Friday, November 25, 2011

Tromping through the snow

Snowshoeing takes recreationists off the beaten path


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

In an area famous for being the country's first destination ski resort and also known as Nordic Town USA, promoting snowshoeing may seem strange.

But for snow lovers looking to get off the beaten path and explore the terrain, snowshoeing can provide maximum reward for minimal investment.

Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, said the state of snowshoeing is much like that of cross-country skiing 20 years ago, when people went out for a peaceful backcountry experience.

"You have this little trail through the woods," he said, adding that skate skiing changed the nature of cross-country trails.

Trails from Galena to Quigley are now wider and more carefully groomed to accommodate speedy skaters, which Munter said takes away some of the backcountry feel of classic Nordic.

"It's a little like being on a freeway," he said, comparing skate skiers to Porsches whizzing by.

But it's not hard to find a backcountry snowshoeing experience, even if newbies might not want to travel too far off a beaten track.

Erin Zell, concessionaire at Galena Lodge north of Ketchum, said the lodge has 25 kilometers of snowshoeing trails that are kept packed through most of the year.

Blaine County Recreation District volunteers pack down the trails after storms and as weather requires, Zell said.

"Sometimes if it's a low snow year, they're just packed out all the time," she said, adding that the good snowshoeing begins when snow depth reaches 12 to 14 inches.

"Sometimes when we get big storms, [the powder] is too deep," she said. "But when there's fresh snow, it's so pretty."

More popular trails in the area follow summer hiking trails, such as the Adams Gulch system just north of Ketchum, said Joe Miczulski, winter sports specialist from the Ketchum Ranger District.

"Folks go out Adams Gulch, they go out Trail Creek," he said.

He added that he doesn't recommend Greenhorn Gulch as parking becomes an issue, but said Deer Creek north of Hailey and out East Fork mid-valley would be good spots.

Janelle Conners, trails assistant for the Recreation District, said the North Fork Loop behind the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters is an excellent trail for families and those just breaking into snowshoeing—flat, only 4km and with a variety of views along the river and through conifer forest.

"It's a beautiful trail," she said.

Jack Sibbach, director of public relations for Sun Valley Co., said the resort hopes to add seven additional kilometers of trail to its snowshoe offerings this winter, thanks to the sport's popularity.

Resort visitors can snowshoe from the Sun Valley Nordic Center to Trail Creek Cabin or the Hemingway Memorial, and Sibbach said the planned additional track will follow the summer hiking White Clouds Loop near the golf course.

"It all depends on conditions," he said. "We won't know until we get the snow."

Zell said her favorite is Psycho Adventure, a 5km advanced snowshoeing trail at Galena Lodge that takes snowshoers through a forest and up to a ridge with a view of the Smoky Mountains.

"It goes through some really pretty old-growth forest," Zell said.

But even that isn't backcountry enough for Munter, who says he uses snowshoeing as a way to get out alone and de-stress in areas that might be too risky for solo backcountry skiing.

Avalanche risks exist with snowshoeing, but Munter said it's easier to stay on safe ridges and flat land when snowshoeing, whereas backcountry skiing requires slopes.

Despite this, snowshoers make up a small percentage of recreationists, Miczulski said, far outnumbered by backcountry skiers.

"There are definitely more alpine, backcountry and Nordic skiers than there are snowshoers," he said. "All three of the skiing sports are dynamic, and they require less effort to go farther compared to a snowshoer."

One benefit of snowshoeing, however, is the less need of skill required. Miczulski said that "almost anyone who can walk can snowshoe," and the sport is similar to hiking, only requiring a somewhat wider stance and more endurance if the recreationist is breaking trail.

Another benefit is the relatively low gear investment required. Munter said the MSR and Tubbs snowshoes he stocks range from $60 for a child's set to $260 for a top-of-the-line adult pair—half the price of a basic cross-country starter setup.

Many people invest in extras, he said, such as adjustable poles for balance, extender tails to help snowshoers float on deep powder and a light day pack for avalanche equipment and dry clothing.

But the shoes themselves are cheap enough that many snowboarders buy a pair to use hiking up slopes before boarding down.

Snowshoeing in the backcountry can give an amazing sense of freedom to people used to groomed skate-ski trails.

However, Zell and Munter said there are certain protocols to follow when snowshoeing on packed trails.

Dogs are allowed on all Galena Lodge snowshoeing trails, Zell said, but people with dogs should yield to other trail users and clean up if their dog leaves a mess.

Zell also urged snowshoers to stay on marked snowshoe trails and avoid groomed ski trails—the crampons on the bottom of a snowshoe chew up the carefully groomed lanes.

"We try to keep snowshoers on the snowshoe trails," she said, adding that she tries to keep non-snowshoers off the snowshoe trails as well.

Snowshoe Shopping

Snowshoes are stocked at Backwoods Mountain Sports, The Elephant's Perch and Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters in Ketchum. The Elephant's Perch carries Atlas shoes, which have a light aluminum frame, while Sturtevants carries Crescent Moon snowshoes.

According to Jim Santa, Sturtevants owner, Crescent Moon shoes' big advantages are in easy-to-use bindings and the unique shape.

"The biggest thing is the pintail shape," he said. "They taper in the back. It makes it easier to walk, because you aren't tripping all over yourself."

Crescent Moon snowshoes range from $259 to $289, and consultants are available to assist in choosing the correct size and type.

Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, said there are essentially three things to consider when shopping for snowshoes: bindings, size and the material of the shoe itself.

"That's one of the big advances in snowshoes every year, how easy the bindings are," Munter said.

Snowshoes rented by Backwoods have a traditional strap-and-buckle system, in which three straps stretch across the boot and securely hold the shoe. While these are easy to understand, Munter said, they are not his favorites because the straps loosen and ice up.

He said he prefers a binding made by Tubbs that has one strap to hold the boot in the back, and a top-opening binding that cradles the boot and closes with just one buckle.

"If you're wearing the same boot every time, you just slide your foot back and pop it in," he said.

After the binding, the material of the shoe is perhaps the most noticeable characteristic.

Most of Munter's rentals are molded plastic shoes made by MSR, one-piece shoes that are durable and less expensive, but relatively heavy. Lighter versions by Tubbs and MSR have a flexible decking material attached to a metal frame, which lightens the load considerably.

The MSR Lightning series features a frame that serves as its own crampon, or claw, which hooks into ice layers and provides a more stable foothold. Munter said this reduces the size of the crampon on the binding, allowing for easier pack-up.

As for size, Munter says this varies by gender and by type of snowshoeing.

Women's shoes have a narrower tail, allowing women to take a more natural step, he said.

More powder requires bigger shoes, which allow for more flotation, but bigger shoes also mean more weight.

Shoes range from 21 inches for small women to 36 inches for large men who enjoy trekking through powder. Munter said that for most recreational snowshoers on flat, packed trails, smaller shoes are better.




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