Snowshoeing to Extremes
Backcountry snowshoeing, strictly speaking, is so esoteric it barely exists. Not that many people camp, compared to the general population; fewer still winter camp; fewer still tromp around in snowshoes.
But even for those that do, it can hardly be called dangerous. Slow, occasionally exerting—but when was the last time you heard about death by snowshoes? This all changes when you decide to snowshoe down a cliff.
It wasn’t planned, especially. Every year, we’d go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, and snowshoe in to a campsite near Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota, a fearsome 2301 feet above sea level. We would then make a winter ascent—sans oxygen!—to the peak, hoist our bourbon, and head back to camp. This involved some bushwhacking, since it was unsporting to take the trail up top. Taking the trail down, however, was completely legal.
One winter we decided to take a different route back to camp: the North Face of Eagle Mountain. Not known for its mountains, Minnesota nonetheless once had them, and these hills are the remnants. Scoured by glaciers, leaving only rock and ice that later melted and became the Land of 10,000 Lakes, our mountains are small but still scattered with the random steepness of rock face, and so, with the foolishness of youth, we decided to descend the North Face.
Even now I wonder at the stupidity of it: it was steep, steep enough that falling would have been injurious, or worse. But what the hell, we had snowshoes! With crampons! And so we careened from tree to tree, sliding, laughing, oblivious to consequences. This is what it is to be young, strong, and stupid: to face death in the eye without even realizing it, grabbing trees like lifelines before they whizzed by, plotting your line like an Olympian slalom racer through the gates, the sun shining and not a care in the world.
I look back and wonder, marvel, and laugh. Isn’t this the essence of snowshoeing? Trails are fine as far as it goes, but this: to go where there is no trail, where you couldn’t bushwhack in the summer, to go where you could only go, in the winter, with these humble contraptions, invented thousands of years ago: this is what snowshoes, and snowshoeing, is all about.