+19 19 votes

Why Snowshoe?

 Photo: With the thin snowcover this is no country for new skis, but a good place for snowshoes.

by Andy Dappen

November snows had blanketed the region and many of us were anxious to ski. But my conscience was giving me lip, “Wait,” it argued, “Don’t hurt yourself and miss the whole season like…,” It was six years ago in early season that my skis came to a fast stop as they ground across ground and I launched forward into a fall that broke my neck.

Wrestling with these unsettling vibes, I exercised a rare instance of wisdom and substituted what seemed most fun for what seemed smart – I bailed from one group headed out to ski and joined another going snowshoeing.

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Saturday morning five of us arrive at the Tronsen Road parking area situated a mile below Blewett Pass. As we unpack it’s the first time I appreciate how easily five of us can fit into a car without needing ski racks or ski boxes. Our packs, boots, poles, and snowshoes have no trouble slipping inside the car. I also get reacquainted with how little ‘extra’ gear this endeavor requires over three-season hiking. All of us already use the packs, clothing, boots, and walking poles we have along for other outdoor endeavors. The only specialty gear accompanying us is the snowshoes themselves.

With very little gear fondling we strap snowshoes onto the hiking boots and we’re off in the wake of Fred Stanley who’s fastest to get going. In fewer than 100 steps Fred leaves the  boredom of the snowed-over road, climbs up the road bank on our left (that is so steep skiers on skinned skis would be backsliding miserably), and bee-lines up the fall line. Rather than following an uninteresting road that climbs slowly at a low-angle pitch designed for sustainability rather than efficiency, Fred climbs through a pretty forest of ponderosa pines following a no-nonsense angle upward.

Mark Shipman is far happier blazing this direct cross-country route through the forest than wandering an inefficient road system. “The great thing about winter is that you can go anywhere. The landscape becomes so much bigger.” In deed, even in these early-winter conditions, the little snow we’ve received is beating down shrubs and bushes and covering fallen logs. It’s far easier to pass through here now than in summer and it will get easier still as more snow arrives.


Photo: Bushes and brambles are easy to negotiate with snowcover and snowshoes.

As we move upward, I evaluate the terrain we’re panning from a skier’s perspective. The ‘shoes are frequently scraping dead branches, fallen logs, underlying rocks, and shrubbery. This is not problem for snowshoes – they’re built for this kind of abuse – but it would be a huge problem for skis that were slicing through the snow at speed to encounter all this hard matter. Furthermore the exposure of these slopes (west and southwest facing) are wind and sun hammered throughout the winter and would, more often than not, offer poor skiing conditions. There are dozens of places like this off the Blewett Pass Highway and in the foothills of Central Washington where snowshoes facilitate travel through interesting terrain that’s not very skiable.

We climb onward, our snowshoes frequently grinding the underlying ground, with Mark Schaffer walking polelessly in our midst. Mark broke his right wrist mountain biking this summer and can neither grip a pole with that hand nor afford to fall. Although he does carry one pole strapped to his pack should he need added balance, Mark is currently completely confident in the bite of his snowshoes (MSR Lightnings) and is not at all concerned about falling. If skis were the only option for enjoying the winter landscape, Mark wouldn’t be with us – the chance of falling is just too high.

At the 4,400-foot level we start climbing steeply up a small ridge system. The combination of pitch, pines, and saplings would be troublesome to climb on skinned skis – there are none of the long open traverses that skis need for efficient travel. On snowshoes, however, the going is easy. We move straight up the fall line by kicking the shoes into the hill as if we were front pointing. Each kick builds a snowy platform under foot and, almost as if we were walking up stairs, we move upward.

We intersect Bojangle Ridge (see the online guidebook) and follow this ridge upward toward Tronsen Ridge. Bojangle is an undulating affair that climbs but also has its share of dips. When I’ve skied this ridge, each of those dips is a nuisance – skinned skis make for sketchy sliding when going down these dips and, on the return trip, unskinned skis are tediously slippery as you sweat to climb back up them. On snowshoes these undulations don’t give us a second thought, we just keep walking.

Photo: Fred Stanley on the summit hoping for a break in the clouds. As a climber, Fred appreciates how snowshoes allow him to climb more directly up peaks -- low snow cover or denser forests aren't the same deterrent to snowshoers that they are to skiers.

 

Eventually we intersect Tronsen Ridge and follow it upward to a 5900-foot bump of a summit situated a few miles north and east of Diamond Head. We snack as clouds and mist swirl around us. It’s an atmosphere full of frozen crystals and veiled views. The sun tries to vaporize the clouds and occasionally its outline burns through the gray canvas above. Today, however, the moisture off the Pacific outstrips the fires of the sun.

