Snowshoes afford the user relative ease when traversing deep snow. These contraptions come in various shapes and sizes, but they follow a basic form. A large round, oval or oblong frame is lashed together with webbing made of either organic or synthetic material. There is a flexible mounting point roughly in the center, to which the feet may be fastened. Some variants might be said to resemble tennis rackets. The increased surface area distributes one's weight on the snow in such a way as to prevent sinking up to the waist or beyond, a seriously undesirable predicament.

My first experience with this incredible device was several years ago, on Mt. Ranier in Washington. We climbed maybe a mile up the face from the visitor's center. Anyone who has been there knows that in the winter, snow can drift high enough to cover the two-story building. Even in very deep powder, it was possible to climb the slope only knee-deep in the stuff. You just lift your foot above the surface and set it down in front of you, shifting your weight forward to bring the trailing foot onward. It can be strenuous, but it is effective.

My second experience with snowshoes taught me a valuable lesson: under certain conditions they can be completely useless. I had climbed a mountain near Salt Lake City, Utah and was preparing for my descent as the sun began to set. As the temperature dropped, the snow turned to ice. Those little cleats on the bottoms of snowshoes are assuredly only for decoration. I discovered that on icy snow, snowshoes double as very clumsy skis. While that may sound fun, consider that this is not a good thing on a 45 degree angle several hundred feet from the canyon floor. I found that sliding, rolling and tumbling down the hill was much safer.

Snowshoes are great for winter recreation. If you don't want to drop the change on a pair, check out your local ski shop for rentals. Just remember my cautionary tale, and be careful because it may not seem like it, but snowshoeing may be hazardous to your health.