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LocaCarnivore Test and Review: MSR Lightning Ascent Snow Shoes

It took almost a week to find the elk.  They shimmered on a far off ridge in the afternoon mirage through the spotting scope.  Just one problem: two miles lay between you and them.  Two miles across rolling ridges set in a wide, glacier carved valley.  Three-foot deep snow had turned the entire landscape into a Willy Wonka confection buried under smooth, white icing.  Ice dams blocked several streams.  Overflow had frozen inches thick–wide enough to use as small skating rinks.   Wind and a few freezing rains had capped the whole mess with a crust–slick enough to fall on, but too thin to support a person on foot.

There are two ways to deal with such a situation.  Either deploy a miniature helicopter from the James Bond briefcase you always carry (not likely), or pat yourself on the back because you did bring some ultra-light-weight, easy to pack, rugged mountaineering snow shoes.  Snow shoe such as MSR’s Lightning Ascent.

What Makes a Snow Shoe Good?

Humans have used snow shoes since the last ice-age, perhaps longer.  It’s a simple idea: make small platforms which attach to your feet.  They distribute your weight over a larger area and reduce the pressure you exert on the snow when you walk.  Until just the past few decades, snow shoes were made with steam bent wood frames to which a rawhide lattice is attached to form a porous deck.  Simple, effective.  Effective until you step on some ice or have to traverse some rough bare patches.  Traditional snow shoes have no traction on ice.  Even limited use on bare ground can destroy them in short order.

Traditional bent wood and rawhide lattice snow shoes

For anything other than fresh-fallen powder, what you need is a climbing crampon for ice, crossed with something to provide flotation on snow.  Many inventors have tried to do just this.  The current industry standard is a shoe which mimics a traditional one.  It substitutes aluminum tubing for the wooden frame and life-raft material for the rawhide.  Various toothed sheet metal bits are attached to the decking and along the shoe’s bottom for grip on both snow and ice (raft material is real slippery).  A steel toe crampon attaches to the binding’s underside, also for ice traction.  This modern approach is still less than perfect.

A Clean Sheet Design

The engineers at Mountain Safety Research (MSR) realized the industry had taken a wrong turn emulating traditional snow shoes.  They discarded all the preconceptions and started fresh.  The result is their Lightning Ascent snow shoe.

The Lighting Ascent uses tempered aluminum flat stock, turned on edge to form the shoe frame.  The life-raft decking is then attached to tabs along the frame’s top edge, not wrapped around the frame.  This prevents ice and rocks from chafing the decking, a common failure point on tube-framed shoes.

The perimeter frame is reinforced with two flat stock cross-members, also turned on edge.  Both perimeter frame and cross-members have directional teeth cut into the bottom edges.  The whole assembly acts like ice crampons and provides traction forward, backward, and side-ways.  The bindings and toe crampon are attached to pivots on the front cross-member.

The Lightning Ascent’s tail seen from below.  Note aft cross-member and directional teeth.

First Impressions

LocaCarnivore’s Editor in Chief ordered a pair direct from MSR (Cascade Designs).  We like to get our equipment off the rack without disclosing who we are.  This prevents companies sending us press ringers.  We relied on MSR’s shoe selection guide and chose a 25-inch long pair in tactical flat black.  We decided not to order the optional flotation tails which add 5 inches to any MSR shoe.  If we do get them later, we’ll write a follow up review.

The shoes looked well made and solid.  They seem lighter than a competitor’s tube frame shoes we also have at the office.  The bindings appear fiddly, but they are easy to use with medium weight gloves.  We suspect they’d accommodate expedition weight mittens as well.

The frames flex a few degrees in torsion as advertised.  We couldn’t determine if the frames were anodized or just painted.  MSR’s technical support person would not divulge this information.  The toe crampons are no excuses, hardcore mountaineering kit.  They are sharp, so treat them with respect.  All the attachment hardware, rivets, pins, etc. seemed first rate.  The shoes appear worth the money.

So, Do They Work?

Short answer: yes. We tried them on un-groomed mountain trails which varied from compacted snow to wind crusted, three-foot deep powder.  The shoes tracked straight despite the blunt tails.  Somebody stayed up late to get the angles right.  They didn’t squeak much and the frames didn’t ring, unlike most tube frames on the market.  We didn’t encounter any serious ice, but with a spring freeze-thaw cycle forecast we should have some good ice soon.  Look for an update to this review at a later date.

Ties That Bind

We mentioned the bindings were easy to use; they are also effective and comfortable.  The three toe straps let the user fine tune tension on the foot: looser for climbs and flats, tight for descents.  The straps appear made from rubber, but they have great flex so we suspect they are a synthetic or rubber blend.  They stayed flexible at 18 degrees F.  We got the impression they’d stay flexible in sub-zero temperatures.  The straps also grip boot heels quite well.  We never had one slide off.  As with all snow shoes, you should wear a stiff boot which won’t compact when the bindings are cranked down tight.   They also have a wide adjustment range and should accommodate even the largest winter boots.

Tail Flick: She’s Breakin’ Up Captain!

