MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes

By Dave Wilkes

MSR is one of the Cascade Designs brands along with Therm-A-Rest, Seal Line, Platypus and Tracks. Over the years I have used a number of products by some of these brands (MSR, Therm-A-Rest, & Platypus to be specific), and with one minor exception have been quite happy with the products. I have come to equate the Cascade Designs brands with quality in design and construction.

Images courtesy of MSR http://cascadedesigns.com/msr/snowshoes/steep-and-challenging/lightning-ascent/product

My first impressions of the snowshoes suggest these are in line with my expectations of MSR products. The construction appears to be flawless, and I can find no fault in the design. While I would not go as far as calling the design ‘revolutionary’ since this design is more in line with traditional snowshoes than other MSR models, I would not hesitate to use the term ingenious. I have used other snowshoes including designs by MSR, Atlas, Tubbs, and even an ancient wood/rawhide pair! While all of the designs I have used have their advantages they also all have drawbacks and/or limitations. One consistent issue I have had, especially with older designs is the reliability and ease of use of the bindings. The bindings MSR is using for their new shoes is remarkable. I have found them to be quite easy to adjust and getting them on/off is extremely easy even with gloves. The bindings consist of four straps, three that cross the foot (toe & instep) and one longer that wraps around the heel. Each binding consists of two buckles and there are three different kinds of buckles used (I will attempt to describe them, but suggest you look at them first hand if you can). The primary buckle used on all three straps is a simple buckle with no moving parts. The strap is wrapped around the buckle and back upon itself with the fixed pin holding the strap from slipping. The heel and instep straps secondary buckle are a slightly different version of the primary buckle where the strap is held in place without having to wrap around the buckle. The toe uses a basic friction buckle. The secondary buckles are used to adjust the straps to the desired length, and the primary buckles are used when putting the shoes on and removing them. The bindings look easy to use and highly adjustable. All of the various parts and materials used in the bindings look well made and durable.

The shoe itself is more of a traditional oval design, unlike the rectangular plastic design of the MSR Denali series, with a flexible deck material riveted to the outer frame. The frame is one thing that makes these shoes unique. In place of the tube shaped material used in other shoes of this kind, these use a flat band of aluminum that kind of reminds me of a band saw blade (with the teeth pointing down). This, along with two cross bars of the same material, gives the shoes 360 deg of snow/ice biting edge. They look like they should provide aggressive traction at any angle.

Heel Lifters in action These shoes are designed for climbing. As such they have a heal lifter bar. The bar is used when climbing up steep terrain. The idea is to raise the heal taking some of the stretch and/or strain from the calf and thereby make climbing easer and more comfortable.

I often worry about trading weight for function or durability. And after examining these, the question of if by making these so light they are also less durable than comparable snowshoes is my main question. Since I have never used snowshoes with heal lifts, I am very interested in testing out this feature to see how effective it is and how easy/difficult it is to use.

In invite you to join me as I try these out over the next 3 months. Look forward to an update to this in about a month when I will report on how they have performed.

As always I invite your comments and questions.

Dave Wilkes (the turtle)

UPDATE March 2 ’10

I can’t tell you how discouraging it is to be watching the news and see all the snow falling all over the country (EVEN TEXAS? Give me a break!) but despite living in the desert at the foot of the glorious Cascade mountains virtually nothing but rain from Dec through Feb.

My first use of the shoes was a quick (1.5hr drive) run up into the mountains where my daughter and I tromped around in about a foot of fresh snow over about another foot of the wet snow/ice (Cascade Concrete). I practiced putting the snowshoes on and taking them off with gloves on and it was a breeze. The early snowfall prevented the highway department from closing the highway using the gate as they normally do so they just pushed up a 4’ mound of snow to block the road. Unable to resist, I engaged the heel lifts and ascended the pile. The heel lifts were difficult to engage with gloves on, but worked quite well at reducing the strain on my ankles and calves. I tried the climb again without the heel lifters and the difference in effort and stability was quite noticeable. We spent only a short time there, and while my daughter was getting used to her new snowshoes (also by MSR) we tromped around, built snowmen and had a snowball fight.

