Buyer’s Guide: Snowshoes for Mountaineering

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Snowshoeing can be a pleasurable pastime when the powder isn’t that deep or you’re following an established track. (Which, ironically, often means flotation isn’t even necessary.) When snowshoes are actually needed, it would be difficult to describe one’s relationship with the four-pound torture devices as anything less than abusive.

Breaking trail in untracked snow is about as enjoyable as slamming your hand in a car door, except you repeat it a few thousand times over a multi-hour outing. It’s tiring. It’s awkward. Your hip flexors hate you. You look like a big nerd. If you want to venture anywhere other than the most popular trails in winter, however, mountaineering snowshoes are a necessary evil.

Luckily for us, gear designers seem to understand how much snowshoeing sucks. Manufacturers in recent years have made incredible advancements in flotation technology. Nowadays, it’s more like just crushing your pinky instead of your entire hand. The negative effect is that the market has become saturated with dozens of different offerings, and it’s difficult for the uninitiated to understand what to purchase.

For the purposes of this guide, I’ve refrained from mentioning other less conniption-inducing flotation options. I doubt you’ll find anyone arguing that a backcountry ski setup isn’t worlds better than even the most advanced snowshoes, but skis require additional skill and at least six times the entry-level investment. Mountaineering snowshoes are also more versatile on steep, rocky alpine terrain. If you have $200, a pair of sturdy legs and an ample supply of self-loathing, they’ll take you anywhere you want to go.

Here are the factors to consider if you’re in the market for a new pair of mountaineering snowshoes:

Cost

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t skimp on price. Sure, you can get a great deal at Costco or Walmart or wherever, but those models will break at the first opportunity and provide a maximum misery factor: insecure bindings, poor traction, heavy weight. Plan to spend $200-300 for a pair from an established name brand. Not only will you appreciate the enhanced features, they’ll also last a decade or more.

Traction

Buy a pair with steel crampons, for durability and traction on both snow and ice. They should also have teeth running along the side edges for stability on uneven terrain. This is perhaps the most crucial feature of a mountaineering snowshoe. If your footing slips even a little, especially on steep slopes, you’re going to have a bad time. An added bonus is that snowshoes with aggressive traction can be used fluidly on slopes up to about 30 degrees, without the hassle of stopping to swap into traditional crampons or MICROspikes.

Length

This will depend entirely on your stature. If you’re a heavier person, you’ll need bigger snowshoes to stay afloat. That said, for longer days and vertical ascents, gear weight is at a premium. The MSR Evo line is fantastic in that you can get a shorter snowshoe — 22-25 inches — with removable 6-inch tails for deep powder days. I’m a 6’0” and 185-pound adult male, and I’ve never once regretted owning 22-inch snowshoes. Consider also that these loathful beasts will spend a significant amount of time riding on your back as you’re traversing dry, wind-swept or hard-packed terrain. The 30+ inch varieties might as well be five-pound windsails, if they fit on your pack at all.

Heel Lift

Snowshoeing is hard. Snowshoeing on high-angle terrain is harder. The idea behind a heel lift is to remove some of the awkward strain on your calves, and it’s far from just a novelty. Used appropriately, a heel lift can turn a steep straight-up sufferfest into a relative pleasure cruise. It basically cuts the required work of snowshoeing uphill in half. Plenty of great snowshoes exist without heel lifts, but if you plan to regularly do more than 1,000 feet of vertical, spring for a pair with this amazing and underrated feature.

Bindings

The snowshoes, obviously, have to stay on your feet. You should be able to comfortably wear them for hours without any slippage, including on steep and uneven ground. You’ll also be putting them on and taking them off all the freakin’ time, so make sure you can easily manipulate the straps. You should be able secure or remove a pair in 30-60 seconds, while wearing gloves. Each company has a different take on bindings. Play around with what works for you and your winter boots. Flexible straps that lay flat are a nice bonus for when you have to carry your snowshoes on your pack.

Durability

You can’t go wrong with higher-end models from any the major brands carried at dedicated gear shops. Look for an aluminum or plastic frame to ensure the snowshoes don’t shatter the first time you fall through trap-door snow and make friends with a rock. I’ve spent eight years abusing my MSR Evo Tours, which are pictured above and sadly discontinued. They’re showing no signs of wearing out despite frequent encounters with rocks, dirt and pavement.

5 Winter 14ers for Beginners

Often the most difficult aspect of committing to a big endeavor, such as climbing a 14,000-foot mountain in winter, is knowing where to start. It’s a common misconception for summer hikers that winter is off limits, a no-man’s-land of arctic temperatures, sheer ice faces and hourly avalanches. That’s simply not true. I previously wrote a basic overview for exploring the alpine in the so-called offseason, and now I’ll attempt to answer another oft-repeated question: Which peak(s) to try first?

As a disclaimer, none of these routes offer guaranteed safety. It’s imperative for anyone venturing into the winter backcountry to have at least a basic understanding and awareness of avalanche terrain. The stakes are also exponentially higher. More care needs to be given to gear selection, route knowledge, emergency preparedness and other safety precautions. A forced night out in the summer could be uncomfortable. A forced night out in the winter could be fatal.

