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Gaining traction

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June 2022 Issue

Looking for a simple, low-cost way to enjoy the mountains in winter that is easier on the body than skiing or snowboarding? Give the ancient sport of snowshoeing a try.

Snow, silence, sunshine, and mountains all around – as lunch spots go, this was a good one.

To the west, beyond the broad braided flats of the Godley River, stood the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. Glistening, stoic. Behind us was Stag Saddle, Te Araroa’s highest point.

It was September, late in the season for snowshoeing yet here we were, on Snake Ridge in Canterbury’s Two Thumb Range, having scrunched our way up behind local guide Peter Munro. 

Most of our group was new to snowshoeing so we’d booked a four day guided trip with Alpine Recreation. We stayed in Rex Simpson Hut, on the edge of Te Kāhui Kaupeka Conservation Park just three hours’ walk from the road. The hut was warm with its big potbelly stove and its location, within the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve, provided the bonus of a glorious night sky display.  

Snowshoeing, as it turned out, is quite straightforward, but having Munro there gave us reassurance. He understood the weather and snow conditions, he gave us all personal avalanche transceivers, and he knew the best routes for our fitness and ability. He was also a mean cook.

Munro says snowshoeing is only recently gaining traction in New Zealand. “It’s mainly people in the older age bracket,” he says. “They still want to do something adventurous but not if it will be too hard on their bodies.”

People have snowshoed for thousands of years. The first ‘shoeski’ was reportedly crafted from wood, animal hides and sinews in central Asia in about 4000 BC, to enable winter travel and hunting. Ancient migrations crossing the Bering land bridge from Siberia brought snowshoes to Canada. They later reached Europe via French traders and trappers who learned about it from North American First Nations peoples.

Recreational snowshoeing is now huge in mountain regions worldwide. Copahue, in Chile, is about to host hundreds of aficionados to the 15th World Snowshoeing Championships. Shoe designs have evolved from animal parts to clunky tennis racquet-like models to the flexible, composite, lightweight shoes of today; easy to attach and easy to carry on your pack.

Back to the Two Thumb Range. On day one the forecast was iffy so Munro opted for a short outing. We climbed briefly through tussock to the snowline and donned our snowshoes. Snowshoeing is pretty much like normal walking, just keep your feet a bit wider apart, instructed   Munro, and off we scrunched.

Little crampon-like spikes under the shoes gripped the icy slope and we felt secure. (Later in the day when the snow turned soft, the broad shoes straddled the mushy bits and only rarely did we fall through, causing much hilarity in the process.)

Climbers sometimes use snowshoes for easy access. Photo: Adrian Camm, Adventure Consultants

Snake Ridge has a gentle incline and we enjoyed a mild workout as we climbed to that grand lunch spot, then descended across Mt Gerald Plateau where Munro told us about watching an aurora when he camped there one night.

The next day, we scrunched up Snake Ridge, keeping away from the edge having been warned of an overhanging cornice that we couldn’t see. There was little chatter, just warmth from the sun, the Alps glistening and there were smiles all around. Near the top, we sidled across to Stag Saddle and began the long descent down Camp Stream, finally running out of snow but equally enjoying the emerging tussock landscape that’s such a distinctive feature of the Two Thumb Range in summer. We’d not seen another soul all day. This was part of the appeal for one of our group, Caroline Hughes.

“I absolutely loved the trip and am now a snowshoe addict,” she says. “I loved the serenity, plus the obvious workout you get with snowshoeing. I went home to Queenstown and bought my own, very swish French shoes, and can’t wait to use them again this winter.”

Those ‘swish shoes’ were purchased from Janelle Fletcher and Pierre Champignat in Wānaka. The couple import TSL Outdoor snowshoes made in the French Alps region where Champignat grew up. Fletcher says she’s noticed snowshoeing gaining momentum in New Zealand.

“It wasn’t easy at first after coming from France, which is such a snowshoeing nation, but what we have noticed over the last two years is that people have been diversifying and trying snowshoeing for various reasons,” she says.

“I do think Covid had an impact, people craved being outdoors and wanted to avoid ski-lift queues and crowds.”

