When Lightning hits the snow of the frozen North, something’s got to give.
I’ve had a chance to try out the MSR Lightning Ascent 30-inch snowshoes in the far northwest corner of Canada’s Northwest Territories this winter. It’s a case of high technology, snowshoe-speaking, versus the savage cold and bottomless powder snow found inside the Arctic Circle.
For the most part, I’ve been mightily impressed with the Lightnings. The grip is phenomenal, the comfort off the scales, the versatility is unrivaled, the quality is marvelous, and the bindings are better than average.
However, none of that addresses the primary reason to use a snowshoe, and that’s to remain as far on top of the snow as possible, particularly for breaking trail. In that, the Arctic Circle has won the contest hand’s down, and sent the Lightnings onto the local snowmobile paths with their tails between their legs.
Let me tell you, this stuff is deep, it’s bottomless, and it’s powder of a sort I’ve never encountered back in Ontario. Unless it’s disturbed, it simply doesn’t pack down at all beyond maybe a thin crust where it’s been wind-scoured.
That means, unless you’re someone like my oldest sister, who is barely five feet tall and a hundred pounds, you need some serious flotation power if you’re going to break trail.
Since I’m well past the 200-pound mark, that’s even more the case, and unfortunately, the MSRs got their butts kicked by these conditions.
I should hasten to add, though, that locals gave me a look that could loosely be interpreted as “crazy greenhorn wants to snowshoe in the bush” when I went out. They gave me the same universal advice.
“Stay on the snowmobile trails.”
I should have listened!
The first couple of times I went our I tried to break my own trail up to a snowmobile trail. Big mistake!
I was floundering up to my waist at times with the Lightnings on. God knows how deep I would have gone otherwise, since the snow-pack is upwards of five feet deep. I might well have been standing there with just my head showing.
After that, and after contacting an MSR representative, I slapped the optional tails on the shoes and headed back out. That certainly helped, as I was floundering in snow only to my knees or just above.
Still wasn’t a lot of fun, though.
I was out one night past 9pm struggling through the snow when I tripped over a buried conifer and found myself doing the front crawl in the snow. Right around that time, I heard a pack of wolves howling. That proved to be the correct amount of incentive to get back on my feet. After that, I called it a night.
Strangely, for an area with this kind of weather, there are very few snowshoers and I didn’t find anyone willing to go and break trail with me.
So I wound up taking the locals’ advice and stuck to the snowmobile trails after that. I tended to seek out the ones that were less travelled, since it’s kind of foolish to snowshoe on trails that are hard-packed enough to walk on without them.
On those trails, the Lightning Ascent were delightful shoes to wear and performed way beyond my expectations, particularly for grip. They’re also pleasingly lightweight.
All in all, I’d endorse them enthusiastically, unless you’re heading for some serious powder.
I’m still trying to figure out just what kind of snowshoes would work in Arctic conditions. I might have to return to some of the oversized traditional styles.