Uncommon Challenge: Go On an Overnight Snowshoe Adventure

What happens when a lifelong backpacker trades hiking boots for snowshoes?

A version of this story appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Uncommon Path

A gust of wind whips up off a nearby snowbank, blinding me with spindrift. It hides my tears.

I’m standing on a snowy shoulder on San Jacinto Peak, a 10,834-foot behemoth east of Los Angeles, with my buddy Andrew, who is presently entombed up to his waist (again). His small, cleatlike traction devices aren’t doing much to keep him on top of the snow’s surface.

“!#@%,” he shouts over the flurry.

A few hours ago, I would have laughed at him in the way good pals do, but that time has passed. We’re exhausted, well short of the summit and running out of sunlight. Our first winter camping trip is off to an ignominious start.

But let’s backtrack to simpler times: About six hours prior, Andrew and I set out from San Diego without cares or tears. We’d climbed San Jacinto a number of times together in summer and fall, but this was to be our first attempt in winter, when the peak was mantled in white. We decided on the Marion Mountain route, which climbs nearly 6 miles up San Jacinto’s southern flank.

Like any good hiking partners, we aligned on everything down to the make of the topo map we preferred. The only thing we differed on? Andrew opted for traction devices that he slipped over his winter boots, while I chose MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes that I procured from an REI Garage Sale a week prior.

Almost immediately, I regretted my decision. From the parking lot, Andrew strode down the packed trail unencumbered with his spikes. Meanwhile, I clodhopped behind him on my snowshoes, kicking my ankles raw and flinging snow into the seat of my pants. It took me an hour to reach the first mile marker, where Andrew smugly announced he had been waiting for “an hour.” I severely missed summer.

We kept going another mile, Andrew quick and efficient and me not so much, to where the tracks we were following petered out. As self-identified intrepid explorers, we agreed to press on into the untouched powder. Almost instantly, my snowshoes transformed from awkward to graceful, and I floated effortlessly (and smugly) as Andrew hoofed it behind me in the knee-deep snow.

We kept on like that for a few hours—me walking atop the snow and Andrew sinking into it and then clambering back out—and made very little progress toward the summit, where we’d planned to camp. By the time the sun was setting behind the Santa Margarita range to the west, Andrew had sweat through all his layers, while I had put all of mine on. We were hungry and dispirited.

Now, as Andrew wrestles with the manzanita bush he’s crashed into, I pull out our map to check our infinitesimal progress.

It doesn’t look great. Half a day in and we’ve barely reached the halfway point. If it were August, we’d be at our summit camp by now, clinking double-wall mugs in our Chacos. It’s not.

“Hey, man,” I tentatively say as Andrew dumps a pile of snow from his gaiter. “I think we should call it. I don’t want to make camp in the dark.”

A smile—or something resembling relief—creeps across his face as he heaves his 50-pound pack into the snow.

We pitch our tent in silence, then settle for GORP and raw s’mores fixings for dinner. When I collapse inside our shelter, my body aches in ways I didn’t know it could. But as snowflakes lilt against the tent fly and I’m safely cocooned in an enormous sleeping bag, humility feels good. I know we’ll be back to try our trip again as intended. We’ll wear spikes for the first few miles of packed trail, then we’ll switch to snowshoes for the powder. It will be more challenging than a summer trip, sure, but neither of us will cry.

Uncommon Challenge is a column where we challenge each other to make unusual gear additions, subtractions and swaps. All challenges (and subsequent bouts of suffering) are voluntary and not recommended unless explicitly stated. Have an idea for a new Uncommon Challenge? Leave us a note in the comments.