[Cdt-l] [pct-l] Gear Recommendation (Traction Devices vs Snow Shoes)

William Hersman mcak at gci.net
Thu Aug 6 16:53:25 CDT 2015

With all due respect, Ned, my experiences with snowshoes and ice axes were different.  I carried my ice axe in my hand - why carry that extra weight on my back?  A whippet is wimpy when you are careening down a slope.  On the CDT I wore out a pair of snowshoes from so much use, but then I was a south bounder.  With constant snow across Montana and Idaho, post-holing was not a viable option.

Willy Hersman
PCT 1978
CDT 1980

On Aug 5, 2015, at 6:11 PM, <ned at mountaineducation.org> wrote:

Here are the annual snow questions asked before everyone's PCT thru hike, then again from the deck at Kennedy Meadows:

1.  "How much snow is in the sierra?"
2.  "Is it consolidated so I can walk on it or is it powder and I'll have to wallow through it?"
3.  "Do I need crampons or will I be ok with Microspikes?"
4.  "Do I need an ice axe or will a Whippet work?"
5.  "Will I need snowshoes?"

Let's see if I can organize a decent response:

1.  The amount of snow doesn't matter.

2.  Once the snowpack is consolidated (compacted, hard-ish), you can walk on its surface (until it becomes soft and you posthole). The danger comes when the slope you're walking across (it's always the traverses up or down) gets steep and/or hard and icy. Then you'll need to know how to safely get across without slipping and falling and sliding/tumbling all the way into whatever is below you (trees, boulders, cliff, lake, creek, etc.). That can end your trip.

3.  To keep from slipping on the steeps (not much of a problem on the flats unless you're trying to go fast and pushing off your toes as if you were on dry ground), you'll need some form of traction device that puts teeth on the edges of your shoes (because most of the time you're walking on the uphill edges of your feet across traverses where switchbacks exist in the summer). This applies if you are ahead of the pack or making your own trail (even heading out to go to the bathroom) and do not have a trench made by those ahead of you to walk in every day.

If you have a snow-trench to walk in across steep traverses, the bottom of that "path" will most likely be flat, side to side, although lumpy and slippery in the mornings, and almost any design of "crampon" will work since your whole foot is making contact with the snow. So, Microspikes will work just fine as long as you don't venture out onto the hard and slippery steep morning crusts. Instep designs don't help much unless you always walk flat-footed on top of the spikes all the time, but you will most likely be rolling off the ball of your feet, so that's why you need spikes up there. You do not want climbing crampons or anything with forward spikes since you will be walking, not climbing. Too many hikers trying to "make do" have cut up their legs with those points!

Don't go with designs that are so light, they aren't strong! Look for good designs that have solid metal wrapping up alongside your feet in a few places. With this design, you can lean on those downhill edges and not fear sliding right off (this is what happens with the chain-designs and Microspikes!). Remember, you will probably be walking on snow, then dirt, then snow, then rocks and roots, so they need to be strong enough to endure this abuse. Keep in mind that if you are just trying to "get by," whatever you choose will probably fail you somewhere along the line and it will be a long and hazardous side trip out of the sierra and down to Lone Pine or Bishop to get the design you should have purchased originally. Make sure they strap on, because loose or "rubber band" styles can stretch and may roll off your feet just when you need them the most (nasty steep stretch across Forester's chute, for example).

4.  This is what I want you to remember:  The Whippet is in your hand all the time, ready to arrest your fall. The ice axe will be carried, strapped to your pack, until you recognize the need for it ahead, which almost no one without training does, thus it will not be in-hand when you slip and fall and need to perform a self-arrest to keep from getting hurt!

I used to snow-hike with a long, hickory-handled axe that reached from my down-stretched arm/hand to the ground, sort of like a short hiking stick. It was always in my hand. That worked. We didn't have self-arrest poles in those days! Buy and use a Whippet whenever you know you will be needing to walk across steep snowy traverses, no matter how small! Don't assume, though, that they are fool-proof and will always save you from a broken bone or worse, because if you don't know how to reflexively deploy it, you've got an expensive stick. And don't worry about its weight; you'll get stronger. Its presence to save your life makes it worth every ounce! Use snow baskets, too, otherwise your poles will just sink deep into the snow and be of no use helping you to keep your balance.

5.  Nix to the snowshoes! I carried a pair from Kennedy Meadows to Donner Pass once and used them that many times, once! The main reason they're useless to a PCT thru hiker is that they totally fail on the steep traverses. Straight up or down is marginal, but forget it otherwise. Learn how to snow-hike in steep terrain and on both hard snow and breakable crust because that is probably what you'll have on the Crest in May and June.

I have been hiking the sierra, PCT, and CDT for 50 years, have been snow-hiking for 43 of those, and have been teaching the skill to thru hikers for the past 33. Mountain Education logs about 100 to 150 days/nights on PCT snow every year, especially after "normal" winters, and so we have a bit of experience to share regarding what "works," lasts, and performs and what doesn't. Snow-hiking and camping, even in the powder snow of winter, is a gas and addicting!

