If you are preparing to embark on a Denali Prep course or a Denali expedition with Alpine Ascents, you are also about to enter into the wonderful world of snowshoe travel. There are several reasons for our unilateral use of snowshoes over skis on these trips. First, the learning curve for snowshoeing is far less steep than the one for skiing. One can begin using snowshoes with little to no prior experience and become quite proficient in a relatively short time. When adding in sleds, heavy packs, and traveling on a rope team over glaciated terrain, simpler tends to be better. On this same note, a mixed rope team of snowshoers and skiers also makes moving at a uniform pace extremely difficult. A second reason for using snowshoes is the fact that many ski boots simply are not as warm as the necessary mountaineering boot systems used on Denali, which can be used in conjunction with snowshoes. Lastly, acquiring a full ski setup of boots, bindings, skins, and skis is a huge investment, while renting an appropriate setup that fits well is often quite challenging. With snowshoes, you are looking at a single rental or purchase that is relatively easy to size and requires no additional equipment (besides trekking poles).
In selecting the appropriate length of snowshoe for you, the key is to find a balance between having a shoe that is long enough to provide adequate floatation in deep or powdery snow, but is not so long that it impedes your progress. In other words: Will your sled constantly be colliding with your snowshoe tails? Will the tails of your shoes be long enough to catch on your backpack on the way down the mountain and turn your controlled descent into a head-over-heels tumble down the West Buttress? (I have it on good authority that this is not as fun as it sounds.)
The recommended snowshoe length for use with a sled (and the length of the shoes we rent and sell) is 22 inches. The MSR Ascent series of snowshoes come with removable 5 inch tail extensions for times when additional floatation may be needed, making them a versatile option for a variety of snow conditions.
If you are considering purchasing a shoe for future personal snowshoeing trips, and don’t want to mess with removable tails, 25 inches tends to be a good middle-of-the road option that will give good floatation in a variety of snow conditions, while still performing well in an expedition setting with sleds and large amounts of gear in tow.
Like every other piece of outdoor gear on the market, the possibilities are endless when it comes to how lightweight vs. how durable you can go. In light of the large amount of food and gear you will already be hauling on your expedition, it can be tempting to cut weight where you can. In the case of your snowshoes, however, it is recommended not to sacrifice durability in order to shave off a couple extra ounces. Consider how long you will be in the backcountry. Then consider how frustrating a broken shoe on day 2 of a 21 day expedition would be. Avoid this predicament by veering away from pairs of snowshoes that boast ultralight materials.
Aggressive Terrain Features
Like toilet paper, a climb bar is one of those easily overlooked items that you don’t realize the value of until you really need it. Snowshoes designed for travel over aggressive (steep, icy, etc.) terrain feature a climb bar or riser that can be easily raised or lowered with a trekking pole (similar to the climb feature in all-terrain ski bindings) in order to make steep ascents easier and more efficient. Another important feature for tackling all kinds of terrain is an aggressive traction system that may resembles your crampons’ points. This will give you the necessary ability to move confidently and precisely through more challenging terrain.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but make sure to try on your snowshoes with the boots you plan to wear on Denali. Bindings that fit perfectly over hiking boots or single mountaineering boots may not be compatible with bulkier high altitude boot setups. If this is the case for you, MSR makes longer strap sets to accommodate larger boots.
For Denali expeditions and other winter backcountry exploration, we love the Ascent Series by MSR. The Evo Ascent provides that perfect combination of durability, traction, and versatility that we keep coming back to season after season.