Wednesday January 19: rain in Salt Lake City and new powder in the mountains. All-Mountain Demo was held at a new place this year, Solitude Mountain Resort just east of the city. Nature cooperated by providing 10 inches (25 cm) of new powder the night before and more during the day. What an amazing trip it was to leave nearly snow-free Salt Lake City, chain up the bus at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, then grind up the steep narrow canyon to a winter wonderland at Solitude, which has received nearly 300 inches (762 cm) of snow already this winter.
Numerous manufacturers bring their latest snow gear to the All-Mountain Demo for retailers and the media to see and try out – skis, snowshoes, goggles, sunglasses, packs, traction devices, winter sports clothing, and many other items. Hot drinks and hand/foot warmers were among the most popular items this time!
We have not covered snowshoes very much for the past couple of years, so we wanted to catch up in that category. There have been some significant improvements, and we want to highlight several models that struck our interest because of their light weight and innovations. We will first describe the snowshoes in the photo series below, then present our impressions gained from our on-site testing.
Expanding their Lightning line of snowshoes, MSR (a Cascade Designs brand) introduced the Lightning Flash (and Axis shown above) in fall 2010. Weighing in at just over 3 pounds (1.36 kg) per pair, the Lightning Flash is MSR’s lightest snowshoe, yet it provides superb traction and stability. The Lightning series has a wrap-around flat, vertical aluminum frame that is serrated on the bottom, which they call their “360-degree traction frame.” There are also two serrated cross members to provide additional traction for climbing and descending, plus the usual wicked toe crampons under the binding. This snowshoe also features MSR’s SpeedLock binding system, which has one wide strap over the toe secured with a clamp that sets your boot fit- adjust it once and you don’t have to change it (for the same boots). MSRP is US$199; and it’s available in 22- and 25-inch (56- and 64-cm) lengths and men’s and women’s models. Five-inch (13-cm) flotation tails are available for US$50.
The MSR Lightning Axis snowshoe (US$240) has all of the features of the Flash plus the ability to rotate the angle of the binding, so the snowshoes track straight regardless of any problems you may have with your feet angling inward or outward. They also have a heel lift (the Flash doesn’t) for comfort when climbing steep hills.
The new Atlas Aspect snowshoe for fall 2011 weigh 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg) per pair, but they are extraordinary in the amount of features, traction, and durability packed into that weight. These are high-end aluminum-framed snowshoes priced at $270. They are available in 24- and 28-inch (61- and 71-cm) lengths at the same price, and separate men’s and women’s models. The Aspect has Atlas’s Spring Loaded Suspension (which allows freedom of movement at the pivot point), long wicked toe crampons, serrated side frame (for lateral stability), one serrated cross member that provides downhill stability, a lightweight step-in binding that lays flat for packing, and very attractive decking. Overall, the Aspect may not be the lightest snowshoe around, but it would be hard to find a better performing backcountry snowshoe in its weight category.
We reported on the Tubbs Flex snowshoe a couple of years ago. They are an injection molded plastic snowshoe that features a flexible deck that allows the snowshoe to conform to the terrain. The lightweight Flex TRK (pronounced “Trek”) model will be significantly updated for fall 2011, and will feature a one-piece flexible deck (instead of two pieces), lateral serrated traction, a lightweight step-in binding with toe stop, aggressive toe crampons, and a heel lift. They will be available in women’s 22-inch and men’s 24-inch (56- and 61-cm) lengths for just US$140, which is $10 less than the current version. The weight is 3 pounds 14 ounces (1.76 kg) for the 24-inch (61-cm) snowshoes.
We have previously reviewed the Kahtoola Flight System, consisting of an insulated boot (with integrated traction spikes) that clicks onto a snowshoe deck. The current iteration (available now) replaces the Flight boot with the Trail Crampon, a wearable traction device for hiking snow packed trails. The fall 2011 version shown is expandable to fit different width boots.
