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Reviews > Snow Gear > Snowshoes > MSR Lightning Ascent 2004 > Test Report by Curt Peterson
MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes
Report Series by Curt Peterson
Initial Report - December 2007
Long Term Report
Tester Background and Contact Information
Name: Curt Peterson
Height: 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)
Weight: 270 lb (122 kg)
Shoe Size: 13 Wide
Email address: curt<at>boopants<dot>com
Location: North Bend, Washington, USA
I live in the Cascade foothills, just 20 mi (32 km) from the Pacific Crest Trail via trails leading right from my backyard. My outdoor time in Washington is spent dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, and skiing everywhere from the Olympic coast to rainforests to Cascade volcanoes to dry steppe. I played football in college and often evaluate products from a big guy perspective. My typical pack load ranges from 11 - 20 lbs (5 - 9 kg) and usually includes plenty of wet weather gear.
The MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes made an immediate impression on me. It wasn't the orange color - although that's hard not to notice - but the frame of the snowshoe. Every snowshoe I've used in the past uses either a wood or metal frame around the perimeter or is essentially a slab deck. The frame has always been pretty much passive in function. It's needed to hold everything together, but it had no traction or use other than giving the deck something to cling to. It's also one of the heaviest - if not the heaviest - component of a snowshoe. The slab deck snowshoes eliminate the perimeter frame, but to be rigid enough to function as a snowshoe they need to use some pretty beefy plastics. They definitely work, but aren't the lightest snowshoes around. The Lightning Ascent appears to break new ground by using the framed design but making it actively functional by integrating a full perimeter serrated edge.
According to the manufacturer's website, "MSR's Lightning Ascents represent a revolution in snowshoe design. Available in men's and women’s models, they feature a patent-pending Total-Traction™ frame—made from one vertical blade of aerospace-grade aluminum—that delivers unprecedented 360° traction. They're also the lightest snowshoes in their class—about 15% lighter than competitors—with performance and usability that surpass everything that's come before."
I'm not sure what "in their class" refers to. They are not the lightest backcountry snowshoes available. There are many, many heavier models out there but the Lightning Ascents are certainly reasonable in terms of weight. I will be reporting on the heft both on the feet and on the pack during the test period.
The pair of Lightning Ascents I will be testing are the Lightning Ascent 30s. They are the biggest of the Lightning Ascent line and are recommended for snowshoers over 225 lbs (102 kg) in soft snow and deep soft snow up to and deeper than 30 in (76 cm). MSR also recommends the Lightning Ascent 30 model for snowshoers 175-225 lbs (79-102 kg) in deep and soft snow. For firm, established trail snow conditions MSR recommends even their heaviest class of snowshoers use the Lightning Ascent 25 model. As the snow in the Cascades is rarely soft and deep powder, I imagine the Lightning Ascent 30 will be about right for my size and the snow conditions I will most commonly encounter. I would be a bit nervous if I were in Utah or the Rockies at my size, but the Cascades are famous for their wet, heavy snow. Flotation will definitely be a key part of my field testing.
One of my initial challenges will be fit. I plan to use three sets of footwear during the test. In firm and dry conditions I will use the Lightning Ascents with trail runners only. As conditions get a little deeper I will try them with my full leather climbing boots. Most often, however, I will be using them with NEOS overshoes. I'm not sure what footwear I will have inside the NEOS, but the footprint of the NEOS itself is pretty huge. MSR notes in the manual for the Lightning Ascents that some bigger footwear may require cutting away part of the decking material. I'm not to eager to do this irreversible modification, but may have to to get a functional snowshoe. This will definitely be part of my field report.
