MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes

Philip on Mt Tom with MSR Lightning Ascents

Philip on Mt Tom with New MSR Lightning Ascents

I’ve switched from my old snowshoes to a new pair of MSR Lightning Ascents. I got them in the 25 inch size, one size smaller than recommended by the manufacturer for my body weight + pack weight because I wanted a smaller footprint for navigating in the forests and rocky moonscape of New England’s mountains.

The pair of 30 inch Northern Lite snowshoes that I used last year proved to be overkill for the snow conditions we have in New England. The snow here is not nearly as deep as out west and the extra flotation and lighter weight that the Northern Lites provide doesn’t offset their lack of maneuverability in closer quarters. So while a pair of men’s Lightning Ascents weighs 60 oz versus 45 oz for the Northern Lites, the Ascents are 1 inch narrower and 5 inches shorter. That’s significant, especially bushwhacking in forest or on rocky trails, where I need a much narrower turning radius and better agility.

I looked at many other snowshoes before choosing the Ascents, but ultimately bought them because they came so highly recommended by my mountaineering friend Chris, who blogs Hiking and Climbing in Japan. All of the gear advice he’s given me in the past for winter hiking and mountaineering has been spot on.

Despite the weight difference, the crampon architecture on the Ascents is a lot better than the NL’s for our local terrain. There are three different crampon types on the Ascents:¬† a conventional toothed crampon under the ball of the foot, 360 degrees of teeth built into the outer frame, and two horizontal bars behind the ball of the foot and under the heel that have teeth and add rigidity.

Lightning Ascent Teeth

When compared to other snowshoes, it might seem like there is less crampon for your buck here: other makers tend to put a toothed crampon under the heel. The problem, I’ve found with the heel crampon is that it ices up and ceases to add any traction.

This happens on any kind of toothed traction device, including step-in or strap-on crampons. The crampon base plate has teeth on both sides and snow/ice gets stuck between the three surfaces, a condition referred to as balling up.

To combat this, some snowshoe makers add plastic anti-balling plates to the underside of the metal base to prevent the snow from sticking, but it still does, and it’s a problem on ascents when you need heel traction. But since the horizontal rear crampons on the Ascents are not box shaped, balling can’t occur. That’s very clever design, I think. It also heightens the impact of another unique feature on the Ascents, called a Televator, shown below in the up position.

MSR Lightning Ascent Televator

The Televator is a wire loop that can be flipped up when you are ascending a steep slope and locks into the tread of your boots so it won’t slip. It raises your heel so that you feel like you are walking on a level surface, while you are climbing, and prevents your calves from burning out. It also exerts direct pressure on the horizontal crampon under your heel and it works particularly well on the Ascent since the heel crampon actually bites and isn’t balled up with snow or ice.

Although using the Televator feels like you’re walking in high heels, you quickly adapt to it. It doesn’t feel wobbly or anything, probably because the pressure downward force of your weight is distributed laterally across the shoe and not on a single tiny point. Plus, you have trekking poles for balance. When you’re done climbing, simple stand on your toes and use your poles to flick the Televator down flush with the plastic flotation layer.

Plastic Boots and MSR Lightning Ascents

There’s not much else to the mention about these snow shoes except the bindings, which are very sturdy and can be cranked down tightly. The back binding is a little tricky to lock in, but doesn’t freeze up like the binding on my NL’s. Plus all of the binding straps have clips to hold down any excess length so they don’t flap around when you’re walking.

I’ve used the Ascents in a variety of terrain so far and I’ve also done quite a bit of trail breaking in them on fresh powder. The shorter length does help significantly with maneuverability, and the Televator has to be experienced to make you a believer.

Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.

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14 Responses to MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes

  1. Hendrik M December 23, 2009 at 2:32 am #

    I had my MSR Lightning Ascent 25 out last night for the first time, walking a bit around in the forest and compressing snow for the Scarp 1. So far I really like them, but we only have about 30 cm of snow at the moment so walking in snowshoes isn't really necessary yet =) More snow is coming, so I'll see on the winter tour in February.

  2. Guthook December 23, 2009 at 8:10 am #

    Hmm, I seem to be commenting on your posts more often….

