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

ned at mountaineducation.org ned at mountaineducation.org
Thu Aug 6 18:33:27 CDT 2015

Hi, William!

I agree!

On my 1974 PCT thru, I carried my ice axe in my hand whenever on snow, too 
(of course it was really long and reached the ground).

Since 1982, I have been teaching self-arrest skills with both a Whippet (or 
the original Ramer version) and an ice axe (for those who want to learn with 
an axe) and have never found the Whippet to be insufficient for a 
self-arrest on consolidated snow (or even crusty snow, for that matter). I 
have used one Whippet for several years, now, probably logging 6 
demonstrations per class, running 4 to 10 classes per year, so I think my 
Whippet has self-arrested me 24-60 times without a single failure! Of 
course, if I were to be out on more boiler-plate, icy surfaces, the Whippet 
wouldn't cut it, but for snow-hiking, it'll do just fine!

In 1974, also, I used a pair of Vermont Tubbs "Sherpa Designs" snowshoes and 
they disintegrated on the crusty snow within 100 miles or so! I now use MSR 
Lightning Ascent snowshoes primarily during the winter's powder, but a 
little on springtime, consolidated snow and they are holding up just fine 
after 5 seasons, now!

On one trip up the PCT from Kennedy Meadows to the Muir Trail Ranch in 2010, 
three of us took these MSR snowshoes and only used them where we found 
powder snow (cold and shady north sides of things). Without them, we would 
have floundered or wallowed in misery. I'm sure you were happy to have your 
snowshoes with you going down MT and ID, since you had such soft snow 
conditions! Typically in the sierra, especially after the spring thaw starts 
and the snow settles, compacts, and re-freezes at night, the surface is 
totally good to walk on even with just boots, but care needs to be taken in 
shady areas, on the north sides of passes, and after about noon when the 
snow has softened in the heat and postholing is frequent!

Congratulations on  your CDT thru hike!

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: William Hersman
Sent: Thursday, August 06, 2015 2:53 PM
To: ned at mountaineducation.org
Cc: Scott Diamond ; pct-l at backcountry.net ; cdt-l at backcountry.net
Subject: Re: [Cdt-l] [pct-l] Gear Recommendation (Traction Devices vs Snow 

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 

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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