There’s also the tightening of the dollar. “Some people just can’t afford a ski pass and with snowshoes, they can whizz up to any mountain and get out on the snow for nothing,” Fletcher says. “We also see die-hard skiers or snowboarders who either have injuries or feel their age turn to snowshoeing.”

Queenstown’s Jude Collett took up snowshoeing after a skiing injury 12 years ago so that she could still get into the backcountry in winter. She’s also one of Wakatipu Tramping Club’s growing snowshoe cohort.

“We run two or three snowshoeing trips a year,” she says. “We tend to do day trips onto the Pisa Range, or Old Man or Old Woman Range. We can also access some good high places through the ski fields, in particular The Remarkables. There are so many options after a good snow dump.

Snow, silence, and surrounded by mountains – a snowshoeing lunch spot. Photo: Kathy Ombler

“Sometimes, if it’s a bluebird day, a few of us will just say, let’s go.

“It’s also about getting out into the hills in winter without ice axes and crampons and the skills needed to use them. Snowshoeing is available to more members. We’re thrilled that it adds to our trip options.”

Another club member, Margaret Blanshard, says the snowshoeing trips often attract older people who don’t want to downhill ski anymore.

“We have good leaders, they know their way around and can manage if they get caught in a white out, which can happen.

“Sometimes we’ll walk first, up to the snow, for example up Wye Creek, and then we put our snowshoes on. They are so light and easy to throw on your pack. The shoe designs vary, happily we are seeing more options locally now.”

It’s quite hard work, she adds. “It’s harder than walking and you don’t cover the same distances – well I don’t – but we can get to all sorts of places on snowshoes. Essentially, if you can tramp, you can snowshoe.”

At the Wānaka Snow Farm, general manager Sam Lee says snowshoeing is growing by at least fifty per cent each year. “We have been investing significantly in our snowshoe fleet.

“The new clientele includes a lot of people who have moved to the region or who are visiting and don’t have any experience in snowsports. They might have been hikers and are keen to be in the snow. Also, they are generally aged 40 plus although we do get a smattering of younger ones, and we get school groups.”

People can safely snowshoe on their own, he adds. “It’s just follow your nose; snowshoes are designed for that and whether the snow is soft or hard there is a benefit of wearing snowshoes as opposed to hiking in the snow.

“Snowshoeing is definitely opening the mountains to a wider demographic and it’s a good gentle exercise without major impact – I reckon it’s become the golf of winter sports.”

Snowshoes have long been a practical aid for more adventurous winter pursuits. Some hunters use snowshoes for winter chamois and tahr hunting. Each winter, a friend attempts at least one off-piste multi-day snowshoe/tramping adventure, the shoes help him avoid much deep snow plodding. Climbers use them for access.

Fletcher says snowshoeing can be as gentle or as high energy cardio and adventurous as you want it to be.

“Whether you want to stroll along gentle slopes as a beginner, or explore glaciers with more technical shoes, snowshoes can take you to the terrain you want to be on.”

Aspiring Dogs. Photo: Avalanche Dogs handler, Matt Gunn, relies on both dogs and snowshoes for rescue work

Snowshoes are now essential equipment for avalanche dog rescue teams, says Wanaka’s Matt Gunn, a senior handler with NZ LandSAR, which runs twelve avalanche dog teams certified to carry out avalanche rescues.

“Snowshoes are an incredibly valuable part of our equipment. They now have priority over skis as skis have limitations when transporting our dogs.

“It’s partly about our response protocols: we can quickly load the dogs and us and our equipment into a helicopter, but skis need to go into a pod and that’s problematic espec-ially if we want to go for a quick unload while the helicopter hovers.

“Also, the conditions we work in vary wildly underfoot. With their steel spikes, snowshoes are useful in hard, icy conditions, plus they’re good for travelling over softer snow.

“Sometimes we do need skis for traversing into terrain if helicopters can’t get close enough, but we’ve been using snowshoes as part of NZ LandSAR Avalanche Dogs for the last decade.”

Gunn also runs Aspiring Avalanche Dogs, a non-profit organisation based out of Treble Cone that aims to ensure a continued supply of trained avalanche dogs. When it comes to avalanche rescues, dogs are a critical aid, he says.

“A dog’s ability to scent minute particles is quite incredible, and they can cover a large area very efficiently and quickly. However, it takes two years to train a dog from puppy to operational level.”