    Great review! I've owned a pair of these for several years, and I have to say they have the best traction of any snowshoe I've used, and they're wicked rugged. Oddly, I only seem to find resoundingly negative reviews of them at VFTT, and good reviews at Backpackinglight.com. I have nothing bad to say about them, though.

    I've only used the televator a few times, but it really helps with long steep stretches (like the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail).

  3. David D. from the December 23, 2009 at 6:32 pm #

    Hi Phil,

    I have 30" shoes and have not been happy with them on tight trails. As I look at your picture, and note the size gear that you purchase, I am guessing that we are close to the same size. Well, I lost my mustache some years ago, some UL guru you are. Don't ounces count? :-) I was wondering what the snow depth you are trekking on is? We have 6 – 7" being covered by a heavy ice storm, but the areas where I overnight, WI & MN, is getting hit with a blizzard and 24"+ of new snow. Would you recommend the Ascents 25 for my conditions? Thank you in advance for your reply.

    Finally, I would like to wish you, and your family, along with your growing readership a very Merry Christmas. Here is hoping that '10 will exceed everyone's hopes and desires and that some of us will meet on a trail!

    - David

  4. Chris (i-cjw.com) December 24, 2009 at 1:15 am #

    Great, I'm really glad these are working out for you. Looks like you're getting some nice conditions over there!

  5. Earlylite December 24, 2009 at 5:03 am #

    Not only good conditions, but some free time to get into the mountains. Have a great new year Chris. Best to you and your family.

  6. Earlylite December 24, 2009 at 5:13 am #

    @david I probably should have emphasized in the review that the ascents are designed with climbing in mind. If I was faced with two feet snow and unbroken trail and no grade, they wouldn't necessarily be my first shoe of choice. You'd probably be better off with a shoe that has a lot of flotation. Weight does count, I'm bummed that I'm carrying an extra 15 oz with these new snowshoes, since we do just carry them a lot, but they are better when I need them for our local terrain which is extremely mountainous. If you are looking for a new snowshoe try to figure out what you normal snow cover is, not the exception, and aim for that. Hope that helps – thanks for the best wishes, and the same back to you!

  7. Kimberly Aardal December 24, 2009 at 6:59 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comprehensive snowshoe review. I appreciate all the detail and will pass this along to my husband who is looking for a good pair of snowshoes. I'm going to link to this review from my snowshoe tips page. Have a wonderful holiday!

    Kimberly Aardal

  8. Chris Bell December 28, 2009 at 6:51 am #

    I’ve been trying to decide on 25 or 30 inch shoes. Last year I borrowed a 25 inch set and they worked well in wet and heavy snow. It packed nicely and the shoes worked well. If I head out in light and dry snow I wonder if the 25 inches will do it. Question I have is what type of snow have you encountered so far with your MSR shoes? Thanks.

  9. Earlylite December 29, 2009 at 7:58 am #

    Chris – been traveling. sorry for the late reply. We have mostly very dry snow and ice where I hike in the whites. My guess is that the 25's would do fine in wet snow though. You probably just need extreme flotation for powder.

  10. Hiking Lady March 15, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    I have the women's version of these Lightning Ascents and love them! I just the televators a lot since I like to climb peaks, and they are a lifesaver.

  11. Mike March 30, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    Hi – great review! I’m going to get some Lightening Ascents and start snowshoeing next winter. I’m a beginner and am wondering what size I should get. I’m 220lbs without a pack and will do most of my snowshoeing in the Whites of NH. Should I get the 25 inch or the 30 inch shoes? Your comments on having the increased mobility with the 25s sound good. Plus I can get the new MSR 5 inch floatation tails which gives me flexibility. MSR says the 25s with tails are good to 280lbs so it seems like that would be the best bet.

    • Earlylite March 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

      The 25″ size should be fine. No one really needs 30″ snowshoes in the Whites- we just don’t get the powder they do out west.

  12. calvin November 12, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    after reading your evo ascent review, would it be better to get the lightning in 22? looking at the weight, I would be able to use the 22 but if i got a big load and lots of snow, I would need the tails. with the 25, I wouldn’t need to get anything. i’m completely new to snowshoes.

    • Philip Werner November 12, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

      It depends on where you hike. I bushwhack so the evos make more sense. The lightnings are good for more snow. Both are excellent for uphills.

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