Wet Foot, Cold Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot

This morning was a crisp autumn one, cool, azure sky with feathery brush strokes of cumulus clouds scattered about. No precipitation I thought, until I ran through ankle high grass and weeds. My feet became saturated since I do not wear water proof shoes and the thin dewy moisture on the grass blades and small clover petals soaked right through my fabric shoes, penetrated my mostly polyester socks and sent a distracting cold and wet sensation directly from my toes to my brain.

Water proof shoes are heavily advertised as a must have feature. Gore-tex lined shoes whether for running or hiking are de rigueur, it seems. But I have persisted in buying only non water proof foot wear, with the exception of winter boots. One way or another, your feet will be getting wet. Wear water proof shoes and your feet will perspire yet the shoes will not release all of the moisture. Wear non water proof shoes and your feet will absorb moisture from the dew or rain on the ground or when you land in a puddle or tip toe through a stream.

But at least in my case, I know that eventually my feet will dry, since moisture can evaporate out of my unlined shoes, especially as they are warmed by my hyperthermic feet. In a gore tex lined shoe, moisture is trapped inside your shoe and can not evaporate until you take them off and let them air dry. Your feet are cocooned in a most un-natural layer of impermeable fabric.

I accept that feet will get wet on the trail or off road, and even cool of chilly.  I am not running or hiking on a sidewalk and thus, having some of nature encroach upon my feet is a small price to pay for keeping my feet, and me, more in touch with the ground they tread upon. Of course, if I really wanted to be in close contact with the ground, I would run or hike barefoot, as some intrepid people do. But I am not motivated to that level. Yet I do feel that my rationale, which I adapted after reading the thoughts of ultra long distance hiker Andrew Skurka, a number of years ago, have served me well. I enjoy the unexpected cold burst of wet feet that surprises me from time to time in the same way I am pleasantly surprised by a chance encounter with an unexpected sighting of an eastern bluebird or scarlet tanager or northern oriole, or deer or chipmunk, or very rarely, a bear. The exposure to what nature offers, when dosed in safe and rational measures, is part of the experience of being out doors. And as part of being rational, for example, I do not endorse going coat less in a dousing rain or hat less in a blistering sun, actions which would just be foolish and unsafe.

But wet feet once in a while can actually enhance the day outdoors, connect you to the trail or path you have chosen to follow and help create an all encompassing trail experience.

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Scott’s shoes for the Appalachian Trail Record 2015

Scott Jurek shows his feet after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek's Facebook page)

Scott Jurek shows his feet and re-fuels after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek’s Facebook page)

What do you wear on your feet if you plan to run and hike more than 45 miles a day, seven days a week for more than six weeks, on hard packed dirt and rock covered trails, running over tree roots, through the water, pounding stone and sharp rocks, slogging through mud and either running up or down steep terrain and even mountains for much of the time?

Last week, ultra long distance runner Scott Jurek set a new record for the fastest time to complete the entire 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. Jurek ran and power hiked the trail in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes, breaking the previous record by 3 hours. For some perspective, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which oversees the trail suggests people allow 5-7 months to complete the entire trail. Jurek took just six weeks and four days.  But the Trail Conservancy estimate allows time for resupplying food along the way from towns near the trail as well as the slower pace of a backpacker carrying all his or her own gear. Jurek, on the other hand, ran the trail “supported”, meaning he did not carry his clothes or a tent and his food and a place to rest or sleep were prepared by his support crew, which for most of the effort, was his wife, Jenny.

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Nonetheless, covering that distance in that amount of time still required Scott Jurek to run or hike on average close to 47 miles a day, day after day, seven days a week. So what did he wear on his feet?

I put that question to Brooks Shoes‘ Derek Lactaoen. Brooks, based in Seattle, WA is a long time sponsor of Scott Jurek’s long distance trail efforts. On this AT effort Scott went through 8 pairs of shoes, Mr. Lactaoen reported, which averages out to 272 miles per pair of shoes, if he switched them at regular intervals, which no one was really tracking. At that calculated average, Jurek did follow Brooks’ estimation that its trail shoes will last between 250-300 miles.

