One foot in front of the other
Snowshoeing with the guy who wrote the book about snowshoeing
Snowshoe expert Mike White and I ascend the steep slope to Tamarack Lake wearing the sport’s namesake footwear. The snow is packed hard in some spots, soft enough to sink into in others. Two brightly jacketed women glide out of the forest, bid a cheerful “good morning,” and remark how the snow is too sticky for cross-country skiing. We notice the skiers have cut awkward 6-inch-deep tracks in the wet powder. But this kind of snow is more forgiving to snowshoers.
With a 25-inch-long aluminum and vinyl platform on each foot, it’s easy to stomp up the nearly vertical bank of snow. But, ever prepared, White is carrying a small shovel, which he would have used to make “stairs” if the snow had been too finicky to scramble up.
“Being an introvert, I like to go away from crowds, not toward crowds,” says White, as he treks up a forested slope. He’s an average-built 53-year-old, suited up with just enough black fleece and gear to look warm and prepared but not enough to come off as a winterized sports yuppie.
We’re not far from the entrance to Mt. Rose Ski Resort. We don’t venture more than a mile from the highway on this warm, clear day, but during our excursion, we’ll only pass four other wanderers.
White, originally from Portland, Ore., has been scouting the mountains around Lake Tahoe year-round since he moved to Reno in 1976. A life-long enthusiast of the slower outdoor sports, he’s become such an authority on hiking, snowshoeing and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada that lately he’s been suffering a bout of nose-to-the-grindstone syndrome. With several books to his credit and a new guide to hiking the Reno/Tahoe area due out this spring, he’s been spending more time at his computer writing about getting outside than he spends outside.
White’s Snowshoe Trails Tahoe: The Best Routes in the Tahoe Sierra describes 65 snowshoeing routes. The book includes advice on everything from the obvious (wear gloves, carry water) to the slightly less obvious (ski poles are helpful) to the wise words of an experienced outdoorsman occasionally humbled by nature. (He lists a few tips on preparing for avalanches. But after having been startled by the force of a tiny 6-feet-wide one that hurled him down a hillside, his bottom line on the subject is to wish us the good luck and good sense to avoid them.)
For anyone with enough outdoor experience to stay hydrated and not get lost, snowshoeing is simple: Skip right to White’s maps, directions and brief discussions of land-use rights, topography, natural history and parking issues. Buy some snowshoes. Put one foot in front of the other.
But for those starting from square one, White’s level of detail leaves virtually no question about snowshoeing in the Lake Tahoe area unanswered. Snowshoe Trails Tahoe explains how to reach the Truckee Meadows by every imaginable form of transport. It directs readers to a restaurant near each trailhead that’s passed White’s stringent requirements (not too expensive, must be “reasonably friendly to poorly dressed, unshaven, perspiration-soaked, snow-sodden customers") and advises on what to do if nature calls when you’re out in the snow, far from civilization. (Technically, you should be packing waste out. If you haven’t arrived prepared to do that, be as discrete and courteous as possible about where it ends up.)
One question may remain: “What’s the point? It’s just strapping big shoes to your feet and stomping around in the snow, right?”
Well … yes.
But snowshoeing has been attracting new followers since the mid-1970s, when the manufacturer MSR designed a more efficient snowshoe, refining those clumsy, over-sized tennis racquets that now hang in history museums and alpine lodges. The smaller, lighter snowshoes made of metal and synthetics have come a long way since then. Their improved traction and easy-to-use bindings have allowed snowshoeing to blossom into a sport that attracts a wide cross-demographic of participants. Adventurers with more ambition than lift-ticket money will often head away from ski resorts and into the backcountry to conquer a slope from both directions—snowshoeing up, then boarding down. White points out that it’s a perfect sport for people without a lot of time to devote to perfecting a sport, as it involves almost no learning curve. Since snowshoers in Northern Nevada have their pick of terrain and elevation, the extremes of difficulty levels can range from “20-minute nature walk” to something more like “maniacal cliff scaling.” (Call the Sierra Club to reserve a hut if you’re feeling maniacal enough to stay out overnight near Donner Summit.)
Despite his season indoors, White has no trouble blazing a trail straight up the hillside and past the sweet-smelling lodgepole pines poking out from huge drifts.
“That’s Tamarack Lake,” he says, pointing down the other side of the hill we’ve just scaled. Herein lies the point of snowshoeing. There is no lake. Or, rather, the lake’s surface is hidden under a wide meadow of snow several feet deep. A view of this exact spot in summer would be unrecognizable in its January guise. Above the lake, a cornice has formed the ridgeline into a new shape. Wind and snow have made an overhang across the peaks. Within the course of a half hour, the ridgeline will change again as a chunk of the cornice crumbles in the warm, dry air and falls off.
“The nice thing is, the snow covers up a lot of roads, so you can come out here without anybody bothering you,” White says. Roads? I wouldn’t have guessed there were roads here.
The clouds that have been keeping the skies hazy drift away, and the sunlight makes it look as though someone spilled a jar of glitter over the wind-carved snow formations. The landscape around Tahoe is splendorous any time of year. But during the winter, it has a whole new topography. We’re walking on top of 4 feet of snow, towering above 7-feet-high trees. It also has a new palette as the pines cast soft blue shadows. The easiest way to catch a glimpse of this glistening new landscape with invisible lakes and useless roads is by snowshoe.
White and I trek back along the same route. Stepping in tracks is easier than stepping in fresh snow. Just before we reach the trailhead, a couple more cross-county skiers pass us, looking pleased to have gained some speed while descending the hill. I wonder if the snow has improved for skiing over the past couple of hours, and I hope they get as good a tour as we did.