Pioneer Profile: Gene Prater and Bill Prater

Snowshoeing is now the fastest-growing snowsport, and it wouldn’t have happened without Gene and Bill Prater, who developed the first lightweight, metal-frame snowshoes.

The Praters were passionate winter mountaineers who used traditional wooden snowshoes to approach the Cascade peaks they wished to climb. They recognized that the clumsy wooden models were not suitable for demanding ascents and descents, so in the early 50s, they set out to “fix” snowshoes, initially by modifying World War II Army surplus models. Ultimately, they decided on a whole new approach to combat the large wooden snowshoes’ inherent flaws.

In the early 70s, Gene, who had worked for Boeing, experimented with the first use of modern materials for snowshoes. He and Bill eventually settled on a small oval frame of an aluminum alloy. Instead of the traditional webbing, the decking was a neoprene sheet laced onto the metal frame. The Praters formed Sherpa Design and named it after Washington State’s Sherpa Climbing Club, whose members were happy to lend the club’s name to the new-fangled snowshoes.

The brothers spent nearly two decades designing, testing, redesigning, retesting, and perfecting this revolutionary snowshoe, which debuted in 1974 and dazzled anyone who had struggled with conventional snowshoes.

The synthetic decking provided more flotation within a smaller frame than their old snowshoes, and the binding easily adjusted to any size boot. Anodizing the tubular aluminum kept the wet Cascade snow from sticking to the frames. A hinged steel rod underfoot coupled with the conventional toe hole enabled the wearer to move his boot toe through the plane of the snowshoe without wobbling. By the mid-80s, Sherpa was the leading snowshoe brand.

Gene Prater also became “one of us.” His seminal book, “Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master,” was first published in 1974 and has been in print ever since. The fifth edition of this classic, updated by Colorado snowshoer Dave Felkley, came out in 2002. Until he died in 1993, Gene spent 45 years as a snowshoe visionary, snowshoe designer, snowshoe manufacturer and presenter of snowshoe seminars in the Pacific Northwest, the Appalachians, and the Rockies.

Ultimately, the Praters sold Sherpa, but Bill Prater continued making a line of snowshoes under the Prater name. Now in his late 70s, he remains active in the outdoor community of the Northwest.

Well after Sherpa had set the standard for snowshoes, Eric Prater continued to operate the family farm and to design snowshoes under the Prater label to carry on the family tradition. Under the pressure of corporate competition, both Sherpa and Prater snowshoes have faded from the scene, but the Prater brothers’ legacy launched what has become a vibrant and fast-growing winter sport.

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Claire Walter

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