Weight: 3 pounds and 8 ounces or 1587 grams
Size Tested: 8″x22″ or 20×56 centimeters
Let’s begin with an understanding. If given the choice either to snowshoe or ski on an approach, I am going to pick skis every time. When guiding on Denali, however, I find that the combination of people’s varied ski skills, and the fact that we are schlepping huge loads up the Kahiltna Glacier, makes snowshoes the right choice.
For this test I took the MSR 22″ Lightning Ascent snowshoes. I used these on two Denali trips and one foray into the Ruth Gorge for a total of forty-five days in the Alaska Range. I am 5’11” and 170 pounds and was carrying up to 60 pounds and pulling another 50-60 pounds.
At first glance these aluminum-framed snowshoes appear heavy, but once on my feet, they were surprisingly light. A tough urethane deck supported by two aluminum rails creates a solid base and is securely attached to an aggressively toothed frame, which provides a stiff shoe with superior traction. MSR has put real thought into the binding. It held my foot firmly in a comfortable position for walking, could be worn on either foot, and never loosened on its own or fell off. The tethering system consists of three straps, and the buckles were easy and quick to fasten and unfasten. Everything is metal or plastic and thus still worked well when frozen or wet.
I was impressed with balance struck between having a shoe narrow enough to allow an almost normal gait, yet large enough in total surface area to provide floatation over deep snow or crevasses. Additionally these tended to not “ball-up” with snow as often as other snowshoes in the group and were much quieter when walking. MSR’s website suggested the 25″ model for my weight, but I went for the shorter length and was willing to work a bit harder in deep snow in order to reap a lighter overall setup. If you are a “strong like bull, smart like tractor” alpinist, then this is your approach shoe. If you are a more recreational snowshoer, then the 22″ model makes sense in firm conditions, and the 25″ would work better in soft snow.
The one option I did not find myself using was the Televator heel lift, which works like the heel lift on an alpine touring ski and allows your foot to remain horizontal when walking uphill. Even on steep terrain I found the heel lift uncomfortably high, so I always kept it down. The Televator has been lowered a bit on the winter 07-08 version, presumably solving that issue. Additionally MSR has added a fourth strap to the binding and beefed up the heel portion of the deck to fix a minor wear issue.
These cost more than MSR’s reliable, standard-setting plastic snowshoes, but if you can swing it, the Lightning Ascents are well worth the investment; they’re as good as any I have used.
[Photo] John Race collection
Pros: Light and sturdy; great traction; well-designed binding; not much balling-up
Cons: Expensive; Televator heel lift is uncomfortably high, but is being revised for winter 07-08