And what shoes did he wear? For a record breaking run of the AT, you would need real grit.

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

And, of Scott’s eight pair of shoes, seven pairs were from Brooks’ Pure Grit shoe line, three pairs of Pure Grit 3 and four pairs of Pure Grit 4. The eighth pair were Cascadia 10 shoes. No information was available about why he selected these models, but at this point after running so many of his ultra marathon races as a Brooks athlete, the fact that he used primarily the Pure Grit shoes says something about what he is most comfortable in. The Pure Grit 3 shoes are low weight, about 10 ounces, and have a relatively low heel drop, about 7 mm, according to Runners’ World. And, according to Brooks, Jurek had no significant foot problems on his run with the exception of some blisters. He did have to deal with an injured quadriceps and a sore knee, injuries that have been well reported.

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

So, what can an average runner or hiker learn from the selection of shoes Scott Jurek chose to wear for his 2,180 run and hike of the Appalachian Trail? The take home message probably is that when it comes to shoes, stick with a brand and model that are comfortable and work for you, and if you can afford to change shoes as they wear out, definitely do so.

Oh, and it’s okay if your are running in last year’s model. Scott did.

Howard E. Friedman

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The Adirondacks, 135 years later…

A boy and his canoe

A boy and his canoe

Recently back from a canoe camping trip to the Adirondacks, I spent some time thinking about how different our trip was from the canoe trips described by George Washington Sears (he died in 1890) who wrote about his paddling adventures around the Adirondack lakes in the magazine Forest and Stream magazine, which was published from 1873 to 1930. Reports on three of his trips when he was in his early sixties were published as a book in 1962 and reprinted in 1993 as a more critical edition titled Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk: the collected letters of George Washington Sears. Sears, who wrote under a pen name, Nessmuk, the name of his Indian friend, which means wood drake, a type of duck, in the Algonquin language, preferred light weight camping. And, he paddled what by today’s standards would be considered an ultra light weight canoe, weighing less than 15 pounds, and only about 10 feet in length.

51RM8PGEHTL._AA160_Sears also eschewed packing a large ‘duffle’ as he described it, criticizing tourists to the Adirondacks for overpacking and taking too much “stuff” into the woods.

But reading Nessmuk’s accounts of the Adirondacks while we were in the Adirondacks, I came to understand what has changed, and what has not. And those differences say something not only about the 6 million acres that make up the Adirondacks but about us, as tourists of the great forests, as canoeists and most importantly, as human beings.

The Adirondacks were not even made a state park until 1892 and by then had been heavily logged for timber as well as for leather tanning. But when Sears plied the waters there were not yet restrictions on cutting down a tree to make a lean-to. Our trip to Follensby Clear Pond, between the Saranac Lakes and the St. Regis chain of lakes, restricted our camping to a designated camp site and also included a strict rule of using only “downed or dead timber” for camp fires.

Undisturbed moss covered trunks in Follensby area.

Undisturbed moss covered trunks in Follensby area.

Nessmuk was a master woodsman, skilled in the art of bushcraft. He was able to create a shelter with the aide of his ax and able to provide food either from fishing or with the muzzle of his rifle. In his light weight canoe, though, he tended to rely on fishing, since hooks, line and a pole weighed precious little.

As I surveyed our own camp site with its three tents, kitchen and two canoes, I could not help but be wistful for a simpler time. We, like the tourists Sears criticized, traveled to the forests of the Adirondacks to enjoy a nature experience and to simply get away, in a way that traveling to a hotel or resort could not provide. Nonetheless, our ability to immerse ourselves on an island in the middle of Follensby Clear Pond surrounded by quite possibly virgin forest, hemlock and pine trees towering about 100 feet over us deep in the depths of the Adirondack State Park, was totally enabled by modern technology.