I chose the following five mountains based on access, minimal avalanche danger, ease of routefinding and general popularity. Many others are doable as relatively safe winter daytrips. These are simply the lowest-hanging fruit.

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1. Quandary Peak

Winter Trailhead: Quandary (same as summer)
Winter Route: East Ridge (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 7 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,500’

When asked what’s the easiest 14er to attempt in the summer, an argument could be made for several different mountains. When the same question is asked for the winter months, there really is only one best answer. It’s Quandary Peak.

Quandary’s standard trailhead is right off Highway 9, which is consistently plowed. No extra effort is needed to reach the summer starting point. It’s also the most popular winter 14er, meaning there likely will be an established snow trench unless you’re climbing immediately after a major storm. Snowshoes are still recommended, but the need to break your own trail is rare. Staying on the ridge nearly negates avalanche danger except in extreme conditions, though venturing out onto the East Face can put you in harm’s way.

In short, if you hug the ridgeline, carry a bit of extra gear, have a good forecast, enjoy minor suffering and go in moderate or better avalanche conditions, Quandary isn’t much more challenging in winter than summer.

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2. Mt. Bierstadt

Winter Trailhead: Roughly 1.75 miles below Guanella Pass at the Guanella Pass Campground (Georgetown side)
Winter Route: West Slopes (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 10.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,800’

The only thing more difficult about Mt. Bierstadt in the winter is about three miles of road walking. The west-facing slopes harboring the summer route are often blown clear by intense winter winds, with lengthy segments of the trail exposed above treeline. Some avalanche danger is possible during part of the approach up the road, as well as while gaining the upper shoulder at around 12,000 feet. In most conditions, a safe line is apparent.

Many people try to save themselves a couple hundred feet of elevation gain by leaving the road early and making a beeline for Bierstadt without visiting the summit of Guanella Pass. I generally advise against this, as it takes you through a soul-sucking patch of willows. In my experience, it’s easier to stick to the road and suck up the minimal extra gain.

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3. Mt. Elbert

Winter Trailhead: South Mt. Elbert
Winter Route: East Ridge
Winter Mileage: 12.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,900’

See the other side of famous Mt. Elbert. The hardest route statistically on this list also comes with perhaps the lowest avalanche danger. Mt. Elbert’s broad and gentle East Ridge seldom gets steep enough to allow a slide. Like many winter routes, it starts with a two-mile stroll along a closed 4WD road before joining the South Mount Elbert Trail. In some seasons, especially early on, all or part of this road can be driven.

Prepare your mind for the upper portions of this hike. It includes several heartbreaking false summits. Combined with the incessant wind that almost always berates Colorado’s highest peak in the winter, this is as much an exercise in mental fortitude as it is physical endurance.

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4. Mt. Sherman

Winter Trailhead: About 2.5 miles short of the standard summer 4WD gate
Winter Route: South Slopes
Winter Mileage: 8.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,100’ to 3,500′, depending on parking area

Be careful on this popular winter peak. Avalanche-safe lines abound, but the danger is insidious. Venturing even a hundred feet in the wrong direction could put you in a slide area. Along with Quandary and Bierstadt, this is probably the most attempted winter route, due to its short length. I personally know at least three parties that have gotten caught in slides on this mountain. Avalanche terrain awareness and careful decision making are essential.

The starting point for this hike varies considerably. I’ve logged four attempts in winter and began from a different staging area each time. In general, plan to start about a mile below the Leavick site. Anything closer is a bonus. Walk the road to just before the summer 4WD gate, then veer right. The terrain here can be confusing and deceptive. Select a cautious line and make your way toward the obvious shallow gully to the right of the Mt. Sherman summit, targeting the broad plateau between Sherman and White Ridge.

It’s important to take this alternate route and not attempt to stay on the standard trail. Gaining the Sheridan-Sherman saddle on the summer path comes with considerable avalanche risk, including a large and reliable cornice.

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5. Pikes Peak

Winter Trailhead: Crags Campground
Standard Winter Route: Northwest Slopes
Winter Mileage: 14 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,300’

It would be hard for 14 miles to feel much shorter. This gentle route maintains an easy grade most of the way, with only a few steep sections. The popularity of the Crags area as a dayhike also means that a trench is a nearly permanent fixture. The upper portion of the hike, above Devil’s Playground, parallels the summit road. Because Pikes stands largely alone, it’s often subjected to blasting winds. Large sections of the wide, obvious trail above treeline were visible every time I’ve done this peak with snow.

In contrast with Mt. Evans, the road up Pikes Peak remains open year-round, weather permitting. It’s hard to express the sheer joy that’s felt while eating a donut and drinking hot chocolate in the confines of a brick shelter after seven miles hiking uphill in a subzero wind chill. It’s also hard to express the willpower that’s necessary to leave that shelter for the seven-mile hike down.