Testing the heel lifts

Click for larger image

Despite some very poor weather and minimal snow in the mountains, twice I managed to swing some free time and took my family up into the eastern Cascades for a few hours of snowshoeing. I found a short stretch of trail leading to a very steep hill where my kids could penguin slide and I could try out some of the features of these shoes. On the short approach over flat rolling terrain with a few inches of heavy wet snow over a foot or so of Cascade Concrete the shoes performed as well as expected. They are very light and were a pleasure to wear. It was noticeable how much quieter they are when going over icy terrain than the all-plastic shoes my daughter was wearing. We found a spot where the girls could play and slide while I “worked”. I estimate the hill we were on was around 60deg. I engaged the heel lifters and to my amazement started walking straight up the hill. The heel lifters did a wonderful job! They provided me a much flatter surface to step upon thereby reducing the strain on my ankles and calves. The shoes provided plenty of floatation (I am about 220lbs without clothing and gear), and the traction was amazing. The biggest weakness of most of the snowshoes I have used was in side-hilling, as a result it is something I tend to avoid. However, after ascending about 70’ I tossed caution to the wind (thinking twice about my decision not to bring an ice axe) and started traversing across the hill. The shoes stayed firm on my boots not twisting, allowing me to set firm flat steps where the snow was soft but gripped amazingly well on the icy sections where getting a level step was not possible. At this point my ‘too smart for her own good’ daughter yelled up to me asking how I planned to get back down…uh…I really had not thought that far in advance. There were too many trees in the way to glacade, and I did not have an ice axe. I lowered the heel lifts, and proceeded to walk straight down the hill. The shoes performed as well going down the hill as they did going up. What a great pair of shoes!

I got the opportunity to go on a day trip with some fellow Cascadian’s (an outdoor group in Yakima WA). We went up near Clear Lake and followed an access road for about 2 miles before having lunch and returning. The snow was so compacted that snowshoes were almost unnecessary and the route almost perfectly flat so about the only thing I can say about the shoes is they were light and easy to put on.

My next outing was an all day trip up near White Pass Ski area. I headed out alone to do some exploring and see if I could find a suitable location to build a snow cave for a future trip. I spent a couple of hours in similar conditions as before but with slightly warmer temperatures (hovering around freezing). I started by following some old tracks but soon was breaking new trail. The shoes are so light and perform so well it was easy to forget I was snowshoeing at all. At one point I ran into a small ravine cut into the snow (about 24-36” deep) right across my path. I found a narrow part and simply leaped across it. By this time I was totally confidant in the stability and traction of the shoes and they are so light as to make weight a non-issue. I had a glorious time! I estimate I climbed only about 700 vertical feet, but being alone I did not want to venture into unfamiliar terrain on the other side of the ridge, and I was stopping way too often to revel in the beauty and solitude to make much progress.

I ended up returning to the same area with my daughter a week later, where we only hiked about a mile before finding an area that looked promising for building a snow cave (we were wrong, not enough snow).

MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes

Click for larger image

After receiving the snowshoes and examining them, I expected them to have good traction, and so far I have not been disappointed. My biggest question was durability. My fear was that in the effort to reduce weight the designers gave up durability. So far I have not found this to be the case. I have not been gentle with these. If they have a weakness, I want to find it while in safe (preferably controlled) conditions. As of yet I have not found anything that even hints at a possible failure point. I have stepped on my own shoes as well as fallen over a few times now, and they only show a few minor scrapes in the paint. The frame it far stronger than I anticipated and the decking material even withstands being stepped on by the other shoe (once I fully expected to see the deck punctured or ripped, only to find not even a mark). The shoes have done a great job at shedding the wet snow; however, I have yet to get them into very cold conditions.

If I were to find one thing to complain about it would be how difficult it can be to engage and to a lesser extent disengage the heel lifters. The bar sits flush against the shoe deck and I have found it difficult to lift with gloves on. Disengaging them is also a bit more difficult then I had expected. I expected to be able to simple push them back down using my trekking pole, but I have found this impossible and must kneel down so I can push them back down with my hands. This proved to be a bit tricky on steep terrain, but given the weight and performance of these shoes, I find this to be quite a minor drawback.

I really look forward to using these shoes some more. I am hoping to squeeze in a overnight trip in the snow with them and if at all possible an early ascent of Mt St Helens or Mt Adams (If you got any pull with Mother Nature, I would appreciate you put in a good word for me).

Final Update May 3 2010

After a chilly night outside my snowcave...

Finding time and good conditions to test these has been a struggle. Rain and lack of snow combined with work and personal commitments this spring as been a real drag. On the flip side, these things made my few outings even more special and enjoyable than they might otherwise have been. One thing contributing to this was the performance of the MSR Lightning Ascent’s. I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed these, and appreciate their performance. With how difficult it was to arrange outings, any problems were amplified. If I plan for weeks just to free up one day to tromp around in the wondrous Cascade winter, the last thing I want to do is deal with equipment problems. However I have to say that despite the fact that the primary objective of most of my trips this spring was to test these, they ended up being just about the last thing on my mind. They are so light, comfortable, and perform so well that I often had to remind myself to think about them and what I could write in my review.

