My first overnight cross country ski tour was on the Bogong High Plains, in perfect sunny weather. After a minor speed wobble, I plunged face first into the snow, my sweaty brow producing an instant and crippling ice-cream headache.
A nanosecond later the back of my head was punched deeper into the snow by the sudden and unexpected arrival of my 25kg backpack.
I lay face down, starfished, immobilised, and brain frozen, while I worked out the extrication sequence (stocks off, hip belt undone, sternum strap, shoulder straps off, shrug pack off, roll over, align skis, stand up, expel snow from nostrils, acknowledge spectators, continue).
My recovery technique from subsequent face plants on that weekend did not become any more elegant, nor any less amusing to my trip companions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I became a convert to snowshoes as a more pedestrian and less spectacular form of snow travel. Snowshoes allow the winter backcountry to be more accessible to more people. There is no special skill required to use them so they are great for beginning alpine expeditioners.
My current snowshoes are MSR Lightning Axis, and here is what I think of them after six seasons of use.
Design, Comfort & Durability (Rating: 90%)
Snowshoes comprise four key elements: frame, deck, crampon and bindings.
The key feature of the Lightning series is the stiff serrated aluminium frame which bites into icy snow – the type of consolidated and refrozen snow typically found in the Australian backcountry. This frame design is a huge improvement over earlier tubular frame designs which offer little traction, especially on traverses.
On conventional snowshoes, the deck fabric is attached by wrapping it around the frame tubing, where it is subject to wear and abrasion. To avoid this MSR have attached the deck to the frame by simple aluminium tabs. The entire frame is securely riveted and powder coated. The deck material sheds snow readily and doesn’t ball up underneath.
The crampon rotates through the frame with each stride, to allow toe push off. The MSR crampon rotates on solid axles rather than flexible mounts and these clevis pins are replaceable.
Feet are attached to the crampon by bindings – in this case, a beefy toe strap and two thin straps. The straps are injection moulded silicone rubber which doesn’t absorb water, and replacement straps and hardware are available.
The shoes have a rugged, well-built appearance. They are not lightweight – at 1,850 grams for the men’s pair and 1,700 grams for the women’s, these shoes comprise the heaviest single items in my winter kit.
Functionality & Ease of Use (Rating: 90%)
The wide toe strap needs to be adjusted before use to suit your particular boot size. Once set, you simply shove your toe in, swing your heel to the centre, and tighten the stretchy instep and heel straps.
The straps are easily secured by a fixed pronged buckle, and the strap tails are folded back and secured by a keeper rivet. When this is done you may safely announce, ”there, that ain’t going nowhere!” and start walking. The shoes will not come off until you take them off.
Removing the shoes is a snap. Pop open the keeper studs, shake your foot and the binding assembly and snowshoe simply falls away. Easy.
One gripe I have is with the machined aluminium strap keepers studs. The straps firm up in cold temperatures and the keeper can be hard to secure with cold hands. The role of this keeper is deceptively important. If it is not secured – the binding straps will flop out, and the shoe will come loose.
The model I have – Lightning Axis – allows the foot to be aligned to suit pigeon-toed or duck-footed people. This feature is not needed for most people and without it, the shoes have a few degrees of sideways float. You’re not going to be walking like a catwalk model anyway.
I’m a 78 kg male and now carry a 15 kg winter pack, and find the women’s model provides sufficient floatation for me in most conditions. It’s narrower footprint helps prevent treading on your own heels.
The length I have is 56cm (22”) the shortest available, which I have found to be the most often seen size in the Australian Alps, and the right size for me.
The shoes include a wire bail which MSR call Televators. These can be lifted to support the heel during sustained climbs. I never used the Televators to reach Feathertop, Fainters or Bogong summits, and consider this feature unnecessary. If your penchant is for the western gullies of the Main Range then you might find these handy. For me, they are just extra weight.
What I Like
- Superior traction on icy slopes, especially traverses.
- Reliable bindings: very easy to get off. Very secure when on.
- Durable, solid construction with quality materials and finish.
What I Don’t Like
- Weight is more than necessary.
- Axis adjustment feature not needed for most people and a potential point of failure.
- Televators feature not needed for most people.
- Stud binding strap keepers can be hard to secure.
The MSR Lightning Axis may still be available second-hand but the MSR Lightning Explore has now replaced the Axis, and the issue I’ve mentioned above with the binding strap keepers has been addressed.
The Lightning Explore is available from Backpacking United or Amazon.
Disclaimer: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link, meaning I make a small percentage from purchases through this link (you won’t pay a cent more).
Have you tried the MSR Lightning Axis Snowshoe? Got any questions or comments? Let us know by commenting below.