It’s easier than you think to walk big alpine peaks. If you want a go at some snowy mountains this year, try strapping on some snowshoes
The Alps. In winter. High up and surrounded by snow and ice. An empty world of pristine snowfields and towering summits, all a very long way from any lifts, pistes, roads or huts. It’s the stuff of mountain dreams, the picture of a landscape I’d imagined myself into a thousand times but never thought I’d reach.
You see, I’m not exactly a hardcore mountaineer, bristling with axes and crampons and wrapped up in ropes. And I’m certainly not much of a skier, so my chances of ever getting off-piste are slim. Yet here I am. It’s wild and beautiful and glorious, and it’s all thanks to these peculiar contraptions of metal and plastic strapped to my feet.
Snowshoeing? Isn’t that for Germans of a certain age? Maybe you’ve seen them from the piste, a snaking line following mother duck, plodding up alongside the easy run. Or maybe you’ve had a taster go yourself, and spent an enjoyable but hardly challenging hour bimbling around an alpine village.
When I told a mountain-savvy mate I was off on a snowshoeing trip, he gave me an encouraging little nod. “Yeah, I’ve heard it’s really popular now. My grandparents had a go last year.”
But if you doubt that serious snowshoeing can be, well, serious, try a day in the mountains with Hilary Sharp – climber, mountaineer, mountain marathon runner and qualified ‘Accompagnateur en Montagne’. Author of the Cicerone guidebook ‘Snowshoeing: Mont Blanc and the Western Alps’, Hilary takes both snowshoeing and her clients to their full potential.
A snowshoeing enthusiast for nearly 20 years, Hilary had immediately seen the possibilities it offered for great days out. “Snowshoeing is just a really good way of discovering the winter Alps,” she says. “My first pair of snowshoes were bright pink and did look like tennis rackets. But the equipment has improved so much, now they can take you to extreme parts of the mountain yet you don’t need anything like the technical skills of ski mountaineering.”
Hilary has played no small part in getting me to my current snowy heights, as I’m with her and a mixed gang of snowshoeing old-timers and first-timers on a whirlwind tour of the highlights of the western Alps.
Day one, and I’m strapping them on for the first time. Modern snowshoes aren’t the wood and leather affairs that reminded the French of tennis rackets (and so called them ‘raquettes’) when they borrowed the idea from Native Americans hundreds of years ago. These days companies like TSL and MSR are constantly developing them for the right balance of size and shape, and with the built-in crampons they can tackle anything from deep snow to steep, icy slopes.
We’re at the foot of a steadily rising iced-up path. But they say a walker is only a few steps away from being a snowshoer. So let’s see. One step, and the crampons bite with a crunch. Feels fine. Another step. Great. A third. I’m a snowshoer.
Dave Lambert and Rebecca Trumble are the other first-timers in our group. As keen skiers, they usually take a winter holiday in a resort. So why a snowshoeing trip this year? “We just felt like trying something different,” says Dave. “We love the mountains and we’ve hiked the Alps in the summer and thought snowshoeing would be a good way to see more in the winter.”
And if you’re watching your emissions, as the carbon footprint of the average ski resort is losing us snow quicker than the snow cannons can pump it out again, snowshoeing has become the environmentally-friendly choice for enjoying the Alps in winter. No fuel-hungry lifts, and certainly no wholesale destruction of habitat-rich alpine forest.
We’re up above the trees now, the slopes are getting steeper and the snow is getting deeper. The crunch of ice under crampon is replaced with a low “thrupp” as the deep powder settles under the broad plastic frame. I’m quickly learning to place my feet down flat, allowing my weight to spread evenly. But the experienced snowshoers up front, some of who have 20 years on me, are pulling away steadily while I’m panting like a Saint Bernard in the sun. This is already shaping up to be a challenging day.
As we prepare to tackle our first exposed traverse, Hilary has some handy advice. “Walk like a catwalk model, one foot in front of the other,” she says, and gives an elegant demonstration. “Really stretch those legs, make sure you don’t trip over your shoes.” My sashay is more Ugly Betty than Kate Moss, but it works.
As a first day warm-up we’ve set our sights on a decent but achievable peak – the 2,085m Mont de l’Arpille. It might be a midget next to its neighbour Mont Blanc, but the views are spectacular, and as we finally tramp up onto the summit we have the whole mountain to ourselves.
Then it’s time for the descent. Hilary lines us all up on a short, steep practise slope. “Keep your poles going in front of you, lean a little forward, and RUN!”
I think it’s going to be impossible to keep to my feet, but somehow we all end up panting and giggling at the bottom, and most are still upright. Downhill in snowshoes, there’s none of the zigging and zagging of a skier or snowboarder – you just point straight down and go for it. “Embrace the fall line,” as Hilary encourages us, which quickly becomes my war cry as we fling ourselves on down the soft, powdery slopes.
Dave is loving it. “Descents are awesome! It’s just over too quickly – you look back and you realise how far you’ve descended in such little time.” He’s right, as we’re soon back on the lower slopes. So we spend the rest of the day on the necessary avalanche training – playing with probes and shovels, burying our transceivers in the snow and discovering the effectiveness of search patterns.
But the best avalanche awareness comes the next day when we find ourselves picking through a swathe of destruction. Great banks of snow are piled head-high and more, and dozens of flattened trees are all pointing downhill. Our group is quietly awed as the seriousness of the winter Alps comes home. Hilary convinces us it’s safe now, but you really wouldn’t want to be around when this lot came down.
Today the goal is the 2,547m Col Serena, a high pass surrounded by peaks. If you’re used to bagging summits in the Lakes or even Scotland, in the Alps you might have to accept you’re not always going to reach the very top – to scale these rocky peaks in full winter conditions you’re definitely in the world of the elite mountaineer. But for me it’s enough of a privilege to be out among the summits, enjoying the mountains in their winter coat.
It’s almost busy here, as our route is popular with local ski mountaineers. They’re skilled and mountain fit, but we’re not far behind on the ascent, which prompts Hilary to further extol the virtues of snowshoes. “They’re so much lighter and more nimble than skis, we often beat ski tourers to the top,” she tells us.
More surprisingly, we have the better of the descent as well. The deep snow is turning rapidly to slush in the afternoon sun, and what would be horrible on skis is a joy with snowshoes. It might take only a few steps to become a snowshoer, but now I’m discovering some of the subtleties of the technique. My descents are improving as I learn to weight my heels more and go with the slide, and my legs are already feeling stronger.
Day three, and it’s the most challenging trek yet. But by now we’re all comfortable on the varied terrain and keep up a good pace. Again there’s not another soul in sight – we’re alone in our very own winter wonderland. As we traverse up the steep slopes, eagles fly overhead and we spot the tracks of fox and hare. A final steep climb and we pull up onto the 2,775m Col de Nana, and drink in the spectacular view of the patchwork of peaks and glaciers that is Mount Rosa.
And here I am. The Alps. In winter. High up and surrounded by snow and ice. It’s wild and beautiful and glorious, and it’s all thanks to snowshoeing.
Unless you were schooled in a French crèche and could parallel turn before you could tie your shoelaces, you probably won’t be ski mountaineering this winter. If you’re not happy with an ice axe between your teeth, you might think you’re only going to be imagining yourself in those pictures of lonely, snowy summits too.
But think again. If you want a go at some big snowy mountains this year, strap on some snowshoes. Believe me, it’s not just for grannies.