Follensby Clear Pond. Early morning.

Follensby Clear Pond. Early morning.

First of all, we drove there, covering almost 300 miles in about five and a half hours. Our tents were made of synthetic materials with aluminum poles that collapsed but were held together themselves with elastic threading. Our boats were plastic, one even made from ultra light weight Kevlar material. We cooked aided by a canister of compressed gas, burning iso-butane fuel and we stretched a blue plastic tarp over our cooking space to shield the wind and rain. 2014-06-29 17.35.47True, we did make a camp fire twice a day and did our best to start the fire with one match or two after gathering tinder and kindling. But, at one point, frustrated with my inabilities at keeping the fire going, I doused the wood with hand sanitizer and watched the flames reawaken and dance merrily. And all three of us smiled when we realized that we had cell phone reception on our island campsite in the middle of the wilderness, even if the reception was spotty at times.

So was our trip a true nature experience? We did endure some of the privations that Nessmuk described, such as mosquitoes. But we reached for our store bought insect repellent. Sears created and publicized the recipe for his own insect repellent concoction, cooking a mixture consisting of castor oil, tar and pennyroyal and applied it liberally to the skin with instructions to his readers not to wash it off themselves until they were out of the woods. And, like Sears, we did carry our canoes and all our gear from one lake to the next, but in our case, wishing we had less to carry. But one area where our misery probably equaled his was canoeing in the rain, becoming thoroughly soaked, a scene he described frequently (we either were late in donning rain jackets, or, they did not provide complete rain protection).

In Sear’s day, tourists hired guides to row them in heavy wooden dorries, carry the boats from lake to lake over the trails and set up camp and prepare food. The tourists did crave a wilderness experience. If they didn’t, they could have remained back at the great camp lodge, with many of the conveniences a home provided in the late 1800s. Nonetheless, he criticized them for taking too much stuff with them. Sears himself traveled with a very light weight pack, weighing less than about 15 pounds he writes, although some question the accuracy of his estimate. His pack consisted of an extra shirt and pair of socks, a blanket for sleeping, a knife and hatchet, fishing tackle and pole, homemade insect repellent, and a few other items. He probably carried some food with him but also relied on fishing and hunting. He took no tent as he made his own shelter from trees, trunks and branches.

We did not over pack but could have packed lighter. But even if we packed lighter, we could still not have done without modern technology. Sears never wrote about water purification. And, while some will argue that the waters of the Adirondack lakes do not require sterilization, being children of modernity, we erred on the side of caution and used an ultra violet light Steri-pen device. Furthermore, we could not have found enough appropriately sized ‘downed or dead’ wood to make our own shelter even if we wanted to and fortunately, with the rain we experienced, we had solid rain proof shelters. We could have tried to cook only with a campfire, but would first have had to master the art of creating reliable camp fires.

The Adirondacks have changed since the time of George Washington Sears. Now a New York State Park, the land comes with rules and regulations. But we, as people, have fundamentally changed in our increasing dependence on more and more advanced technology. This is not an indictment of modern society. Man has always craved, even depended on, better and better methods for producing food, shelter, and simply surviving.

kevlar canoe, ready to row. (Y. Friedman 2015)

kevlar canoe, ready to row. (Y. Friedman 2015)

I do not think that one has to have experienced the measles to appreciate the measles vaccine, or, develop frostbite to appreciate warm winter socks and gloves. And having been cold and wet, I can tick that wilderness experience off of my list. Yet, on the whole, I would still argue that when we enter the wilderness but temper our backcountry privations with the tools of modernity, we risk losing something intangible and irreplaceable. Our experience begins to approach a virtual experience. The food is the same, the shelter is clearly a modern machination even if we sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground, and even our mode of transportation feels high tech, sitting in an ultra light weight canoe made of space age plastic.

