Review last updated May, 2017.
It’s the middle of winter, the snow is packed deep, temps are cold enough to get icy but not stable enough to consolidate down: it’s time for snowshoes. Even the smallest size shoe in the most basic model is a must have through much of winter as any weight distribution beats booting it up in knee deep snow but when it’s time really get in the alpine, not all snowshoes are the same and few are anything like MSR’s Lightening Ascent*.
If the first few lines of this review sound like an ad, rest assured, MSR has not paid me a cent for this post, I doubt they even know my name (if you’re reading this guys, hi!). My acclaim and the review to follow comes from the very real experience I’ve had after a couple years of real world use with the Lightening Ascent and other snowshoes.
To be honest, I first honed in on the Lightening Ascent because they looked the most bad-ass of what REI offered. Sure, I figured I should have something with alpine features like split teeth and the employee who I chatted with raved about the pull-over strap system versus other models but I’d hardly been snowshoing beyond flat trails; I didn’t yet know why that all really mattered. All that was clear at the time was that these things were different and at a higher price… but why?
So, what goes into a $300, mountain-style snowshoe?
The first thing you have to consider with snowshoes is where you’re going to take them. There are numerous options for different uses and different weights (theirs and yours) with many materials, and designs; the key question to sorting them out: your intended use. Are you going out for a stroll, a camping trip, or to climb a mountain (if more than one, scale up, it will be fine when you need less).
If you want a stroll out around Crater Lake for a couple hours and your needs are going to be pretty basic as you’re really just trying to float above the powder. For a day like that that it’s going to be hard to pass up a $50 set of snowshoes at Costco or a used pair for that matter. Step things up to that longer adventure and you’ll start to care more about weight, build quality, ease of use but your feature needs are still pretty simple. Decide you want to head up Mount Hood after a week of new snow and 15 degree temps and you’re looking at an entirely different piece of gear… something badass you could say!
Gripping the Snow
When you’re headed up packed, ice snow with steep angles, getting purchase matters. Like most alpine style snowshoes, the Lightening Ascents have a main crampon below your foot but with the Lightening Ascents you also get serrated edges (“360 traction frames”) along the entire frame rip into hard surfaces at just about any angle.
This means is that you can walk up packed snow, frozen snow and even iced over snow. It’s not as aggressive as throwing on an actual set of crampons and kicking in with your axe in hand but coming down from well up Mount Hood a couple weeks back in terrain exactly like I just listed, I rarely had to worry about what was ahead, at least in terms of what was under my feet. Not falling is always the top of my list and having used more compact designs, even other MSR models, that’s not always a guarantee.
Any mountain designed snowshoe you looking at should have some sort of adjustable bar to elevate your foot when you’re heading uphill so you don’t have to exert the full range of motion on every step. The Lightening Ascent is by no means revolutionary about including this but their bar is well built for durability and easy of use whether you want to kick it up with a gloved finger or a trekking pole. It’s a rugged piece of the design that’s built right into the frame and all metal which matters if you’re standing on it a lot.
The Strap System
For many snowshoes, including many of MSR’s other models, securing your boot means some fancy looking “all around” enclosure. While those tend to be fast and simple they also have a tendency to not stay in place all that well. The Lightening Ascent’s use a 4 strap pull system that secures over metal pins with plastic clips to hold down the extra strap. It’s not fast, it’s not fun, it’s not all that glove friendly but once you get them on, you’re secure until you unstrap yourself no matter how much you move or at what angle.
Take a look at MSR’s Revo Ascent Snowshoes and you’ll see steel frames and plastic decks. Compare Tubbs’ Mountaineer 30 and you’ll have picked up an extra pound of weight. Look at many others and you’re right back to tube designs that are hollow, prone to a sliding and really not what I’d call alpine ready. For me, knowing Lightening Ascent model was rugged, top grade and ultra light all at once was worth the extra bucks.
Lightening Ascents in the Real World
I’ve had a couple of seasons with my lightening ascents and many runs with them from lazy days to high-angle trail breaking. For the easy treks I wouldn’t remotely suggest investing in or dealing with a mountain snowshoe so if that’s all you want, skip these guys.
However, the second the snow starts to firm up or the angle starts to rise, the Lightening Ascents become well worth the investment. These things grip in, cut and hold; most importantly for me, they do it at all sorts of angles as I go. Compare some of the other mountain snowshoes (again, that includes other MSR designs) and you’ll see they’ve simply tried to cram in another crampon bite to an otherwise basic snowshoe or throw on grips without considering the edges. That’s all find for moving straight on up but when you’re trying to actually get to the top, traversing, side stepping, you need control all around.
As a user review said, I watch people in other shoes struggle to go where I’ve gone.
Climbing big hills, I never thought the lift bar would matter much but it does. MSR’s technology hardly revolutionizes the world in this regard but I have tried some basic shoes and they’re lower bars (more distance to move), easier to popout, a featured checked off rather than a core design. When you’re taking thousands and thousands of steps in a day, even a small design win here is a major advantage to your legs.
Speaking of small wins, how about putting the things on in the first place? I won’t pretend the quick clips are less than awesome on those flat walks but as I said before, when you want something that stays in place, I’ve had nothing but solid results with the pull over strap design here.
Finally, I’m stoked with how my shoes have held up. The grey paint on the bottoms of the frame is wearing off at the teeth as is the the red of the main crampon and there’s some fraying around where my boots hit the top cover but it’s all cosmetic. This leaves me with just one real complaint: those silly strap savers which fly right on off leaving the strap to flap around unless it’s well tucked.
On the nice to have list, switching the back serrated bar to a couple actual points would help punch ice and a replaceable top for the inevitable impact to come would make them last longer but otherwise, these are solid.
- Category: Snowshoe / Traction System
- Utility: Mountain / alpine terrain
- Pros: Aggressive traction, rugged design, seriously light
- Cons: Price tag and you’ll lose the strap clips
- Style: 22″ / 25″ / 30″ + optional flotation tails
- Price: $299.99 MSRP
- Rating: 5 of 5
- Official Site | Buy It Now at Backcountry.com*
* Disclosure: I earn a commissions for any sales made through Buy It Now links on this post. As for the snowshoes, I paid for those myself.