Snowshoes? In Scotland?

[Guest blog by Iain, aka the mountaineer who likes to have a sleep on summits. He’s even been known to take the odd nap on 14, 000 fters when the conditions have been right..]  

Jasmin is away, so that usually means one of two things in winter (assuming I do actually get out of bed): find somewhere sunny to sleep on a mountain or head out on snowshoes…or ideally both.  I was once wakened by the sound of someone taking my photo on the top of a snowy peak – they commented that they had never seen anyone look quite so pleased with themselves as they slept.  Admittedly sleeping in snowshoes does take practice (no lying on your stomach) and can be quite a danger to the knees and ankles if attempted by the non-expert.  Today was definitely not going to be a sunshine day, so it was clear – assuming I could get to the mountains after the recent snow – that it would be a snowshoe only day.

Mention snowshoes in this country and you are almost guaranteed to get one of two responses.  The first is: “oh, those things that look like tennis racquets?”  The second is: “not much call for those here?”  For the first response: no, they don’t look anything like tennis racquets and I have no idea why we all seem to think that they do (was it in a movie or something?).  I’m sure I held this image until a few years ago as well, but they probably haven’t for several decades.  It is simpler to suggest anyone interested does a search for MSR and snowshoes than for me to try to describe them.  For the second response…no, definitely not true either, as today’s outing clearly demonstrated.

L-R: 1) MSR Evo; 2) Amazingly cheap yet easy to fit and resilient Tchibo snowshoe 3) TSL women’s snowshoe


I don’t know how many different types of snow there are, or how many of these require snowshoes, but we definitely get at least one of these snowfalls in Scotland most years when without snowshoes getting up a mountain can prove to be almost impossible.  When there has been heavy snowfall and the snow pack is unconsolidated, there are several approaches to getting up a mountain: get there late, when others have already done the work and you can simply follow in their footsteps; be part of a decent-sized group who can take turns breaking trail; be built like a bulldozer with the energy of the Duracell Drummer Bunny; or take snowshoes or cross country skis.  Well, the skis do have their advantages once you get up the steep parts and can cruise across the plateau (though they are more cumbersome when not being worn), but I have certainly been on mountains where those on skis failed to get up (especially if it is icy) whilst those on snowshoes, armed with aggressive claws and serrated metal strips on the underside, had no problems.

The underside of snowshoes: MSR’s serrated ridges vs.Tchibo claws and TSL’s front claw plus six spikes


Today, with little desire to drive very far, I was heading for Glen Muick.  The weather didn’t look great, so I thought I would just do Broad Cairn and Cairn Bannoch – a decent enough day out in winter.  Unfortunately I had slept badly and put my back out…which takes one to the first problem with snowshoes:  you have to carry them when you aren’t wearing them.  Now apparently George Mallory, when sorting out kit for his 1924 Everest attempt, had asserted that 1 kg on your feet was equal to 6 kg on your back.  Well, maybe for tough guys like him, but I would definitely rather have an extra 500 g (or 1 kg…if he meant per foot) on each foot than 6 kg extra in my rucksack!  However, don’t think you can ditch the crampons just because you have snowshoes – a number of times (notably the descent off Glas Maol after a day of puttering around the Glenshee hills) I have had to change over to crampons to get back down safely in icy conditions. Today my back was nearly bad enough to decide against the snowshoes (which clip on very nicely to the side of a rucksack, as long as it has buckles on the compression straps – otherwise undoing and doing up the straps is a right battle).  The walk along Loch Muick made me think I had made the wrong decision, as the snow was no more than ankle deep and was fairly well compacted.  However, once I got to the turn up Broad Cairn suddenly there was only one set of tracks and they were startlingly deep – in fact more than knee-deep at times: exhausting.  Instead, on with the snowshoes and a fairly easy walk up the steep zig-zag path.  The tracks were clearly those of someone who had gone up and then returned in their own footprints – that they even got as far as the top of the steep slope before turning back earned my respect.   How far would I have sunk in without them?  Well, I was barely going in to my ankles next to where the heroic boot-shod walker had been up to their knees.  The soft heavy snow was bad enough that I could easily push a walking pole in all the way to the handle – as happened a few times when I fell over.  An outstretched arm would have disappeared up to the shoulder.  Once I had reached the end of the track at the pony hut, at about 700 m, the need for snowshoes rather disappeared – this seems to be pretty common for Broad Cairn, a number of times I’ve done the circuit of the Loch Muick hills in crampons only to need the snowshoes for the walk back when down to the track.  Fortunately I was wearing some quite short snowshoes – specifically the MSR Evo in their smallest guise (not much longer than the children’s model) – which are perfect for fitting onto a 45 litre pack, can easily be worn all day without you tripping over them and, if the snow gets too deep, you can simply screw on the detachable tails, which add another few inches to the backs and give additional floatation.dscf3556

On getting back to the top of the steep section a few hours later, I found that by now quite a number of Duracell Drummer Bunnies had been up and a track had indeed been worn into the snow….but nobody had made it any further than that point, not yet halfway to the summit.

So, no they don’t look like tennis racquets, and yes you do need them in Scotland….so why have I never seen anyone else wearing them I wonder?slide3


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