Zeroing in on an authentic and satisfying nature experience that includes modern technologies is truly a balance. Our early hominin ancestors embraced new technologies at every opportunity even if it was only a better stone tool. The American Indians eventually embraced the rifle and the horse when they came into contact with these new tools. And we continue to upgrade from a pen and ink to a fountain pen to a ball point pen to a typewriter to a word processor to a desk top computer to a lap top to a smart phone. But isn’t part of the reason for diving back into nature to leave most of that, or at least some of those modern trappings, behind?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Each person has her or his own reason for leaving their warm bed and 120 volt electrical outlets and stepping under the forest canopy of tall trees, big sky and a seemingly never ending ceiling of twinkling stars. But even then, when we gaze toward the celestial heavens, we have to wonder, are we looking at a timeless star’s ancient light, or is that sparkling star just the orbiting international space station reflecting the light of the sun.

Howard E. Friedman

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Trailer for Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco

Born to Run, the best selling book by Christopher McDougall, published in 2009, introduced readers to the enigmatic Caballo Blanco (the White Horse),

 Caballo Blanco in the CopperCanyon. Photo by Leslie Gaines.

aka Micah True who lived and ran in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. He was inspired by the native Tarahumara people who lived there and ran long distances just for fun. Micah True went on to host races in the Copper Canyon to bring revenue and support to these indigenous people. He died in 2012, while running in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.

A documentary is making its way across the festival circuit this year about this inspiring person who required little for himself all the while working to make the world better for others. The trailer has been released.

Trailer | Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco.

On the Trail: Another New Trail Shoe Trend

(originally appeared in Trail Walker, quarterly publication of the NY/NJ Trail Conference Spring 2015)

Extra thick soled hiking and trail running shoes are being promoted this Spring and hikers will even see extra thick hiking boots heavily advertised soon, as well. Some of these shoes, referred to as “maximalist” shoes, have soles that are more than three times as thick as even standard hiking and trail running shoes. While ‘maximalist’ shoes have been around for a few years, they were mostly a niche product available from the manufacturers on line or in independent outdoor gear stores. Now, national and regional retailers like REI and Campmor are even selling this unique type of shoes.

The maximalist trail shoes stand out primarily for one feature – mid-sole material almost 1.25 inches thick, often made of a proprietary mix of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam blended with rubber to create increased cushioning.

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

, like the famous Western States 100 mile race  (Karl Meltzer) and posting speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather “Anish Anderson”) and John Muir Trails (Liz Thomas).

Hikers, backpackers and ultra-marathoners have embraced these re-designed shoes for three reasons. First, the generous cushioning through the mid-sole layer of the shoes provides shock absorption whether running or hiking on the trail or on the road. Second, the shoes have either minimal “drop”, (the height difference between the heel and the forefoot), or, no ‘drop’ at all. Proponents of shoes with minimal or zero “drop” claim that they promote a natural gait with a less forceful impact and allow for a more efficient functioning of the achilles tendon. Third, the maximalist shoes, which now include mainstream brands such as Vasque, Brooks and Skechers, in addition to the two most popular brands, Hoka One One and Altra, generally have a wider and more anatomically shaped toe box. Altras have zero drop while Hoka Ones have a minimal drop.

A few years ago when shoe manufacturers promoted “barefoot” running and trail shoes, like Vibram Five Fingers, they cited research and quoted biomechanics experts supporting the shoes’ benefits. And, they maintained that their shoes hearkened back to our ancient hominid roots as barefoot walkers. Now, very few ‘maximalist’ companies are citing any research backing their claims and the thick soled shoes in no way mimic human ancient foot wear or ambulation. Yet, the shoes are catching on with elite and recreational trail runners and hikers. And some weekend hikers claim that these cushioned, low drop shoes with a lot of room for their toes, helped resolve nagging problems like heel pain and shin splints. One note of caution, thogh.  Theelevated  platform design of these shoes may prove unstable to anyone prone to ankle sprains. And, if you are getting good results with your current hiking shoes, than, no need to switch.

