Why an article about snowshoeing here.
Because mountain safety was and is always my priority and I like to share a bit of my experience if it can help. Lately, in the Yukon, the hiking community grew up very fast. Winter already here, a lot of hikers are eager to get out and enjoy the winter, for some of them snowshoes seems to be the perfect tools. You might think, oh well, another skier snobbing people with snowshoes. No, I’m not. Mountain safety was the essence of my job, I did numerous operations to rescue or extricate people with snowshoes, and most of the accidents were not related to avalanche but some other factors in common.
No, I’m not going to tell you what to bring or not. Yes, it’s important to pack enough gears and to have an emergency kit. But you can find this information everywhere on the web. Yes, taking a First Aid course is important. But being trained in first aid and having a lot survival gears won’t prevent you from having an accident. Sometimes, it can even give you a false sense of safety. In the backcountry, the most important thing to have, is your common sense and a bit of knowledge.
I will try to give you a good overview of the main source of problems you might encounter while snowshoeing in the Yukon. Just like other practices, usually accidents are not only the result of one mistake but generally because of an accumulation of different factors.
Are snowshoes appropriate? Yes and no, it depends on the terrain and the conditions. Snowshoes are good for deep, soft snow on flat or very mellow slopes. In facts, snowshoes are absolutely not adapted for mountains, even if nowadays some models are built differently and can cope a bit better with slopes … have you ever seen mountaineers with snowshoes?
Snowshoeing might seem pretty similar to summer hiking. The perception that winter travel is just as safe as summer travel is wrong. You strap snowshoes on your feet, wear a few more clothes and set out on the same trails. But, no, it is definitely different.Yes, snowshoes are simple and easy to use but the places you can go with them, although safe in the summer, can be extremely dangerous in the winter and spring. Snow on the ground makes for easy travel on flat terrain, but increases hazards on steep terrain. First the snow itself create more problems and is a great factor to increase other risks, and I’m not only talking about the avalanche problems. In Fact: in North America, there are more rescues for snowshoeing incidents not related to avalanche than all avalanche accidents.
The first thing to take into consideration: snowshoeing requires more energy than hiking or skiing, and, of course, it is way slower. Whatever are your physical capacities, for the same distance, you will be between 2 to 3 times slower with snowshoes. This factor, considerably increase your exposure to risks and added to the others factors, it worsens the consequences of an incident or accident. So, when planning a trip, you have something to keep in mind. Even if you already did the same trip in summer conditions, in winter conditions with snowshoes, it will take you 2 to 3 times the required time to complete the same trip … and you will be more tired. So, with the short winter days and the cold, planning is the key and the remoter you will be, the biggest your safety margin should be.
In winter, the snow, covers the ground and make a trail disappear. So it’s a lot easier to get lost. In the winter since the snow can obscure summer trail. But there is an advantage to it, if t you lose the trail, you can follow your footprints in the snow to backtrack (if it’s snowing, it’s not always possible).It doesn’t always take a snowstorm to get you lost but it can make it worse as well as fewer hours of daylight in the winter. You’re getting more tired, slower and then you don’t have enough time to get back to the trailhead. In winter in the Yukon anyway, it is also a good choice to have a headlamp all the time with you, don’t rely on your cellphone to do that.
In the mountains, there is a common mistake that can lead to serious accident not only for snowshoers but also for hikers and skiers. When lost or to save some time and take a shortcut, people head downhill and end up going down a slope that is sometimes too steep to climb back up. DON’T start blindly descending a slope you don’t know. Many skiers, hikers and snowshoers have been injured or died this way. When going downhill, you can put yourself in a very dangerous situation, into very steep gullies that are hard to get out of or slip and fall off cliffs. A lot of rescues are for people calling because they’re stuck just above a cliff unable to move … or sometime at the bottom but already dead or severely injured.
Though it’s not as likely to happen with snowshoeing as it’s with other outdoor activities, you can injure. yourself while snowshoeing. Snowshoeing puts a lot of strain on your feet, ankles, and legs. The most common injuries while snowshoeing tend to be strains, sprains and breaks to lower extremities from snags, twists and falls. The snow also covers obstacles and features of the ground that becomes perfect traps, like hidden branches, stomps, holes, creeks, ponds, etc. It will slow your progression and increase the risk of fall or to injure yourself. Sometimes when the vegetation is too thick, when the ground is uneven or crossing side slopes, it’s better to walk without snowshoes. T
Steep slopes are sometimes fun to run down or tumbledown, but be aware of the risk to hit a potential obstacle hidden underneath the surface of the snow.On a slope, hard snow can make it impossible to slow down and stop a fall. Uncontrolled slide is another important cause of accident.
The snow can also hide liquid water. Especially this year, lately we received a lot of snow. Some lakes, creeks and other ponds were barely covered with ice. Now, the new layer of snow is insulating the water or the ice, it will take more time for the ice to build up and to consolidate. Worse case scenario, you could be completely immersed, but even a little deep can lead to serious consequences. Do you have appropriate waterproof boots. Just walking in an overloaded area can soak your boots and once out, it freezes in a few seconds.
Avalanche.To keep it simple, an avalanche happens when snow slides down a slope and if big enough, destroys and buries things on its way … including people, of course.Usually people associate avalanches with skiing, but avalanches aren’t selective. I will not develop more, because it’s a vast topic that requires full courses to apprehend it at its real scale. So the only thing to know, before going on slopes with snow, take an avalanche course.
Glacier travel, because of the difference of the surface of the snow and the increase of pressure per square feet, people travelling with snowshoes are more prone to fall through a snow bridge. To know more about risks on glaciers: the danger of being on a glacier.
Those are just the most common hazards and risks related to the terrain and the environment, the objective risks. What you have to be aware too is yourself and your comportment, not only when something wrong or bad happened, but during the preparation and during the trip itself. This is called the human factor.
Like previously said, accidents aren’t usually the result of one big mistake. But, instead, a cascade of small mistakes and/or bad decisions. And then it builds up to cause a dangerous situation. One of the most important factor is the ego. It could push you forward to the summit when it’s safer to turn around because you already did it in summer. It can make you keep going when you are lost, instead of backtracking. It will prevent you from telling your adventure partners that you are tired or not confident because you don’t want to look weak.
Often, victims of the incident or accident didn’t realize the potential dangers of the situation until something went wrong. Sometimes consequences can be minor, like being tired, a bit injured, a bit hypothermic … up here it could lead to frostbite … sometimes leading to amputation, but it can also be deadly.
So planning is the key of your safety.
Especially up here in the wilderness of the Yukon. You do not have to go too far from downtown to be in a wild and tough environment. Also, Search and Rescue resources are limited and are not activated and don’t respond the same way as they do in more populated area … are you sure you really know how and who to call in case of emergency?
Know before you go, be prepared, properly equipped, know how to use your equipment, have an emergency plan and a risk mitigation plan.
A few tips.
—Do not underestimate the cold, when tired or injured, the cold will have more effect on you.
—Turn back before it’s too late.
—Do you have an emergency plan?
—Do you have a risk mitigation plan?
—Use poles, it is not unusual to see people on snowshoes with no poles … if you are not convinced, try with and without, no need for further more explanation.
Don’t get me wrong though, snowshoeing can be fun and you don’t have to go too far. But, before adventuring in the mountains, do something simple to get use to your equipment, your pace and to know better about what time and energy it takes to move from place to place.In Whitehorse, Mount Mac has some snowshoe trails. We are lucky to have a lot of nice trails within the city limits. What about an evening walk underneath the moonlight or even better with the northern lights?
Have fun and play safe.