Why not strap on showshoes to rediscover the Alps this winter? Hilary Sharp leads the way.
Snowshoes – used to stop you sinking into deep snow – have been used since ancient times, but they have surged in popularity recently. Once likened to tennis rackets, snowshoes are now comfortable to wear, technical, light, manoeuvrable and, most importantly, cool.
The art of snowshoeing covers the full range of levels: from short family valley walks to full-day hikes above the tree line; from hut to-hut treks to summit ascents. But, unlike summer walking, it also has a playful side to it: falling is fun and all sorts of acrobatics can be performed in deep snow. Many people enjoy leaping and bounding down the descents. Yet, beyond the fact that snow is involved, it bears no resemblance to skiing. There is no sliding in snowshoeing and it’s easy to learn. If you can walk, you can snowshoe; if you like walking, the chances are you’ll love snowshoeing.
Although some ski resort lifts are open to people on foot, it’s best to avoid the resorts and head to the solitude of the quieter mountains. The joy of snowshoeing is to walk up through the muffled silence of the forest, emerging above the tree line to sunshine and fabulous alpine views. As recent years have seen the image of snowshoeing change, it’s now also appealing to runners, who enjoy big strenuous ascents and equally wild descents, opening up a whole different training ground.
Where to go
The Alps are known for their vast network of summer trails. Some of these are also good itineraries in the winter; however, most paths are unrecognisable under their mantle of snow, so it’s unwise to try to mimic summer routes. Guidebooks exist for snowshoeing but, generally, you should expect to have to make a trail rather than follow one. Easy walks in the valley, and forest walks on tracks, are the exception, providing relatively safe options. However, keen walkers will want to get above the tree line to the true Alps and maybe even take in a hiking summit or two. Good navigation skills and strong legs to make the trail will be essential – or a guide in front to do both. Snowshoeing can also take you out onto the glaciers and to the higher summits, but safe glacier travel must be practiced – being roped together and carrying crevasse rescue gear – so, personally, I much prefer the freedom and simplicity of non-glaciated terrain.
Snowshoes themselves come in various shapes and sizes (and colours). If you’re renting, you’ll probably not have a huge choice, and what you choose will partly influenced by where you plan to go. The shoe should be the right size for your weight to give you optimal flotation on the snowpack. A regular adult’s snowshoe usually covers a person ranging from 55-85kgs. Above this weight you need a bigger shoe; below, a child’s shoe might be adequate. The binding has to be appropriate for your boots. Some basic snowshoes have a very simple binding that only works on totally fl at terrain. This is somewhat limiting. There should be good traction under the snowshoe – some sort of crampon or spiky points to make the shoe grip, and the shoe should be a shape that allows a normal gait, rather than round or oval which requires the gait of a penguin. If you plan on doing some good mountain walks then you may appreciate the added feature of a heel lift: akin to putting on your stilettos to climb the hill, considerably reducing the slope angle. Finally, if your snowshoes are a bright colour, this will add immeasurably to the quality of your photos.
Your boots can be your normal hiking boots, reasonably waterproof and most of all comfortable. They do not need to be rigid or crampon friendly. You’ll need trekking poles with snow baskets (bigger than the normal baskets for summer hiking) but these don’t need to be anything complicated. Gaiters can be short, lightweight and ankle height, although knee-length is fi ne, if a bit hot. Take regular hiking clothes – with lots of layers – plus gloves, mitts, hat, sunhat and sunglasses.
Watch: our winter skills playlist on BMC TV
Walking in the Alps in winter is inherently dangerous. Avalanche risk varies hugely from one day, and one slope, to the next. Whilst it could be argued that snowshoeing is less risky than skiing because of the nature of the sport, there are avalanches every winter involving people on snowshoes. If you are going anywhere beyond fl at terrain with no slopes above you then you should be prepared and equipped with an avalanche beacon, a shovel and a probe. But just having the gear is not enough; you must know how to use it. If you don’t, then hire a professional to either teach you the skills or lead you.
Hilary Sharp has been snowshoeing for 22 years. Author of Snowshoeing: Mont Blanc and the Western Alps, published by Cicerone, she lives in the French Alps, near Chamonix. An Accompagnatrice en Montagne (International Mountain Leader), she leads snowshoe trips of all levels. See www.trekkinginthealps.com.
Trekking in the Alps
A small, friendly company offering snowshoe trips of all levels throughout the Alps, from December to April. www.trekkinginthealps.com
Hilary Sharp is the author of a series of guidebooks covering snowshoeing, walking and other mountain activities in the Alps – available in the BMC shop
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