Adults at Play: Snowshoeing!

"Well you guys are the first to hit it this season and we've got over 27 inches of fresh snow for you. You're going to have some fun out there," said one of the instructors at the Steven's Pass Nordic Center. Both he and the woman who sold us our passes ($10 each) were super friendly and very helpful. Kristin and I rented our snowshoes from the new REI in Issaquah the night before and they pointed us in the right direction, gave us a map, and told us to watch for the orange & black streamers and to stay off the cross-country ski trails.

We strapped into the MSR Denali snowshows, put on our Camelbacks, and started the trek into the wild white yonder. We rounded the corner as instructed, saw a pair of snowshoe tracks, and immediately started following them. The guy in the shop told us to be careful where we go since everyone would likely follow the trail we broke throughout the weekend. Well, wouldn't you know it, but a couple that started just minutes before us had already gone the wrong way.

And yes, we naturally followed them.

We rapidly caught a 50's-ish couple making slow progress through thigh-deep snow and took over trail-breaking duty. They were happy to see us pass them and after a few strides, I knew why. The going was slow, challenging, and I could most definitely "feel the burn" from this intense workout. Did I mention we never did this before? Did I mention the reason we specifically went to the Nordic Center was for an easy introduction to snowshoeing on tampered-down trails? This wasn't full-on backcountry (no avalanche concerns) but it was a lot more than we bargained for on our first outing.

And it was awesome.

The Nordic Center may have only received 27" of fresh snow in the past couple days, but that didn't keep me from sinking to my knees, thighs, and occasionally up to my waste (and higher) with every step. And I knew this would happen. Rented equipment is never foolproof and in our case the snowshoes were one-size-fits all. Kristin was getting plenty of float from her shoes, but I outweigh her by roughly 70 pounds and was sinking with every step. This was exhausting work.

"I haven't seen any of those orange and black ribbons yet," Kristin said as if reading my mind. We were supposed to come to a 4-way intersection with a trail sign almost immediately after starting out but following this other couple's tracks had us off target. We didn't know where we were in relation to the trails, but we knew we weren't on any particular routes. Not that there really are any "trails" in the woods in the winter -- you just sort of go where you want and follow the path of least resistance. The forest was absolutely beautiful and although it was cloudy and snowing hard (the mountains would get another 10" of snow today), I just kept post-holing and toe-kicking upwards towards the sound of a creek. I figured it didn't really matter where we were, as long as we stayed off the XC Ski trails.

Kristin and I paused every few minutes to catch our breath, take in the scenery, and strategize about the next direction to go. It was just us, an otherworldly blanket of snow, and a moderately dense forest of evergreens straining under a white fluffy burden. We eventually came to a red streamer tied to a tree, then another, and another and after a glance at the map we realized that we were on an unmarked trail following a creek up to Latham Lake. We finally, after an hour of beautiful but exhausting climbing, came out on an XC trail and made a plan. Kristin's altimeter revealed that we were at 3,300 ft elevation, about 800 feet below the elevation of the lake, so that was a no-go. We decided to push on down the XC trail (we stayed to the edge and there were no tracks) to meet up with a trail called Clickity-Clack, and take that over to the Steppin' Stoker trail. A great plan, albeit a bit ambitious given the conditions and our singular hour of experience.

The going was terrifically easy on the side of the groomed XC trail. It was essentially a forest road with just 4 or 5 inches of snow on it and very compressed. We made great time down this section and were soon back in the woods, "breaking trail" en route to the creek shown in the picture above. The trail rose and fell wildly in short bursts and although the elevation change was seldom more than 20 feet at once, toe-kicking and stepping up what amounts to a 20-foot wall of snow is not easy. Coming down was a blast, but going up was actually kind of scary. At one point I stepped through the snow into a hole and sank all the way to my armpits in snow. I had to dig out my snowshoe and pull my left foot out with my hands because the weight of the snow on top of it was too much to budge. I had been in worse situations snowboarding off the groomers in a blizzard and didn't panic, but there is a distinct helplessness one feels when stuck in extremely deep snow. I imagine it's very much what falling into quicksand would feel like.

Kristin eventually insisted on taking the lead and breaking trail to give me a breather, but I had already post-holed over 2 miles and was ready to poach an XC trail back to the car. She'd lead just long enough to let me catch my breath and take a photo of her -- she was truly beaming with joy the entire 3+ hours we were snowshoeing -- then I'd take over. Much of our hiking was done in silence (aside from the plastic-slapping of the rented shoes) but when we did speak it was with a youthful exuberance that is often missing from our adult lives. Here we were playing in snow up to our waists! Falling over in it, sliding down hills in it, and laughing and smiling throughout it all. Our smiles persisted while our leg muscles screamed; they stayed put on our faces even when confused about the route or unsure of our location; and they even remained in place when a snow-covered log tried to steal the shoes off our feet.

As difficult and tiring as this was, I can't wait to go again. There's a serenity and a beauty to walking through the deep forest in the winter that simply can't be described. To see nothing but your tracks, those of a bobcat or snow hare, and the green and white of a snow-covered evergreen woods is a wonderful thing. And one of the best sights we came across was a singular strand of spider silk hanging down from a branch of a tree with dozens of perfectly-shaped individual snow flakes stuck to it in a row. If this wasn't the most delicate and strikingly beautiful thing in nature, then I want to hear what is.

Nearly 3 miles later, we got back to the car, changed into dry clothes, and realized we forgot jackets for the ride home. Oh well, time to head towards the Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth for lunch. We positively nailed the clothing-component of our snowshoe foray and were plenty warm (but not too warm) while snowshoeing but now that we were done, we were cold and hungry. And without coats. Newbies! A hot bowl of winekraut soup and a cup of hot spiced cider provided a quick remedy and as we continued our clockwise tour of the Mountain Loop that connects Steven's Pass, Blewett Pass, and Snoqualmie Pass we continued to witness more and more great scenery. And as we drove through orchard country the sun broke free of the clouds and lit the snow-covered and gnarled pear trees just long enough to make these otherwise grotesque creations look positively beautiful against the mountain backdrop.

Tomorrow we return the rented snowshoes -- which we both felt were lacking in both form and function -- and will likely put a couple pair of Atlas snowshoes into Santa's bag of toys for a holiday trek with the dogs Tuesday morning.


Maarten said...

I'm totally clueless about snowshoes. What makes bad snowshoes bad?

Woodway said...

Hey Doug,

Did you have extenders snapped onto your MSR's? They make a HUGE difference in the kind of snow you described.

Doug Walsh said...

Thanks for writing, guys.

The MSRs we rented didn't come with the extenders and honestly we didn't know about those until after we returned them today. It definitely would have helped. Our biggest gripe with the MSR Denalis we rented was that the straps very easily came undone far too often and that being all plastic instead of a metal frame with webbing, they were very noisy. Also, they weren't spring-loaded so they were always flopping open with each step and just sort of felt like they were falling off.

We had a good time, but chose to buy some Atlas snowshoes today at REI that have much better binding systems and are spring loaded. We're planning on going again Tuesday then hopefully again on Saturday so I'll have a report on those up sometime next week.

Anonymous said...

Sounds amazing! Makes ME want to get out, find some snow, and strap on some shoes!