A little snow-planning advice:

-  1 mile per hour is about average. To get more miles in, you'll have to hike into the afternoon and risk postholing.

-  Postholing is when you suddenly and unexpectedly plunge into the snow making a deep hole with your leg(s). These can be painful to your ankles, knees, hips, and back over time, so don't get caught still on the snow after, say, 1:00pm. Get over the pass and down to terra firma before then!

-  Make your miles when below snowline, but realize that the "trail" down there during the sierra thaw may be a creek or mud.

-  Plan to do one pass a day and do it right away in the morning, thus camp at the base of the climb the night before.

-  Don't expect to do more than 10-14 miles per day when on snow in the steep terrain of the high sierra.

-  Double your food and carry an extra day or so because of extreme energy consumption and the chance for bad weather.

-  Don't expect to go from KM to VVR without a resupply out Kearsarge. You will eat and sweat like a pig snow-hiking!

-  Pay a lot of attention to both where you are and how you're feeling. Snow-hiking will be harder than swinging your feet on dry trail!

-  Learn how to navigate over snow! Don't freak out if you can't see the trail. It doesn't matter anyway. Just know where it is and make your own easy route. Realize that the summer trail wanders around topographic land features that will be buried and a non-issue to you. Snow-hiking is actually easier for above-timberline navigation. For example, just because the trail goes across that steep slope along the canyon wall, doesn't mean you have to! Know where the safe routes are and connect with the trail as needed. This is a huge aspect of what we teach on our Snow Advanced Courses!

-  You already know our advice about self-arresting and traction devices and what tools to use.

-  Camping on snow is very comfortable because you can shape your bed the way most comfortable! Just use an insulated pad.

-  Ambient temperatures on snow can be very hot, if you're out there during the thaw (usually starts sometime in May), so beware of sunburn, both to the eyes and skin! Wear good glasses designed for high altitude and consider a long-sleeved shirt. I've been snow blinded and seriously burned twice, then I learned!

-  You may not have open water sources to get water from, so prepare to carry water when in the heat on snow. Water sources may be unsafe to get close to, also. Learn how to assess these and snow bridges before you trust your life to one.

-  Expect the day's heat to melt the snow at the rate of 1 or 2 inches per day, then freeze up forming a crust/ice at night.

-  Compressed snow by someone's feet will melt and glaze a bit, thus be icy and slippery in the morning. So, be careful walking in that trench.

-  Balance is a big deal! On dirt, you can roll off your toes, pushing yourself forward, but on snow, forget it, you'll only slip. Learn to walk flat-footed and on the edge of your shoes as needed to negotiate the different cambers, angles, and surfaces. Use your poles out to your sides to maintain your balance while you move forward. They are extensions of your hands to catch your balance. Use them. You will slip and stumble and slide and laugh as you first learn what to do!

-  Don't let yourself get wet in a cold environment! As long as you can dry out, you'll be ok, but watch out for sweating after the sun goes down or when you cruise through the shade or while descending a pass on the shady side. Hypothermia can cause you to think sloppy and you can make bad decisions. It takes another person to see this happening to you, so travel over snow in a group.

-  Don't rely on the "Mountainman" in the group to always know everything and be the leader. He may like it, but everyone should question where they are, when to rest, eat, and drink, where they're going, and when to stop!

-  Don't count on someone "being there" to help you get through rough spots because there probably won't be anyone skilled nearby when you need them. Novices usually say, "I'll learn that skill or ability when I need it! I'm sure there'll be someone around who can show me what to do...." Your safety comes from making the right decisions for you, even if you are in a group. Get your snow skills before you suddenly find the slippery stuff in front of you, then maybe you can help others who didn't.

-  You don't just walk on the surface of the snow. The pressure of your foot puts weight on whatever is inside the pack, be it a tree, rock, branch, log, or just air. Realize that you are walking on multiple layers of old snow, powder, ice, and debris and they all don't necessarily play well together. Some surfaces do not bond with others, thus can slide when the slope is steep enough and you just cut a fault line across it with your tracks. No, it is not usual for avalanches to happen after the thaw, but little, wet slides can and you'll see them up on the higher, steeper slopes above you. Just keep an eye out for them because when they occur up there it should tell you that you don't want to be there as the pack gets warmer, softer, and less bonded in the afternoon! Realize, too, that postholing through ice layers can cut you up pretty good. So, too, for those sudden plunges alongside boulders, rocks, and trees! Predict, as well, that if you see a little tree peeking above the surface of a deep pack that there is probably a bigger tree below it and to walk way around it. It is easy to fall down into its branches and get seriously stuck, if not buried in the ensuing loose snow.

Mountain Education does have snow skills courses that thru hikers can attend as they first enter the sierra in May and June! Look for the 5-day, Thru-Hiker Specific course that runs from Cottonwood Pass, over Forester Pass, and out Kearsarge Pass.


I hope that helped!

