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Winter traction for feet December 4, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians, White Mountains.
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One end of the spectrum---I don't use these very often

Ever since I moved back to the Southern Appalachians, I’ve heard hikers comment along the lines of, “We decided not to do that hike because conditions were too icy.” That seems a shame when so many tools are available for dealing with ice or with steep, slippery snow.

People around here are starting to catch on to devices like Kahtoola Microspikes. They’re great for many winter conditions—if you had to pick just one device, I’d recommend these—but they aren’t perfect for every situation. Up in New England, where I did winter hiking for 16 years, microspikes have become so popular that people sometimes make the mistake of using them in situations, like steep hard ice, where crampons are needed. I remember hearing about a group doing a winter traverse of the Presies (i.e. Presidential Range) who nearly had a fatal accident. One of them was climbing up the icy slope of Mt. Jefferson with microspikes and took a long, frightening slide.

For many years in these parts, people have used instep crampons on icy trails like the Alum Cave Trail on Mt. LeConte. They’re certainly better than bare bootsoles, but they have serious limitations.

Instep crampon on regular hiking boot

They only give you four points of traction, and they’re quite awkward when you get past the icy stretch and walk on bare ground, especially rock. So you end up taking them off and putting them back on at regular intervals.

Another option is Yaktrax. I gave away my pair and can’t offer my own photo, but here is one from Wikimedia.

Yaktrax

Definitely an improvement over the insteps—easier to put on and take off, more effective—but personally I have been more satisfied with the microspikes.

Here is what the microspikes look like before you pull them on. They can easily fit in a large zip-loc bag.

Microspikes

The red connector bands are flexible enough that you can use them on a variety of boot types. Here they are on a pair of Sorel boots.

Microspikes on Sorels

Now, for a digression into boots. I find that regular hiking boots are fine for temperatures down to 20 degrees or so—below that, I start having trouble with icy feet. Obviously, each person reaches that discomfort level at a different temperature. Colder than that, you need boots like Sorels with felt liners or plastic mountaineering boots.

I should say that I differ from most people in preferring Sorels to the plastics. If you go to an outdoor equipment store, chances are they’ll tell you the Sorels are only good for shoveling snow out of the driveway. But I found them to be very comfortable and very warm, and I’ll just say that I climbed all 48 of the 4000 footers of New Hampshire in winter wearing Sorels. I even went up the Lions Head route on Mt. Washington in Sorels.

As you saw in the above photo, microspikes fit just fine on the Sorels. So do strap-on 12-point crampons. The one disadvantage is that you can’t use step-in crampons with Sorels, and the strap-ons take more time to put on and take off.

Sorels with strap-on crampons

You see the plastic boots with step-in Grivel 12-point crampons in the photo at top. The step-ins are very convenient—the part behind the heel snaps into place, and then you just have one strap to deal with. My problem with the plastic boots was that I felt like I was wearing cinder blocks on my feet. By contrast, the Sorels were so comfortable that I always felt reluctant to switch back to my regular boots in spring!

Neither the strap-ons nor the step-ins depicted above are suitable for technical ice climbing. That’s a whole other deal. You use two short ice axes, one in each hand, instead of the long mountaineering axe.

Mountaineering ice axe

You see that I’ve wound some medical tape around it for better grip, plus I’ve attached a leash. Probably most of the time in the Southern Appalachians you’d do just as fine with a trekking pole. The ice axe does work better for steep icy conditions. Ice axes can be surprisingly versatile—my friend Greg Harrell did some “thinking outside the box” and came up with a technique for using an axe while doing steep climbs up slides in the Smokies, regardless of season.

Finally, a word about my personal experience with snowshoes. In 1993 I purchased a set of 36″ Sherpa snowshoes and had the optional big claws put on.

Claws on Sherpa snowshoes

With these snowshoes, I was able to march right up steep snowy slopes without backsliding, while my friends with smaller claws struggled along. Well, I can’t recommend the Sherpas, for the simple reason that the company went out of business a while back. Much smaller, lighter snowshoes have been the trend for a while. But I wonder how people do with those in really deep, unconsolidated snow. It comes down to the simple physics of “flotation”—you need a good-sized surface area to keep you from sinking down.

Sherpa snowshoe

By the way, forget about those advertising images you see, like in L.L. Bean catalogs, of people gaily scampering along in their snowshoes. Look closely, and you’ll see they’re on a surface that’s already packed down! Real snowshoeing isn’t about trotting around on a touring center track, it’s about getting to places in the mountains that you couldn’t reach otherwise.

Good luck with your winter hiking.

Champney Falls, Mt. Chocorua, New Hampshire

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Comments»

1. Charlotte Germane/DaffodilPlanter - December 4, 2011

That ice axe photo really stopped me in my reading tracks. You’re intrepid!

Jenny - December 4, 2011

Yeah, I like that “fierce mountaineer” look that they give you, though the reality is that most of the time use of an axe doesn’t require much skill. You just need to practice a bit on self-arrest when you’re glissading…

2. Tom L. - December 5, 2011

Jenny

Great post — as always. I read all your stuff and enjoy, although I do not post too often.

I hope you write a similar piece on altimeters. I bought a $100 one that supposedly measures to 12,000 feet, but it seems inaccurate in the Smokies — off sometimes by 1,000 feet in a hike where I am only walking up 3,000 feet.

Anyway, I hope your knee is healing slow and steady!!!

Jenny - December 5, 2011

That’s an interesting idea about featuring altimeters. I might just do that.


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