SOMEWHERE IN THE WASATCH MOUNTAINS —
The view from my window could best be described as gray vomit.
The inversion had blossomed into its disgusting and depressing fullness that, coupled with the frigid temperatures and darkness, made the decision to venture outside a full-on dilemma.
Were it not for a deadline, I probably would have put off my snowshoe adventure to another more inviting winter day. But duty called. (And I am nothing if not dutiful.)
The idea of snowshoeing had been on my mind for some time. I have friends who enjoy the sport, and while it seemed a little boring at first blush, it also sounded relaxing.
Unlike my friends who saw them as a means of recreation, I had only used snowshoes for practical reasons. In other words, when the snow was too deep, and I was unable to secure a snowmobile, I would get from Point A to Point B on snowshoes.
My mom and I did play in a snowshoe softball tournament during the annual Fur Rendezvous celebration in Anchorage, but this did not persuade me that I had any ability to ENJOY snowshoes. It did convince me that I am less coordinated than I was led to believe as a child.
So what does one do when undertaking a something new? Consult the Internet, of course.
In my virtual wanderings, I stumbled upon freelance writer and snowshoe guru Lori Lee. She wrote the book on snowshoeing in Utah — literally. Lee offers her book online for free.
After some quality time with her website, www.snowshoeutah.com, I was a lot more intrigued with the offerings of snowshoeing.
"I love hiking," said Lee of how she was lured onto snowshoes. "I love getting out in the mountains. In the winter, you're deterred a lot from doing that. ... But with snowshoeing, you can get into the mountains all year-round."
It's also one of the cheaper ways to see the beautiful backcountry in Utah.
"Once you have your gear, there isn't a ticket to buy," she said. "You just pick a destination and go."
The sport is also enticing because its so easy to learn.
"You can go with your friends," she said, "or I can take my kids. It's the perfect family sport."
Lee agreed to be our guide last week on what turned out to be the perfect day to play in the Wasatch Mountains.
It was gray and gross in the valley, with very limited visibility. I actually thought it might snow in the mountains, despite assurances from multiple weather reports that the sun would make an appearance. I wasn't sure anything could cut through the haze.
So I followed Lee's instructions — carefully laid out in detail on her website — on dressing, which were basically to layer. Standing around my yard I might be shivering, but once I started trekking up Grizzly Gulch near Alta, she promised I'd be sweating.
I put on my warmest thermal running gear, followed by my snow pants, a fleece top and my winter coat. Four of us met at the park-and-ride lot in Little Cottonwood Canyon and consolidated into one car for the 10 minute ride to Alta.
As for gear, I chose to use snowshoes that were a gift to my stepson. Lee said they were deep powder snowshoes and a little more shoe than I needed for this, and probably most, trips. But they worked really well anyway.
The thing about snowshoes is that there are now so many options. They're lighter and better-looking that ever — and they have bindings that are easy to use but very secure. When choosing snowshoes, you have to take into account several things — your weight (including pack), where you'll be trekking and what the conditions are.
Frankly, there are many snowshoes that will work for a variety of adventures. They even make snowshoes strictly for runners.
Poles aren't necessary, but Lee brought me a pair to borrow, and I found them to be incredibly helpful.
While Lee has very detailed instructions about how to get started, these questions are a good checklist for beginners.
1. What are you using them for: running, deep powder or hiking on a groomed trail or moderate snow pack?
2. Where do you want to go? Luckily, there are about a zillion trails within 10 minutes of any of the Wasatch Front suburbs. Lee's website offers a detailed description, complete with directions and indications about difficulty on hundreds of Utah trails.
3. Once you've chosen your destination, ask yourself how much you'll weigh with your winter clothes and pack. That will help you rent a shoe properly, which you can do at almost any local outdoor retailer.
4. With a trail in mind and shoes in hand, do you have the right provisions, such as water, snack or avalanche safety gear? While most groomed hiking trails are safe year-round, Lee suggests checking www.avalanche.org before any backcountry adventure.
"Every year, there are snowshoers killed in avalanches," she said. "You need to check to see what the avalanche danger is. You can find a lot of trails with low avalanche danger, but you should just be aware."
Lee gave us a two-minute lesson on hiking in snowshoes, which basically boiled down to this: Push on the ball of your foot. The crampons on the bottom of the shoe will do the real work.
Finally, it was time to hike.
Lee led us up Grizzly Gulch instead of the groomed track, which we did use near the top of our hike and periodically on the descent. I was glad to be in the shade as we made our way up the mountain and we started shedding layers immediately.
It was a glorious day. The sun was bright and warm, and the sky was blue and clear. We could see the haze hanging over the valley below, and we were very grateful to be above it.
We talked as we hiked, and in one quiet moment, I realized the action of hiking up the slope was something like the stair climbing machine at the gym — with one huge difference: I was sweating and breathing hard, and I was not looking for an excuse to be finished.
It took me only a few minutes to fall in love with the sport, but reaching the top — about 10,000 feet — cemented the deal. We ran into some backcountry skiers hiking up the other side of Alta. I have to say I was a bit jealous that they'd get to ski down the hill, while I had to walk.
But once Lee showed us how to run in the powder (leaning back with your arms out is the key to this ride), I wasn't craving my skis quite so much.
Lee acknowledged that a little information goes a long way when trying something new. That's one of the reasons she posts her book online for free.
"For people who are just getting started in the sport, having a destination is a big thing," she said.
Her guidebook gets you to any number of trailheads and then, in all honesty, it's up to the individual snowshoer to stick with the groomed trail or strike out on his or her own.
We meandered all over the mountain on our trek with Lee. We stopped to talk to backcountry skiers, as well as taking pictures of some young, extremely ambitious — they drove to the mountain, built a jump, slept in their car and returned to throw tricks off the jump and then hike back up the mountain — snowboarders and skiers.
The freedom of the snowshoe was almost as energizing as the scenery. Interestingly, despite riding and running almost every day, my legs were a little sore, albeit in a different way, from my usual workout.
"There is really nothing that's not healthy about snowshoeing," said Lee. "It's really good cross-training for athletes who are doing other things."
Not to mention some serious altitude training, if you pick the right hike.
"It's so much better than a treadmill," she said. "You can get out and enjoy the fresh air."
Some people are unsure they want to navigate the backcountry without a guide. Never fear. In addition to hiring private guides like Lee, would-be snowshoers can sign up for guided hikes with companies like All Seasons Adventures. They offer a moonlight hike on snowshoes in Park City, and if you go with them, they outfit you with gear in addition to leading the trek.
The nicest thing about the sport, however, is that one doesn't have to know much to have fun.
I enjoyed it so much that I took my 11-year-old out again the following day with a couple of friends. My friend, Russ Pack, had accompanied Lee and me at Alta. He snowshoes a lot and picked a shady trail in Millcreek, which, based on the cars in the parking lot, I thought would be packed with people. It was not.
While my daughter wasn't thrilled with the ascent, she loved meeting other people (and their dogs) and throwing snow on her mother. She was also ecstatic about climbing up snow banks that would normally swallow her up.
She enjoyed the descent so much, she asked if we might go look at the new snowshoes available at the store.
"When I ski, I have to wait and find people who ski at my ability," Lee said. "With snowshoeing, I can take my kids, my grandma or my husband. We'll be able to snowshoe together tomorrow. I can get out more because it's so much more affordable. ... There is hardly a downside to it."
Unless, of course, you count running through fresh powder.