don’t even have the money for film… The state spends all its money on deer. What don’t we know about deer? If a new ski resort is built now, we’ll never know the impact it has on wolverines” and other endangered furbearers.
Jim White may be part of a dying breed of outdoor professionals: a guy who can read snow, recognize the scent of a weasel, spend the night in a snowy trench, improvise in spite of limited funds and a frustrating bureaucracy. He is dedicated to educating the rest of us in how to be a part of the wilderness – and to respect its power. With the increased popularity of sports such as snowshoeing, we have the unique opportunity to learn about a place few of us ever venture into, the backwoods snowfields, bolstered by this knowledge.
Pat Devereux is a copy editor at The Union.
This article was originally published on 3/23/2001.
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Temperatures will dive into the 60s on Tuesday, though quickly recover to the 70s later that week, the National Weather Service said.