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Studs, spikes, snowshoes, skis: Which tools to use for tackling winter’s slippery slopes

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published November 2, 2017

The view from partway up Flattop Mountain on April 28, 2015. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

After slipping on ice one too many times, I plopped down on the side of the trail. It was a beautiful morning, clear enough to see Anchorage in the distance and ribbons of trail crisscrossing the hillside.

A woman running down from the summit paused to greet me and asked if I was OK.

"Oh, I'm fine," I said, explaining that I hadn't quite figured out how to move on the ice, and that I was impressed that she could run in those conditions.

She laughed and pointed to the traction devices on her feet.

"These really help."

This encounter played out at Flattop Mountain back in spring 2015, shortly after I moved here and just as I started to get into hiking. Lacking experience, I didn't pay much attention to what went on my feet. I figured a hike was a hike.

That was before I encountered snow and ice on the trail.

Now, as I eagerly await the end of our rainy fall and the start of honest-to-God winter, I'm dusting off my winter gear and thinking about how that moment spent crouching on the side of the Flattop trail happened an eternity ago.

Here's a breakdown of different winter trail conditions, and what I'll use to make backcountry travel less of a headache.

Thin ice crust on a flat, hard surface

If you've been on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in a low-snow winter, you know what this looks like. I tend to favor traction devices — ice cleats that stretch over your shoes — with smaller studs on the bottom in these conditions, though ones with coiled wire underfoot would also be effective. They've saved me on many a frigid winter run on the Coastal Trail. Alternately, if you have a pair of running shoes you'd like to dedicate to winter use, you can get them studded at Skinny Raven Sports for $10 (or free if you're pregnant or over 60).

And, of course, you can bring out the ice skates when streets freeze over under just the right conditions, which is what happened in Fairbanks earlier this week.

Packed snow or ice on a steeper slope

When I'm on established hiking trails in winter, I'll reach for traction devices with triangle-shaped spikes that are a little more aggressive than studs. These work extremely well on packed snow or ice when the slope grade is steeper. Come November, I throw these in my backpack, and they'll stay there until April or May.

On the downhill, I like to venture slightly off trail so I'm hiking or running down in looser snow and keeping the packed path intact for others heading uphill. That way, I'm less dependent on traction devices, and if the snow's supportive enough under my feet, I feel like a gazelle springing down the mountain — even though my physical appearance may be quite different.

As with any kind of winter backcountry travel, whether I'm on or off trail, I'll keep a close eye on snow conditions and manage avalanche terrain accordingly. Not sure where to start? Keep reading for more resources.

Fresh, deeper snow on flat or very low-angle slopes

Postholing up to your knees or thighs in snow isn't fun for most people (though you can count me among the masochist minority, depending on whether I've remembered to bring gaiters to keep my feet dry). Snowshoes or backcountry cross-country skis that offer more flotation to keep you on top of the snow will be the biggest help here. If you're renting or buying these, know that they're generally sized in terms of your weight — so, if you'll be carrying loads on your back instead of on a sled, you might consider sizing a little long.

Looking back toward the tarn above Long Lake on April 15, 2016. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

Fresh snow or serious ice on much steeper slopes

At this point, I'm better off bringing crampons meant for mountaineering/ice climbing, or alpine touring skis — as well as snow safety gear and a friend.

Speaking of which, there's plenty going on this week to help us stay vigilant about avalanche safety in the backcountry this season, whether we're skiing, snowmachining or hiking. The Southcentral Alaska Avalanche Workshop runs from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, on the second floor of Alaska Pacific University's Atwood Building (tickets are $20), and the free afternoon session from 1 to 4:30 p.m. is geared toward backcountry users. SnowFest 2017 runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Carr Gottstein Academic Center at APU and features free training on safe backcountry travel.

Looking for more in-depth training? You can find a list of course offerings and workshops at the Alaska Avalanche Information Center's website at alaskasnow.org, and the Alaska Avalanche School website at alaskaavalancheschool.com.

Recent avalanche activity at Hatcher Pass and in the Chugach front range serves as a reminder of the hazards of recreating in the backcountry in wintry conditions. Stay safe, and I'll see you out there.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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