Our first two forays into the wild with these shoes made us wonder if the name “Lightning Ascent” was just a cruel joke.  Every step yielded substantial tail flick, the left shoe did it the worst.  Tail flick is when the shoe’s rear snaps up as you pick up your foot.  The shoes seemed to stick in the snow for a long instant and then would slap up against the raised boot heel with a loud “thwack!”  In deep snow, this would shower white stuff up the user’s calves and thighs.  The tail flick added much effort to walking.  It only abated with slow, short steps, but it still didn’t go away.

Then something wonderful happened.  By happen stance, the operator glanced down just as the left shoe flicked its tail.  As Scooby-Do would say, “Ruh-Roh.”  The hinged heel climbing support had caught on the boot heel and then slipped free which caused all the tail flick.  The tester had positioned their foot too far back on the shoe.  MSR’s instructions had advised to place the foot well forward in the binding, but we didn’t realize how far.

If your boot is too far back in the binding, it’ll catch on the heel support wire

Outwitted by a Snow Shoe

On the next hike, our tester revised their foot position and the nasty tail flick disappeared.  Note: make sure your boot heel is at least 1/2 to 3/4 inches forward from the heel support bar.  Yes, we feel stupid.

With proper foot placement, these shoes are N-I-C-E.  Best metal frame shoe we’ve ever used.  They do live up to their name as we could now motor along at a pace just under a jog with almost no effort.  Lightning indeed.

Boot must be 0.5 to 0.75 inches forward of heel support wire

Get a Grip

The innovative frame design provides phenomenal traction in all directions.  It’s not unlike walking with cookie cutters attached to your feet.  The entire frame bites deep into snow. On descents, the tails provide some traction as you move your foot forward.  Then, when you settle your weight onto the shoe, the frame digs in with a smoothness not found on tube framed shoes.

With tube shoes, until you put your weight on the little traction bits riveted to the decking, the shoe can slip on crusted snow or ice.  Your snow shoe turns into a ultra-short ski–with predictable results.  When the traction strips finally do bite in, they bring your foot to an abrupt stop which hammers your knees on a long descent.  The MSRs are much smoother and softer on your leg joints.

If these snow shoes have a fault, it is the rigid toe crampon pivots.  The binding has little give on side slopes which stresses the medial collaterals in the knee.  You need to use caution if your foot slides off a packed trail into the soft stuff or you have a long traverse.  Your knee takes the brunt.

Awesome toe crampon mounted to rigid binding pivot on front cross-member

Raising the Bar

The climbing heel supports mentioned earlier are quite effective.  Our tester gave them a try on a modest ten degree slope.  Just flip them up, either with a ski pole tip or your fingers.  They keep your foot level while the snow shoe follows the slope’s contour, and let’s you dig the big toe crampon deep into snow and ice.  This makes long, steep ascents much easier.  Unlike many competing designs, MSR’s heel supports are robust, with riveted attach points and heavy gauge wire.

Float Trip

The 25-inch Lightning Ascent’s flotation proved adequate in deep, crusted snow.  Our 170 pound tester sank about 3 to 4 inches.  On descents in the same conditions, the shoe’s tips tended to drag a bit on the foot’s up-stroke.  For travel over deep fresh powder, or if you have a heavy pack on, the flotation tails are a good idea.  Better yet, go with traditional snow shoes.  Even the high-tech MSR’s are not at their best in the deep, fluffy stuff, but then we have yet to test a modern shoe which can beat a wood and rawhide shoe in this specialized arena.

Our 170 pound field tester sank 3 – 4 inches into wind crusted powder.

Pack it Up

These MSR’s are the best shoes to put in or on a backpack.  The bindings lay flat and the shoes stack tight against each other.  We had no problem tucking them into a large outside pocket on a Bianchi day pack as you can see in the picture.  They are light and don’t rattle.  Just make sure you use the included plastic covers on the frame’s cross bars.  They prevent these pointy things from gouging your pack.  The sharp toe crampon tucks well up into the shoe when the binding is laid flat.  They made little to no contact with the pack.

Lightning Ascent shoes nestled into Bianchi day pack

Bottom Line

MSR’s Lightning Ascent snow shoes are excellent.  If you travel in varied conditions: go from thin snow and ice over rock or talus at a trail head, through compacted snow at mid-mountain, and on up into deep snow at the summit, these are the shoes you want.  They are more versatile than traditional shoes; designed and built better than tube framed shoes; and easiest to stow on a backpack.  They aren’t as quiet as wood shoes, but not quite as noisy as tube framed shoes, either.  These are serious snow shoes for the serious hunter or backcountry winter traveler and well worth the money.

What We Liked

  • Ingenious design
  • First class materials and assembly
  • Light
  • Compact
  • Best in class maneuverability
  • Monster traction
  • Modular flotation tails make them more versatile than competing designs
  • Easiest to mount on a pack
  • Versatile

What We Didn’t Like

  • Spendy (but worth it)
  • Limited torsional flex stresses knees on side slopes
  • Excessive tail flick if you don’t get foot position just right
  • Flotation not as good as traditional snow shoes
  • Noisier than traditional snow shoes

 

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