The Trail Crampon clicks onto the Mountain Series Deck to create a full-fledged snowshoe. The crampon and decks are sold together; the 24-inch (61-cm) length weighs just under 4 pounds (1.81 kg) and costs US$279 and the 28-inch (71-cm) deck length weighs 4 pounds 6 ounces (1.98 kg) and costs US$289. Both weights include the decks and crampons. The beauty of this system is that you get two useful snow travel devices, the snowshoe decks lay flat on top of each other for easy packing, and the crampon attaches/detaches easily from the deck.
We tested each snowshoe on a quarter mile route in fresh powder up a nearby steep mountain side. So how did they perform? Our favorites were the Atlas, Tubbs, and MSR because of their excellent traction. The Atlas Aspect is the Lexus of the group, with its strong construction, full feature set, excellent stability, and superb traction. But they are a bit pricey at US$270 and weigh 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg).
The MSR Lightning Flash is the standout for light weight and reasonable cost. They are strongly built, have superb traction, and the bindings are cleverly designed for convenience and packing. At 3 pounds 5 ounces (1.5 kg) per pair for the men’s 25-inch (64-cm) length, these snowshoes weigh 13 ounces (369 g) more per pair compared to the Northern Lites Elite, which are the lightest snowshoes we know of. They also cost US$26 less. Although the Flash weighs three-fourths of a pound (340 g) more, their superb traction more than justifies the weight. While the Elite has only modest toe and heel crampons, the Lightning Flash is a traction machine; it’s like comparing an alligator with a catfish.
The Tubbs Flex TRK is the sleeper in the group. This snowshoe is injection molded plastic, but it is still very strong (Tubbs says it has had no breakage problems on the current model), quite light at 3.75 pounds (1.76 kg) per pair (9 ounces/255 g more than the MSR Lightning Flash), also has excellent traction (but not quite as good as the Atlas Aspect or MSR Lightning Flash), has a heel lift (which the Flash doesn’t), and costs just US$140. It’s an excellent balance of light weight, durability, traction, features, and cost.
Which leaves the Kahtoola system: The Trail Crampons are a solid and effective traction device, and the system connects and disconnects easily. However, I am not sold on the need for two separate components, Kahtoola’s snowshoes have only modest toe and heel crampons and no lateral crampons, and they weigh 4 pounds (1.81 kg) or more. Their cost is the same as the high-end Atlas Aspect. For my money, I would choose the Atlas, Tubbs, or MSR snowshoes plus a pair of slip-on traction devices to use on snow packed trails.
Kahtoola also makes the lightweight KTS Crampons, available now in aluminum for US$149 and steel for US$159. Their weights are 18.9 ounces (540 g) and 23.3 ounces (662 g), respectively. The beauty of these crampons is their flexibility; they bend to conform with your boot with each step.
Finally, we found out that Osprey does not have enough packs yet! Introducing the Karve, a “sidecountry” pack, which will be available fall 2011. What’s a sidecountry pack you ask? Well, think of the sides of a ski run, where one can get into some powder. The Karve – which will come in 6L, 11L, and 16L sizes for US$79, US$89, and US$99 respectively – has an amazing design. It will carry skis diagonally or a snowboard vertically on the front, it has one zippered insulated shoulder strap (bottom left)for a drink tube, hydration sleeve inside, shovel blade sleeve, shovel handle sleeve, probe sleeve, fleece-lined goggle pocket, electronics pocket (bottom right), and of course a main compartment. The whole pack has a thin profile so it can be worn on a ski lift. And the graphics on the exterior are pretty cool; available in three colors.
Tomorrow is day one of the main show and the euphoric madness begins. We have numerous meetings with our favorite companies, who always come through with lots of new, lightweight, exciting gear. Look for our blog of the interesting gear we find each day of the show, published the next morning.
We will wrap up our OR show coverage with an article on new waterproof-breathable fabric technologies – an update on what’s new from Gore and eVENT (the usual competitors), plus three more new, major players. We are at the beginning a new revolution in waterproof-breathable fabric technologies; look for our article early next week for the details.