There is so much more to learn to maximize your health and safety when snow-hiking, but this ought to get your thoughts alerted.

Ned Tibbits, Director
Mountain Education, Inc.
ned at mountaineducation.org

"To minimize wilderness accidents, injury, and illness in order to maximize wilderness enjoyment, safety, and personal growth, all through experiential education and risk awareness training."
-----Original Message----- From: Scott Diamond
Sent: Wednesday, August 05, 2015 2:48 PM
To: Pct Mailing List
Cc: Dan C. aka Thumper
Subject: Re: [pct-l] Gear Recommendation (Traction Devices vs Snow Shoes)

I'm planning for 2016 and I'm trying to decide on crampons/traction devices

As Ned notes below, it seems to me the high end is Kahtoola KTS Crampon
<https://kahtoola.com/product/kts-aluminum-hiking-crampon/> ($149 18.9
Oz/540g). High but also somewhat heavy at 18.9 Oz. With those and a Whippet
I’m sure I’d be secure.

The next option which many hikers seem to use are the Micro spikes.
Either Kahtoola
Microspikes <https://kahtoola.com/product/microspikes/> ($70 13.1  Oz/371g)
or Hillsound trail crampons
<http://hillsound.com/hillsound-product/trail-crampon/> ($60, 17.6 Oz/500g).

There are some lighter options out there. Instep crampons like ​Ruta Locura
Instep Crampon <http://rutalocura.com/crampon.html> ($25 7.6 oz) are pretty
intriguing given low weight and finally at the bottom of the scale are Vargo
Titanium Cleats
<http://www.vargooutdoors.com/titanium-pocket-cleats.html#.VULEIk10yHs> ($69
3.8 oz/107g). 3.8 Oz, wow!  I have to say I’m really intrigued by these
lighter options. I could carry those in my pack all the way up to Canada
and not notice them. But do they work?

I guess there isn’t one right answer, but does anyone think I could get
away with some of the lighter options. Would it make sense to use Kahtoola
crampon from Kennedy Meadow and then switch to something lighter in a
couple of hundred miles? Mail several options to Kennedy Meadow and decide

Thanks, Scott

On Sat, Apr 25, 2015 at 6:47 PM, Dan C. aka Thumper <dofdear at cox.net> wrote:

> Thought I'd share Ned's response.  Thumper
> > > From: <ned at mountaineducation.org>
> > > To: "Dan C. aka Thumper" <dofdear at cox.net>
> > > Subject: Re: Gear Recommendation (Traction Devices vs Snow Shoes)
> > > Date: Sat, 25 Apr 2015 17:41:13 -0700
> > >
> > > Hi, Dan!
> > >
> > > Harts and north appears to have received a "normal" winter's worth of
> snow,
> > > but south of there the story is completely different. I would not
> attempt
> > > the trails up there until almost all snow is off traversing trails
> because
> > > the snow will assume the slope of the hillside, filling in the flat
> > > (side-to-side) trail where the crossing of them will be steep and
> slippery
> > > and with dangerous run-outs downhill (think trees, rocks, creeks,
> lakes, and
> > > cliffs to hit, go into, or go over). July 4th or later is the
> > > local-suggested start date for most summer hiking in the North > > Cascades
> > > after a "normal" winter.
> > >
> > > You do not need snowshoes and, besides, it is too steep in the
> northern half
> > > of WA for them to be safe, anyway.
> > >
> > > I love my Kahtoola Hiking Crampons because they stay on my boots no
> matter
> > > how violent a panic-step. Kahtoola's Microspikes simply roll off under
> > > similar conditions (we tested them on high sierra traverses in May 5
> years
> > > ago and the design hasn't changed). They are good, however, if you are
> > > walking in a trough formed my hikers ahead of you.
> > >
> > > For snow hiking on steep slopes where you don't have level (side to
> side)
> > > trail to switchback up or down, you need a shoe with sharp, 90-degree
> sides
> > > (where the sole and sides intersect) and traditional built-up heels > > for
> > > edging into hillsides and braking on descents. If you like security of
> > > balance and firm traction, I'd stay away from molded soles and
> lightweight
> > > footwear (unless you are in the trough). More info under "Resources" > > at
> > > www.mountaineducation.org
> > >
> > > Bring tall, waterproof gaiters and not the "dirtygirl" type.
> > >
> > > The Whippet is the best tool for snow hiking because it is always in
> your
> > > hand when you slip and fall while the ice axe is still tied to the
> back of
> > > your pack! We always take a whippet and a regular pole with us if we
> think
> > > there might be snow encountered.
> > >
> > > Does that help?
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > > Ned Tibbits, Director
> > > Mountain Education, Inc.
> > > www.mountaineducation.org
> > > ned at mountaineducation.org
> > >
> > >
> > > Mission:
> > > "To minimize wilderness accidents, injury, and illness in order to
> maximize
> > > wilderness enjoyment, safety, and personal growth, all through
> experiential
> > > education and risk awareness training."
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