Making tracks

Snowshoes let you get into the backcountry, and back again

Elevation (6/13/2002)

Brion's comments:
'Who says you can't build a better mousetrap. This profile on Atlas showshoes - light years ahead of my old wooden-framed shoes - shows there's still room for inovation. '

Feature article:

Ben Warner knew that without snowshoes, he was inviting trouble. Being buried up to your sternum in fresh Utah powder will do that. The 37-year-old product development director for Atlas Snow-shoe was on a little backcountry snowboard adventure on the backside of Solitude when he got to wondering "So, how deep IS this stuff anyway?"

"Just for fun, I took my snowshoes off, and sunk up to my chest in the snow," says Warner, laughing. "I realized then that if I didn't have snowshoes, I'd be stuck there."

Or wouldn't have been there in the first place. The beauty of snowshoes, says Warner, is they swing open the doors to remote areas of the backcountry, and for a lot less coin - and a lot less noise - than getting dropped in by helicopter. If the snow is soft and deep, the offer flotation. If it's hardpack, the cleat system provides traction.

"They can take you to those places in the wintertime that you could never get to otherwise," says Warner. "In Utah, I realized I could not have been where I was without snowshoes. I couldn't walk. I could have crawled or clawed my way along, but I would have never made it, because we were climbing a very steep hill. It was unbelievable. We hike up to this glade that was not accessable to anybody. The powder was so steep and deep I doubt a snowmobile could have made it up. Of all the equipment that's available to us, barring helicopters, it was my snowshoes that got me there - this simple peice of equipment that I can carry on my back."

Of course, snowshoes aren't a modern revelation by any yardstick. Winter travel made the invention of the snowshoe a necessity thousands of years ago. Volney "Gil" Gilpatrick, a veteran Maine Guide and author, swears by the traditional white ash snowshoe that he bends and laces at his Skohegan home - snowshoes that closely resemble those used by the native Penobscot Indians centuries ago.

"I like using things that I've made myself," says the 66-year-old Gilpatrick. "I'm sure fly fishermen feel the same way when they tie a fly."

The "best guess" by historians, Gilpatrick says, is that the first snowshoes appeared in central Asia more than 4000 years ago, with the earliest being pieces of wood lashed to the user's feet, spreading his weight over a larger surface and increasing floatation. To this day, it is the general principle behind all snowshoes and skis.

"At some point in time these central Asians split into two groups, with one moving northward into what is now Scandinavia, and the other moving through Siberia and over the then-frozen Bering Strait to North America," he says. "The two groups continued to develop and improve their snowshoes. In Scandinavia they eventually became the Nordic ski, while the American's continued to improve and develop their snowshoes."

And while the general look and function of the reliable wooden snowshoe remained relatively unchanged until the late 1980s and early '90s, the design was altered dramatically with the advent of aluminum frames and synthetic decking. At Atlas, founder Perry Klebahn's passion to build a better snowshoe grew out of his Stanford University engineering thesis. His patented four-point, spring-loaded binding formed the backbone of the company's radical snowshoe.

"We've changed a few materials, but the basic design and function of the spring-loaded binding hasn't changed at all," says Warner. "You could take the first snowshoe and compare it to the one we produce now and they're incredibly similar. We've improved the harness dramatically. But the frame, the style of the decking and the spring-loaded binding haven't changed, and probably won't change, because we feel it's such a key component to the performance of the shoe."

What sets the spring-loaded binding (US Patent No. 5,699,630) apart from other systems, says Warner, is its abiltiy to provide "just the right combination of flex while maintaining absolute control over the snowshoe."

"Simply, what the spring-loaded binding does is it keeps the the snowshoe in a proper position for you to be walking without stressing your joints, your ankles or your knees," he says. "When you're just walking in your hiking boots, they have support around the ankle, so when you step off a ledge you don't twist your ankle. The snowshoe will tend to follow the terrain. If you step off an edge, you're snowshoe is going to try to twist. We don't want to transfer that into your joint, into your ankle espeically. The spring-loaded binding is soft enough to allow those variations in terrain, but yet it keeps the snowshoe in position under your foot."

The design has stood the test of time. Warner says the company is constantly tweaking its product, such as replacing the Hypalon decking with a more abrasion-resistant Duratek and improving the harness system, while being careful not to change what already works well.

"Without compromising any durabilty or performance, I need to make these snowshoes as easy to use as possible," says Warner. "We will always improve the performance of our snowshoes. We may make it lighter, but I won't make it lighter at the expense of durability."

Even Gilpatrick makes some concessions to modern design, using nylon instead of rawhide or bibiche to lace up his hand-made wooden snowshoes. And Warner isn't shy about tipping his hat to the dependability of the predessor of the aluminum and synthetic shoe.

"Those old wooden snowshoes hold up well, but you're supposed to revarnish them after a while, and replace the lacing," he says. "Our snowshoes are maintenance free. They last and last. And they're guaranteed for the life of the snowshoe. If something breaks or fails, due to workmanship, we'll replace it, no questions asked."

Which is exactly the kind of commitment to quality you're looking for if you plan to go through that door into winter's backcountry.

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