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In mountaineering one often encounters snow fields with about knee deep snow that basically needs to be trudged through. This is extremely tiresome, especially at high altitudes. Typically the team members take turns in laying the track (going first so others can follow in their footsteps).

I am only a novice mountaineer, but to me it seems that snowshoes (plus ice axe just in case one needs to self-arrest) can make things an order of magnitude easier in this regard. Since it is deep snow, there is no real need for mountaineering crampons anyway.

But the fact remains that I have never ever seen snowshoes in a mountaineering context. They are not heavy, and to the extent they are, I think they might make traversing wide/deep snow fields easier. Of course they will need to be swapped for crampons in anything other than a deep snow field.

Any ideas on why is this and if snowshoes are a viable idea to try out?

For context, my only mountaineering experience is in the mid-Himalayas, but this question is not specific to that region, but more in preparation for higher altitudes.

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    snowshoes are quite heavy, take up a lot of space, and don't fit in your backpack, which I understand mountaineering tends to prefer. They are also clunky, and can be dangerous if you start falling, I think – njzk2 Oct 24 at 3:58
  • Yes, good points. They weigh about 2kg/pair, so that's about twice that of a pair of steel crampons. They are about the same length as an ice ax, but wider - so yes, they will need to be strapped outside the backpack. I guess the real question is if they are worth it. Especially on a longer mountaineering trip, which can last 2+ weeks, where you have either porters or a sled. – Yogesch Oct 24 at 4:33
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    Also including "ever" is a bad idea: Mountaineering is so varied, if you search long enough the answer to this question is "yes" no matter what item you put there (e.g. I'd bet that someone has used a snorkel in mountaineering). – imsodin Oct 24 at 8:48
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    There are snowshoes designed explictly for climbing steep snow. verts.com They are mostly used by snowboarders, but might be a useful addition to a mountaineering tool set. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Oct 30 at 13:59
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    I have borrowed a pair for a backcountry skiing. Once the slope gets too narrow and steep to skin up, they really work pretty well if the snow is too soft for crampons. My backcountry skiing is mostly a lot more mellow these days. They are a bit clunky on flatter ground. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Oct 30 at 19:41
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Yes, snowshoes can be very useful when mountaineering. The ideal conditions for their use are lots of snow and fairly gentle slopes. The deeper the snow, the greater the advantage snowshoes have over just boots. The steeper the slopes, however, the more difficult and dangerous it becomes using snowshoes -- ascending or descending. Be prepared to take them off and use boots and ice axe.

  • Thanks, very useful points. In addition, after reading your links, I am starting to believe that perhaps snowshoes are better suited for ascents than for descents.. – Yogesch Oct 24 at 6:01
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    It can also depend on how soft the snow is. In soft snow, crampons are useless, and there is little danger of sliding out of control. – Ben Crowell Oct 24 at 19:55
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    Yes, @Yogesch, ascending is a little easier. Sometimes, however, when the snow isn't too hard and there is a safe run-out, sitting down in the snow and sliding down on you bum can be very quick and fun. You need rain pants or a plastic bag to sit on. – Martin F Oct 25 at 4:31
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    Yeah, I love glissading. Fast and fun. But when I did a month long mountaineering course, people were sternly rebuked for doing it - because it is almost impossible to avoid (hidden) crevasses. This is especially important on untamed glaciers. – Yogesch Oct 25 at 4:35
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    Good point: Don't do it on glaciers. Do rope up on glaciers. – Martin F Oct 25 at 4:40
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Snowshoes are certainly useful in mountaineering and are widely used, at least in North America. Typically they are used on the approach and not so much on technical terrain. Many of the climbers I know own multiple pairs of snowshoes of varying sizes, to handle varying snow conditions.

However, many climbers far prefer skis to snowshoes because of the speed and fun they add to the descent. Ski descents of the large glaciated peaks around the Pacific Northwest are quite popular.

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There are certainly use cases for snow shoes. However, I believe this is rather a niche when talking about proper alpinism and not just snow shoe hiking as it is always an addition to the normal equipment, never a replacement for crampons.

If there is a lot of snow (to expect) and the terrain is suitable, most people will skip snow shoes and go directly for skis. They offer a better weight distribution, meaning you will not sink in as deep as with snow shoes. The better weight distribution helps with traversal of snow bridges over crevasses. I personally feel much safer traversing a steeper slope on skis (during the ascent) than on snow shoes. Not to forget that the downhill is much more comfortable on skis.

A good use for snow shoes in the alps are north faces (for example Fletschhorn, Lenzspitze). The typical season for those routes is late May and early to mid June. During this time, there is still a lot of snow on the approach. Snow shoes can be quite handy especially on the approach to the hut which is often done in the afternoon. They can then be left at the hut as the snow will freeze over during the night and crampons will be better suited. Alternatively you can attach them to the backpack (mine weigh about 800g each and fit quite well to the ski mount) and I carry them throughout the route. In this case snow shoes are a lot lighter and less bulky than skis. (While these two north faces are regularly descended on skis, I consider this too dangerous for my level of skiing ;))

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Depending on the route, you'll likely need a way to not sink into snow and give you more grip than boots alone. With ice or hardpack snow boots and crampons are great.

Most folks with the experience would prefer at skis, Telemark skis, or a splitboard: they're substantially more efficient for longer snow travel than snowshoes (nicknamed "slowshoes").

But if you don't know how to ski or split, and/or you don't have a lot of snow to deal with, snowshoes are great.

Walk down the street, ride a bike a few blocks, and drive a car to the next state over. They all work but some are better than others depending on the job.

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In alpine conditions generally skis will work better. Below timberline skis work on broad trails. Narrow twisty trail and bushwhacking is easier with snowshoes.

Snowshoes on a steep crusted side hill are double plus ungood.

Snowshoeing solo is a lot of work breaking trail. The second person is spending less than half the energy.

Snowshoes leave a trail about 18" wide: perfect for a pulk or other sled.

Overall: Conditions favouring skis:

  • Open terrain
  • Steep slopes
  • Windpacked or crusted snow.
  • No brush.
  • Experienced personnel.

Conditions favouring snowshoes: * Deep soft snow * Irregular terrain * Lots of brush or trees. * Newbies. (It takes about 10 minutes to learn how to use snowshoes)

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