|Snowshoeing 101Story by Aubrey Laurence When I first moved to Bellingham from Colorado, someone in a bar told me that if I could survive two winters here, I would be OK. “It’s kind of like Little Alaska here,”
he said. “To keep yourself from getting too depressed during the dark and rainy winters, you have to force yourself to stay active outside.”I took the advice to heart, and my wife and I now spend many winter days on snowshoes. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a great form of low-impact aerobic exercise, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it requires little skill.
You’ll often hear people say, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” And while that is true for the most part, here are some tips to help you get started.
Snowshoes. Snowshoes range in price from $75 to $300 or more, and they vary greatly in size, weight, frame construction and materials. Some snowshoes are even tailored to specific activities, such as snow jogging. If you’re not ready to fully commit to the activity, many outdoor stores – as well as some ski resorts – rent snowshoes. (See sidebar on where to rent).
Flotation. The less you weigh (including your backpack) and the more surface area your snowshoes have, the more flotation you will have. In other words, you will stay on top of deep, powdery snow when lesser-equipped folks will posthole and sink. Snowshoe retailers can help you find the proper size, fit and type of snowshoes.
Technique. Walking in snowshoes is similar to hiking, though you will need to employ a slightly wider stance so that you will not trip on your snowshoes. Going uphill, you will gain the best purchase by kicking steps with your toes, engaging your crampons or cleats into the snow. Going downhill, keep your center of gravity slightly forward and over the balls of your feet. If you lean back too far, the backs of your snowshoes may act like skis.
Clothing & Gear. Always wear synthetic or Merino wool base layers and insulating layers, breathable and moisture-resistant outer layers, and sturdy, insulated and waterproof boots. Gaiters help to keep snow out of your boots. And be sure to carry light and heavy pairs of gloves, a warm hat and/or balaclava, sunglasses and ski goggles. Adjustable trekking poles with “baskets” help with balance and leveraging. It’s best to shorten your poles on ascents and lengthen them on descents.
Difficulty. Keep in mind, snowshoeing is much more physically demanding than hiking, plus you will be walking with 2 to 5-pound snowshoes strapped to your feet (plus any snow that builds up on top of them), so don’t exceed your abilities regarding distance, elevation gain and terrain.
Etiquette. When possible, do not tromp across ski tracks, whether they are cross country tracks or alpine touring tracks. On shared groomed trails, hike on the edge of the trail, allowing skate skiers to use the groomed section in the middle. In ski areas, stay as far off the ski runs as possible, and snowshoe along the sides of the runs while keeping an eye uphill.
Safety. Only snowshoe in backcountry areas if you have taken an avalanche course (alpineinstitute.com), have studied the local avalanche and weather forecast on the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center’s website (nwac.us) and have packed the necessary gear with you (beacon, probe, shovel, etc.). Steer clear of tree and rock wells. Bring extra clothing, first-aid, food and water. And beware of crossing frozen creeks or lakes, as there are many geothermal areas in the North Cascades, such as hot springs, which can melt areas of frozen bodies of water.
Where to Go. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few of my favorite places to snowshoe.
Huntoon Point is the place to go when the weather is agreeable. From the upper parking lot of the Mt. Baker Ski Area, you’ll gain almost 1,300 feet over about 3 miles (6 miles round trip). After snowshoeing up to the Artist Point area, head left (east) and follow the ridge crest (avoiding the cornices on either side of the ridge) for another half-mile or so to Huntoon Point. From this vantage point, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of Mt. Shuksan and North Cascades National Park to the east, Mt. Baker to the southwest and Table Mountain directly to the west-northwest.
Baker Lake area off Highway 20 also offers great snowshoeing. Anderson Mountain, which has a Sno-Park at 2,500 feet, accesses the Anderson Butte/Watson Lakes trail area. The first few miles past the Sno-Park are along the road, with great views after a mile or so. Before going, check the USFS website for road conditions and Washington State Parks (parks.wa.gov) for Sno Park permit information.
Stevens Pass is another great place to snowshoe. Across Highway 2 from the Stevens Pass Ski Area, you can snowshoe north up a tree-covered ridge to Skyline Lake (about 3 miles round trip with 1,100 feet of gain), or you can drive about 5 miles east of Stevens Pass and snowshoe on the maintained and signed trails at the Stevens Pass Nordic Center. Passes are $12 for adults.
Crystal Mountain offers guided snowshoe tours that include food and gondola rides (crystalmountainresort.com/Activities/Guided-Snowshoe-Tours) if you’re not quite ready to venture out on your own.
British Columbia has many snowshoe friendly ski resorts as well. In fact, in October 2012, Snowshoe Magazine included two B.C. ski resorts in its article, “North America’s Top 10 Snowshoe-friendly Ski Resorts.” Mt. Seymour (mountseymour.com) took first place and Grouse Mountain (grousemountain.com/snowshoe) placed ninth.
Manning Park Resort (manningpark.com) past Hope offers guided snowshoe tours on a daily basis (guides are $25/hour and take you deeper into the backcountry to teach you about the flora and fauna) as well as a full moon snowshoe tour every month.
I’m now well into my third Bellingham winter, so I suppose I have made it, but I am still only beginning to scratch the surface of what this region offers. And with so many world-class snowshoeing options nearby, I’m beginning to wonder if that guy in the bar was actually trying to discourage me while keeping these secrets for himself. X
Aubrey Laurence spends as much time in the mountains as possible. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and two cats.