I’ve switched from my old snowshoes to a new pair of MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes. 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.
Despite the weight difference, the crampon architecture on the Lightning 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.
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.
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.
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 MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes for going on 5 years in a variety of terrain 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.
Written 2009. Updated 2015.
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