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On the trail: the grass survives, again.

The grass survived.

The snow has melted, finally, and you can once again run, walk or hike through the grass. After months under a foot or more of snow, the grass is still green, and alive, mostly.

How does grass survive the freezing cold, the darkness, buried under the snow?Humans can not survive being buried in an avalanche for more than a few minutes. Yet grass survives the cold, the weight, the desiccation. How do its cells resist rupturing, imploding and becoming a protoplasmic organic slime? How do its fragile roots maintain their grasp on a soil which has itself frozen and is no longer nurturing.

This week marks the beginning of the holiday of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The holiday has many themes, revisited each year by parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren in a performance art like meal called the ‘seder’ where the story of the exodus is retold, using food as symbolic props.

But one idea often gets lost in all the preparation and the re-telling. The name of the holiday, Passover in English and ‘Pesach’ (pronounced peh-sakh) in hebrew, conveys a most basic but critical thematic idea. The name of the holiday references God’s sending an angel to visit death upon the first born males in pharonic Egypt as a punishment. God instructed the angel of death to spare the Jewish children. The name, then, focuses on a celebration of survival and an acknowledgement of God as both the taker and sustainer of life in a world filled with Divine intervention in the matters of mankind.

It is by design that Passover always occurs near beginning of springtime, a period of rebirth. And the blades of grass are the first signs of that renewal. They persist through a winter that really should have killed them. But at winter’s end the grasses stand up with no flowery announcement of their arrival. Unannounced and unadorned, they unfurl themselves and reach for the warmth of the nourishing sun.

The springtime holiday of Passover marks not only re-birth but also the birth of a nation that survived its own long winter of oppression, deprivation and servitude. Not every blade of grass survives the winter and neither did every member of the nation survive to leave Egypt 3,000 or so years ago. Which is why seeing the grass again in the springtime is the perfect time to truly celebrate life.

Walk in alone. Walk out together.

March is the unofficial start to the hiking season, at least for people setting out to hike a long trail, like the 2,100 mile Appalachian trail. Setting out in March avoids the coldest, snowiest part of winter and provides a long enough time to walk until the cold settles in again in the fall. More times than not, hikers start out on a solo journey, hoping to challenge themselves.  But along the way, even the most solo of solo hikers will find comfort in commiserating, camping, hiking, with others he or she meets along the way. And while the time spent in the company of others may be brief, that joining together can lift the spirits of even the most aching, blistered and tired soul.

We have many journeys in life that we must embark on alone. But ‘alone’ does not mean abandoned. My nieces and nephews just lost their mother, my brother lost his wife, who passed away at the age of 55. The end arrived as they sat by her side for long days and nights over several weeks. They are a close and united family, but naturally still face this challenge each on his and her own terms. The husband and the children entered the hospice room as individuals but they emerged from that space and a week of mourning together, bereaved, yet even closer.

The Appalachian Trail is often referred to as ‘the long green tunnel’. The trail is a single-track which passes through mostly forest, a long tunnel amidst maple, birch, oak and hickory leaves, verdant green in the spring and summer. Walking  along you can feel isolated, traveling alone with the burden of your gear on your back,  rays of light squeezing between the dense canopy of leaf filled branches, illuminating the ground with occasional spots of light here and there. But as you make your way and meet others who share your journey, your steps feel lighter as you share your burden. And despite your physical and emotional exhaustion, the journey through the long green tunnel does eventually come to an end. When you emerge, no matter how alone your sojourn felt, at journey’s end, know that you did not walk it completely alone.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Personal challenges and personal agency.

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

Six wild turkeys emerged from the wooded shadows into a clearing,  single file, variously walking on and sinking in to the foot of snow on the ground. Than another six than another dozen emerged, walking, sinking, moving slowly and circumspectly, stopping to forage among twigs branches and fallen tree trunks.