We start our return trip and, given the soupy weather, I don’t miss the strain of skiing downward through terrain the eyes can’t interpret. Farther down the visibility improves and I mention how fun this ridge is to ski in February when the  snowpack plumps up.  

Sarah Schaffer getting advice from Mark Shipman, "It's about getting out -- not about the tool."

Sarah Schaffer has been wondering about the whole backcountry skiing issue. Should she take it up? What type of skis and bindings would suit her interests best? Would she even like skiing? These are questions she really doesn’t want to get wrong when gearing up for some form of backcountry skiing (alpine touring system, telemark system, fat skis, lightweight skis) will easily set her back $1,500.

Sarah is about 30 years old and didn’t grow up skiing. She loves to hike and climb but taking up skiing as an adult is a slow learning curve for most. It will require several dedicated seasons of practice to negotiate routes like this one without face planting in the variable snows or eating bark in the tighter glades. With snowshoes she can enjoy the physical and aesthetic rewards of getting out in winter without much thought about technique and with only a few hundred dollar investment.

Shortly before reaching the car, Mark Shipman is in his usual life-is-good state of well being. Many of us joke that the good doctor prescribes mood enhancers for himself but we’ve never caught Mr. Feel Good popping little pink uppers. We’ve concluded that something about outdoor adventures -- that combination of exercise, excitement, and exploration – simply juices his happy hormones.

Mark loves backcountry skiing but he’s happy to switch hit and don whatever footwear matches the snow conditions, terrain, or the companions of the day. Which means he snowshoes a fair bit for a skier. “Skiers have this attitude of ‘Why would I ever  snowshoe when I could ski?’” Shipman tells me. He mentions terrain, snow conditions, and heavily vegetated slopes where snowshoes outperform skis. But to Shipman it still boils down to the basics, “Getting out here is what it’s about – who cares what you’ve got on your feet?”

Allison Dappen photo. Snowshoeing on Tronsen Ridge.

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Why snowshoe? Because snowshoes are a simple, lightweight, inexpensive all-terrain wintertime tool. They open up the whole winter landscape and handle low-snow, heavily wooded and/or rocky terrain better than skis. You can ascend or descend tight places and unobtrusively slip them into a pack when you don’t need them. They don’t take years of practice to master. Most importantly they’ll get you outside and have you loving the snowy winters of Central Washington.  

Here’s a review of some of the better snowshoes to consider purchasing. People with a climbing inclination and who are apt to find themselves on steep terrain are likely to prefer snowshoes like the MSR Denali or the MSR Lightning –snowshoes with excellent crampons and additional traction built into the rims of the shoes. If trekking over snowed-over roads and trails or wandering rolling terrain is more to your liking, a crampon under foot is desirable but non-serrated tubes around the rim of the shoes will glide over the snow more easily.

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Photo: The scenery looking west toward Mt. Stuart  from this directissima route up to Tronsen Ridge.

 

Tronsen Road to Tronsen Ridge – Directissima Route

Skill: 2+ for snowshoeing; 2+ or 3- for backcountry skiing
Fitness: 2
Distance: 6 to 7 miles roundtrip.
Elevation Gain: 2,000 vertical feet

Activity. Snowshoeing or backcountry skiing

Access. From the Big-Y Junction at the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 97, east of Leavenworth, drive south on Highway 97. Pay attention to the milepost signs and, about 0.8 mile before Blewett Pass at Milepost 164.8), park on the east side of the highway along the plowed shoulder. Forest Road 7240 (Tronsen Road) intersects the highway here. A parking pass is not required.

Trip Instruction.
  • From the parking area follow a true bearing of 90 degrees to 4,400 feet (Waypoint 1).
  • Follow a true bearing of 35 degrees to an elevation of 5,040 feet  and intersect Bojangle Ridge (Waypoint 2).
  • Turn right and follow the ridgecrest in an easterly direction to Tronsen Ridge at Waypoint 3 (5,575 feet).
  • At Waypoint 3 it's easy to veer left and keep heading north on Tronsen Ridge. Instead, turn right and head in a southeasterly direction. Drop 80 vertical feet and then follow Tronsen Ridge to your highpoint (elevation 5,910 feet) about a third of a mile away (Waypoint 4).
Return. Backtracking is the fastest option. You can also keep heading south on Tronsen Ridge for about a mile (Waypoint A2) and then follow the Tronsen Meadows Trail (Trail #1205) back to the Tronsen Road (Waypoint A1). Here, follow the Tronsen Road downhill for 1.75 miles to return to the car.

Maps. See our topo map of this route.

Permits. None needed for parking of for snowshoeing.

Leave It Better Than You Found It: This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, and do no damage yourself.

Disclaimer: Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers--they may make mistakes or may not know all the issues affecting a route.You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.