My final test of these was for a long overdue overnight solo snow camp. After much deliberation (and more than a little negotiation with my wife) I decided on spending a night on the summit of the White Pass ski resort. I headed out late on a windy (gusts over 30mph) cold (25F) morning with about a 50lb pack, for a 3hr “stroll” up the hill (going directly up 2 black diamond ski runs). Aside for the wind (I had to put on my ski goggles as my glasses kept fogging/freezing), the conditions were about ideal on the lower half of the hill. The snow was tightly packed and recently groomed (the ski season closed about 1 week prior) with just a light layer of fresh snow on top of the crust. However about half way up when I hit my first steep section, the conditions got worse. Being un-groomed the terrain was uneven (not quite moguls, but close). The surface was fine loose ice crystals, on top of a thin crust and then layers of loose snow underneath. The footing was tricky here. I was able to ‘kick’ steps with a single or maybe second step much of the way, but a few times I had a hard time finding a firm foundation to put my weight upon. Given how steep the terrain was, loosing my footing and sliding back down was not an attractive option. In hind sight, putting away my trekking poles and using my ice axe would probably have been a good idea. However I had become confidant (over confidant?) in the traction and performance of the Lighting Ascent shoes and so plodded on (trying not to look behind me at the ever growing drop off below or think to hard about how fast I would be going by the time I got to the bottom should I slip). By the time I got to the top of the first pitch I was sweaty, tired, but elated. There is no way I would have ever attempted such a ascent in lesser snowshoes (for that matter with anything short of an ice axe and crampons). As you can guess I used the heel lifters almost the entire way. I can say they made a HUGE difference in not only the amount of effort it took, the strain on my calves and ankles, but made finding secure footing on the steeper parts far easer.

Enjoying a bit of nature

After locating a suitable spot for a snow cave and 2hrs of digging I had a home for the night and set out to explore the area. Tromping around in everything from hard packed groomed snow to deep, loose, uneven snow in the trees was a joy. Shivering all night in a poorly made snow cave (I am a bit out of practice), not so much.

The following day was glorious! Clear, calm, and cold! After a quick breakfast and collapsing my snow cave. I realized I never considered my route back down. Going down the same way I cam up was my first thought. But memories of the angle, and poor snow conditions, combined with aches in my legs and knees, made me decide otherwise. I considered glissading down the steeper sections, but since people were still hiking up the hill to ski down I figured they would not appreciate hitting a glissade trough. I choose to take the long gentler route following one of the blue runs. Going down was obviously easer than going up, except for the areas where the wind exposed the hard crust. Stepping on this stuff is hard on the joints and muscles.

I don’t know how I managed to enjoy snowshoeing with lesser shoes. In thinking about the performance of these shoes I can come up with only two minor nit picks to complain about. First as previously stated engaging the heal lifters can be difficult, especially with gloves or mittens. I find I need to kneel down on one knee. Disengaging, with a bit of practice has become easer, I simply lift my heal and give them a quick/firm smack with the tip of my trekking pole. The second item is only for folks like me who are slightly pidgin toed. I find walking on flat ground or up hill, it is fairly easy to avoid stepping on my own shoes, but in going down steep terrain, I often scraped or stepped on my shoes. If there was a way to offset the angle of the bindings so the shoes were straight even if the feet were at a bit of an angle these would be just about perfect.

Early in my review I mentioned wondering if MSR traded strength/durability for weight. From what I can tell this is not the case. I have made no effort to ‘baby’ these. As a result, I have tripped (over obstacles as well as my own feet), I have stepped on the shoes (countless times) with the sharp edges of the other shoe, and I have haphazardly tossed the shoes into the back of my truck. But despite use bordering on abuse, these shoes have shown little to no signs of wear (aside from a few minor scratches) and no indication of potential failure points.

I can say with no hesitation that I would recommend these to friends and family, and I will not consider going snowshoeing in the future with anything else (unless MSR finds a way to improve upon these).

I would like to thank the folks at MSR and at 4AllOutdoors.org for the opportunity to review such a well-designed and constructed product. I look forward to any comments or questions you may have, please feel free to post on our Forum, and I will be sure to read/respond.

Dave (the turtle) Wilkes

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