I had just finished running and walking among the same trails as these wild, ungainly birds. I knew a bit about the challenges they faced moving over uncertain and unwelcoming terrain, having sunk through the snow myself. Moving overland in the winter woods was laborious.

Today’s temperature was 20F, much warmer than last week’s low teens. But there was still a sense of accomplishment in managing the environment, wearing three layers instead of 4, one pair of gloves instead of two.

‘Manage the environment, don’t let the environment manage you’, an intrepid outdoors friend commented.

Humans have been struggling, and mostly succeeding, to manage their environment for thousands of years. And there is a satisfaction that comes with surviving frigid temperatures, avoiding hypothermia and frostbite and yet enjoying the out of doors, with its rich palette of colours, shapes and textures. It is the pleasure of matching personal agency against the challenges of the environment.

And we have largely mastered our environment, be it climbing tectonic uplifts soaring five miles into the hypoxic frigid sky, like Everest, or submerging to study thermal vents miles below the surface of the ocean, like the Marianas Trench, or, of course, the ultimate mastery by man- space exploration.

Yet assuming our personal agency always results in ‘mastery’ is a fallacy. It is a fallacy in the outdoors as witnessed by the many fatalities- Rob Lowe, dying on the cold shoulder of Everest moments after calling his wife in New Zealand to say ‘I love you’, Chris McCandless whose death by starvation trapped in the Alaskan back country was famously chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’, to name only two of hundreds, if not more.

And personal agency as ‘mastery’ is a fallacy in our day to day lives, as it only takes us so far. This is truest especially when faced with overwhelming challenges against which no one can prevail, not the smartest, the prettiest, not the wealthiest or the most accomplished, not the most important. No one.

In the test of man against nature, the latter always prevails. As for our personal agency, we can manage, or try to manage, our responses especially in the face of impending loss.  We can take small comfort that we have, at the least, participated in the process. The winter trail will test your ability to survive the inhospitable, the uninviting, the unnatural for us warm blooded, furless mammals. And it is that mere survival that makes the successful days on the hard packed snow among the barren trees and frozen ponds so gratifying, even as it gives a fleeting, albeit false, sense of invincibility.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Winter and the Big Bang

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

In a week riddled with more senseless and barbaric killings around the globe one small item of astrophysical import did not  garner much attention, even though it addressed the fundamental question of how the universe began.

The mercury began this morning in the teens when I awoke.  Dressed in layers I ran  to the nearby woods to see what I would see. In winter, all is hidden yet all is revealed. I saw no animals running about but only remnants of their activity from the day or night before. Squirrel tracks galore, raccoon and opossum prints, the occasional deer tracks and even the footprints of a family of mallards on the ice covered portion of the slow moving creek, webbed toes pointed toward open water. Two red tailed hawks and a great blue heron took off from their hidden perches, quickly, silently, vanishing like actors disappearing into the wings.

I ran a familiar route on snow and ice and came to the small pond, now frozen solid, a rare opportunity to walk out on the ice. The water is never deep here so the only risk would be wet and frigid feet if the ice cracked below. But it held.

The harsh frozen landscape seems ancient, as if it could exist for eternity, in contrast to Spring where flowers and their petals seem so fragile, even at the peak of their beauty. Winter conjures images of frozen planets in our solar system, or the frozen dark side of the moon, dry, seemingly lifeless. And thus winter makes me ponder the origins of our universe and the earth itself.

Professor Brian Koberrlein expanded on an article explaining how our universe did not necessarily begin with one defined singular moment, the ‘Big Bang’. Rather, the professor at Rochester Institute of Technology wrote in Physics Letters B, citing research from the University of Benha in Egypt and Letherbridge University in Alberta, Canada this month, the universe always existed and will always exist. A ‘big bang’ happened along the way, but that moment, referred to as “singularity” by astrophysicists, does not have to have been the first moment.

