Every time I saw an outdoor magazine promote the virtues of the up-and-coming activity masquerading as a sport, I thought, snowshoeing is for losers. It’s what people do who are too afraid to downhill-ski. Too chicken to establish new land-speed records on snowmobiles and too uncoordinated to master the technical demands of cross-country skiing, snowshoers to me were the kind of erudite twits who wear tweed smoking jackets while extolling the virtues of Grade AA maple syrup. Oh, what a dumb boy was I. Not quite ready yet to sew leather patches on my elbows, tap a maple or … um … get a job, I will, however, admit that I have recently gone snowshoeing.
I realize that to make such an admission is to risk alienating those readers who once believed they could count on me. Both of them. But let this new convert explain why I am now one of the nearly 6 million Americans who snowshoe, according to the Outdoor Industry of America. I had stopped downhill skiing because my bad back sometimes causes one of my legs to become useless beneath me, and negotiating an expert, double-black-diamond, rock-strewn chute atop a mountain on one ski is no longer my idea of excitement. But since I still like the mountains, and since I’d read that snowshoe sales had increased 20 percent annually during the 1990s, I figured I’d swallow my pride and subject myself to snowshoeing. Then I’d move on to shuffleboard.
To my surprise, however, when I visited the outdoors store REI, I found that snowshoes are no longer the clunky, misshapen tennis racquets that were generally worn by grizzled mountain men wearing pelts. No, today the “woodies” of old have given way to much-lighter, sleek models with frames made of aluminum or composite materials. Where once practitioners of the sport had to employ the bow-legged gait of the saddle-sore, snowshoers today can walk naturally, since the platforms are much thinner than in times past. I found the top-of-the-line Denali Evo Ascent model by Mountain Safety Research so impressive that I instantly overcame my bias against snowshoeing and purchased a pair with the optional 6-inch flotation tails.
This product endorsement is tangential to the narrative, but it may entice MSR to reimburse my 180 bucks (can’t blame a guy for trying). In California, at the eastern Sierra ski resort of Mammoth Mountain, I learned from an RVer in Mammoth Mountain RV Park that a fine snowshoeing trail started at the base of the main lodge and headed toward Reds Meadow, which I had visited in the summer and liked. The trail was popular and patrolled by rangers, so a novice heading out alone would have little to worry about. I strapped on the snowshoes, cinching the bindings tight over my high leather boots, slipped the straps of my ski poles over my wrists and set out down a groomed trail, crunch, crunch, crunching my way over a path well traveled by snowmobiles and Nordic skiers, based on the tracks I was obliterating with my own.
I admired the stunning contrast between the snow’s whiteness and the sky’s blueness. I listened to my iPod (Apple? Are you there?), easily established a rhythm, chugged past the last condo and then came to the end of the groomed trail. The truth is that I knew exactly where I was, though I’d never been there before. I had grown up visiting Mammoth, and I knew that I was paralleling the road that leads from the main lodge to the new Village. Even though I could not see the road as I traipsed among the snow-hung evergreens, gingerly picking my way down steep hills and huffing up slopes that would have given mountain goats pause, I knew that I was no more than a hundred yards from a rescue. I loved the way the snowshoes responded, how they kept me atop the soft snow, how the steel traction blades and crampons prevented me from sliding when the terrain got too steep.
I was alone in a beautiful setting, getting exercise in a way that certainly beat a stationary bike. Depending on speed and terrain, snowshoers can burn between 500 and 1,000 calories an hour. I wended my way past wide-open meadows of white and maneuvered around hummocks and felled trees. I tried to guess which species had left the countless tracks that crisscrossed my trail. I let Bigfoot snap my picture. I felt so good that I believed for a few minutes that I’d found my true calling. I was Jeremiah Johnson. Then I walked down a long, steep hill and my left leg began to go out, quickly becoming useless, except to remind me that we feel pain for a reason — especially the excruciating kind. I thought of resting. I thought how grateful I was that the road was only a hundred yards away.
I winced my way to it, took off my snowshoes and stuck out my thumb. The second car stopped. A kid half my age asked if I was hurt or just tired. “Hurt,” I said, then explained the pain in my leg and how it would most likely go away in a couple days. “That’s good. I blew out my ACL and MCL in my right knee snowboarding. Can’t hardly do anything. Having surgery in a couple weeks.” I commiserated with him, told him I hoped the operation went well, then thanked him for the ride. Before I headed back to the RV park, I had coffee in the Village Starbucks. Two days later I’d be back on snowshoes. But as I sat and sipped that day, massaging my leg intermittently, I was darned grateful I wasn’t a snowboarder. Now those people are losers, I thought.