People find it hard to believe that I was raised in Santa Fe and I don't ski. It's as if the mere fact of snowflakes and a 13,000-foot elevation would somehow predispose me to want to fly down an icy hill with two skinny sticks attached to my feet and sharp poles flying in every direction. No, I love my knees too much for that, not to mention the rest of my bodily health.
The first time I skied was with a school group at the basin years ago. I flew directly into a tree and then lay shivering in a snow bank until a medic could get me down. I decided then that skiing was not for me. In fact, I didn't want anything to do with snow or ***image1***cold for the longest time. That is, until I discovered snowshoeing.
Snowshoeing is the slow food movement of the ski world. It's a sunset cruise in a world of noisy speedboats. It's the first way I've discovered to get out into the snowy back country on short notice and for no money-save your initial investment-to appreciate the sights and sounds of winter. If you haven't yet tried it, this might be the year for you.
Snowshoes were first used by Arctic tribesmen as a form of transportation and a way to hunt around their snowy camps. Back then the shoes were likely made of bits of wood and animal skins that attached to the foot in a way that dispersed weight and allowed people to essentially walk on the surface of the snow. Today, the function is the same but materials have changed: Some shoes are still made of wood or rawhide, but most out of light aluminum with nylon straps and clips holding the foot in place. Most of these latter styles have a metal-toothed traction bar on the bottom to keep you from slipping on the ice.
"The beauty of snowshoeing is that anyone can do it. It doesn't require a great deal of skill or talent," says Steve Bing, a manager at Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works (328 S. Guadalupe St., 984-8221), which sells snowshoes.
You can imagine how excited I was to discover this sport.
Aside from the unlikeliness of any debilitating injury, the other bonus is the price. You can get a pair of snowshoes for approximately $100, with some up to $170. Throw in a pair of adjustable ski poles and you're good to go. The adjustable ski poles help both with balance and in the event that you get stuck and need help getting out.
The size of the snowshoe will depend on your size and weight, including any equipment. So think about whether you are a day hiker or preparing for longer trips.
Once you strap the shoes to your feet, snowshoeing is pretty self explanatory, but there are some good things to remember before you head out:
• Bring all the basics, including sunscreen, goggles or sunglasses, water, etc. Also be sure to wear layers-snowshoeing is hard work and you're more than likely to break a sweat. Plus, bring a pack for your clothes once you strip down.
• When going uphill try to keep your foot flat and back straight, with your weight over your traction bar. This is the best way to avoid slipping backwards. And don't lean too far forward or you'll slip.
• Try not to wear the shoes through a stream as the moisture may turn to ice once you hit the snow again.
• As with all backcountry activities, make sure someone knows where you are and when you're expected back. And always pack out what you pack in.
Unlike skiing, which requires more time and planning, snowshoeing is great if you only have a few hours and have a hankering to hit the backcountry. Once you get the hang of it you can keep the equipment in the back of your car and be spontaneous. Or plan a longer expedition through the San Juan hut-to-hut system (email@example.com/970-626-3033). Santa Fe's www.Outspire.com also offers winter snowshoe tours.
Aspen Vista is a nice easy trail for beginners (cross country skiing, too) or hike up the Big Tesuque and cut down into the ski basin. The view is amazing and the snow is some of the deepest around. If you choose a cultivated path and then run into a crazy band of snowboarders, just head into the unbroken snow of an aspen grove and you're on your own again.
Remember to take your time. It's a snow sport that provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection and appreciation of the great, wintery outdoors. Some like speed, but for those who like the sweetness of a slow ride, get yourself some snowshoes and poles, look to the sky and pray for snow.