“Singularity”, one point from which all else emanates, is a comforting idea, and, we each can identify defining moments in our lives that marked a new beginning. But, outdoors in nature, peering down the snow covered trail that fades into a sun filled patina of white and ice, the infinite seems more real than the finite.

And I am glad to welcome “infinity” back into the model of how the universe began. The concept of timelessness helps frame our own travails and challenges. Whatever will be, the universe always was and always will be and we are a part of that timelessness. And while winter on the trail evinces a natural timeless quality, you can follow that same path in the Fall, or Summer, or Spring, and it will still take you to forever.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Ski shoeing, a mix of cross country and snow shoeing.

Ski-shoeing In the Altai Mountains (https://altaiskis.wordpress.com/, Nils Image)

Ski-shoeing In the Altai Mountains (https://altaiskis.wordpress.com/, Nils Image)

Thanks to ancestors of Mongolian horsemen and warriors who trace their lineage to Genghis Kahn, winter hikers do not have to choose between either cross country skiing or snow shoeing. Rather, they can benefit from the centuries of experience of the Altai people, the indigenous Chinese citizens of the Altai mountain range, bordering China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, who have mastered a hybrid form of winter snow travel, best described as “ski-shoeing”. This technique uses short and wide skis designed to enable walking up snowy hills as with snowshoes, but allows skiing downhill like with cross country skis yet enables sliding across level snow covered ground. And, ski-shoes, which are about 70-75% the length of traditional skis and weigh about 5-6 lbs. per pair, can break trail too.

The ski shoes, called Hoks, which means “skis” in the native Tuwa language of the Altai people, includes a fabric climbing ‘skin’ built in to the undersurface of the skis, as well as metal edges, commonly found on backcountry skis. The Altai Hok skis were designed to be more efficient than snow shoeing yet easy to learn even for non-skiers, Nils Larsen, president of Altai Skis, interviewed by phone from Curlew, WA, said. In fact, hikers can use their existing hiking or backpacking boot with the ski’s universal binding, or, use a cross-country ski boot with a different binding for increased control.

Altai Hok skis, front, and back, showing climbing skin (http://altaiskis.com/)

Altai Hok skis, front, and back, showing climbing skin (http://altaiskis.com/)

The Altai people have been using similar type skis for centuries or longer. They use horsehide, however, as the climbing skin, with the stiff hairs facing downhill to provide traction when climbing. The Hok skis use a similarly stiff but synthetic fabric. Unlike traditional cross country and down hill skis, the Altai people use only one pole, made of larch or birch wood, not two poles. Called a ‘tiak’ this one pole is held by both hands and dragged behind the skier to provide balance when skiing downhill. Larsen explained that using the one pole in this manner really improves stability. The pole is not used to propel the skier forward.

The Hoks could be used on as little as several inches of snow, Mr. Larsen said, and can be used to climb most hiking trails with the exception of thinly covered icy trails. They excel, though, in deeper snow. The Hoks can traverse exposed rocks but the skier has to walk over them like with snow-shoes. Compared to cross country skis, the Hoks are slower both on flat terrain and downhill, and they do not fit into groomed cross country tracks, Mr. Larsen said. But, he maintained, they are more efficient than snow shoes since the user can slide his foot forward each step instead of lifting it up. And, the shorter ski length makes the Hoks more maneuverable than longer skis when navigating around trees in wooded areas, he added.

The Altai people use their ski shoes for daily travel around their villages as well as tracking of Elk in their nearby forests. An Altai Elk hunt on ski shoes was well documented by National Geographic in their December 2013 issue (including some video footage of the Altai skiers nationalgeographic.com). Researchers suggest that short, wide skis lined with animal hair could date back thousands of years and may represent some of the earliest skis ever. Winter hikers may find that this simple design could enhance their winter adventures by making snow travel on the trail more efficient than with snow shoes and more versatile than with cross country skis.

Howard E. Friedman

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