The Lightning Ascents are very aggressive. In fact, my only concern is that they may be too aggressive. I'm not sure if that's possible, but I could see where they would almost be "sticky" - particularly on downhills. I'm used to a bit of minor sliding in snowshoes - how these grip is another area I will be following up on in further testing.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Lightning Ascents is the footwear attachment system. My last pair of snowshoes used nylon webbing. This never felt very secure and created a lot of freezing and soaking wet straps that were very frustrating. Even when they weren't soaked or frozen, threading them through the various buckles was a pain that required contortions my body did not prefer to do. The Lightning Ascents use a strap system that is not only waterproof, easy to grab, and simple to adjust, the buckles don't even need to be threaded. Instead, they have a side-entry system that allows the strap to be completely undone and redone in just a second or two. Especially with frozen, mittened hands I can imagine this being dead simple.
The two other areas I'll pay close attention to are the play in the bindings and the fore-aft balance of the snowshoes. How flexible the bindings are can be a great comfort or a sloppy mess. Especially on side hills, this balance can be really important. MSR says that the "True-Hinge steel crampon enhances foot stability and minimizes heel drift". This sounds great - how it plays out in the real world will be noted. The fore-aft balance is another aspect that has always interested me. Some snowshoes I've used always feel like they were diving down nose first into the snow. Others have felt like I'm tipping backwards all the time. I imagine the balance has a lot do to with the size of the foot in the snowshoes - I'll be looking at these with a big size 13.
Finally, the Televator heel lifter is something that really interests me. It is much easier to pop up and down than I expected and seems angled forward enough that initially I'm not too concerned that it will collapse by accident. The real boon will be if it allows me to go straight up hills relatively painlessly. The normal way of minimizing a steep hill by zig zagging up works fine on foot, but presents problems in snowshoes since the snowshoe wants to lie flat to the angle but ankles want to be straight up and down. Not only is this uncomfortable, but has the potential for serious injury on steep angles. Being able to go straight up the hill would solve this challenge, but is terror on the calves. I'm excited to see if the Televators solve this problem.
MSR Lightning Ascent Test Plan
Winter is just beginning here in Washington. We just had our first big storm. A lot of snow fell, although much of it at the lower elevations was quickly melted by a pretty intense rain event. Still, snow is easy to find between December and June in the Cascades and much of it will be right outside my doorstep during the test period. During the testing period I will focus on the following questions, with more sure to emerge as I put the Lightning Ascents to work:
a. On the most basic level, do the snowshoes work? Their primary job is to keep the user from sinking deep into the snow to make travel over the snow possible. Do they achieve this?
b. Are they relatively easy to use? Is putting them on or taking them off a quick and straightforward task?
c. Are they comfortable? Do they attach to my footwear and become an extension of my feet?
d. Are they secure? Once attached to my feet, do they stay put?
e. Are they durable? Will hitting the occasional branch or rock damage the snowshoes or can they handle some mixed terrain?
f. How do they carry? If stretches of terrain call for removing the snowshoes, do they carry on a pack well?
g. Do they handle varying footwear? I will use trail runners, overshoes, and boots with the snowshoes. Can they fit all of them well?
h. Do they grip well? They appear to be one of the most aggressive snowshoes available - does this translate to increased security?
i. Does the Televator heel elevator make climbing easier? This was one of the features that attracted me to these snowshoes - do they work?
j. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do the Lightning Ascents allow me to go places I otherwise could not? All outdoor gear should enhance the experience of being in wild places. Do these snowshoes let me have experiences that I could not without snowshoes or could not without the features of the Lightning Ascents?
Initial Report Summary
The MSR Lightning Ascents are pretty impressive on initial inspection. From their one-of-a-kind frame to the Televator heel, they definitely seem to break new ground in snowshoe design. How they work in the real world, however, remains to be seen. I really like the binding system at this point - it is definitely the easiest I've ever used. I don't have any initial concerns or recommendations for improvements. Testing will surely give me the perspectives needed to highlight the positive aspects of the Lightning Ascents and comment on things - if any - that don't work well for me.
Thanks to MSR and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to get out in the cold and test the Lightning Ascent 30 snowshoes!!
Field Report - Please check back in February 2008 for results from real world use and testing.
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