It’s a Saturday morning, 31 December, and the sun is blazing in a blue sky as I strap on my snowshoes. I’m in the small town of Szczawnica in the far south of Poland, close up on the Slovakian border, and I’m about to try snowshoeing for the first time in my life. The sun is glittering on the white snow as I look up at the hill we are about to climb, down at the strange plastic contraptions attached to my feet, and wonder if this was a good idea.
When I booked a short group tour in Poland for the end of December, I’ll admit I was seduced by the romantic image of sleigh rides, sparkling snow and Polish vodka to ring in the New Year. I knew snowshoeing was on the itinerary, but the image I had in my head was stuck somewhere around the era of Scott or Amundsen: wooden tennis rackets strapped to their shoes as they pulled their sleds over the frozen wastes. The first part of this image which appears to be significantly wrong is the gradient. I am in the Tatra mountains, so why I was expecting a flat surface is a mystery, but I’m not convinced my legs are going to be up to this. Still, we have been promised a mountain hut at the top, with food and beer and cake and… well, it’s worth a try.
The second part of the image that has turned out to be a bit off is the tennis rackets. Having said that, the basic principle of the snowshoe hasn’t actually changed all that much in the last 100+ years. The modern day snowshoe has more in common with a plastic tray than a tennis racket, but it is still strapped to the foot to spread the weight of the wearer and stop them disappearing ankle- (or even knee-) deep in the fresh snow. Hinged at the front and free at the heel rather like a cross country ski, it has studs on the underside and built-in crampons at the toe, designed to grip the snow on uphill slopes as the foot tilts forward.
After a short time at the valley bottom to get the hang of walking on our plastic tea-trays (top tip: keep your legs apart!), we set off up a slope that is thankfully not as steep as I had feared. Pacing myself as best I can within the group, I begin to get used to the snowshoes and am able to look around me. The Tatra mountains are beautiful; with a fresh fall of snow blanketing the landscape, the views across the surrounding hills are stunning, and copses of trees and picturesque wooden chalets dot the landscape. I am aching to get my camera out, but the need to keep up with the group, maintain my balance, and juggle thick gloves and two walking poles mean photography is tricky, so I am forced instead to enjoy the scenery with my own eyes for once instead of through a lens. Not a bad thing, I must admit.
Up the hill we trek, some group members forging on ahead on the well-marked trail. I have never been the athletic type and will admit to not being as fit as I could be, but the rest of the group maintains a slow and steady pace which suits me fine. Getting confident, I follow our guide across a short cut, taking a direct route across the fresh snow. Here, the snowshoes really come into their own as we seem to float above the ground; the fresh snow lays all around us, covered with a layer of ice crystals that make it sparkle and glitter in the sunshine. I have never seen anything like it before, and it’s magical.
I get a little braver and cut up a steep slope, my toe crampons doing their job as I haul myself back up to the path above, beaming with a sense of achievement at a challenge conquered. But the route gets more and more difficult as time goes on, my legs eventually protesting at the long uphill walk on the snowshoes, which force your muscles to work that bit harder than they normally would. Our walk is 3 kilometres, all uphill, and by the time we reach the mountain hut at the top I am red-faced, breathless and aching. But the sense of achievement is worth all the pain.
Then comes the fun bit, and the payoff for all our hard work. After a break at the top for food and drink, we set off on the three kilometre return trip. But this time, we’re heading downhill. And I love it. The technique for going downhill on snowshoes is very transferrable from going down a sand dune: put one foot down, let it slide until you get a grip, then repeat with the other leg, half stepping, half sliding your way down the slope. The group spreads out on the downhill run, me alone in the middle, and I relish having the beautiful scenery and peaceful environment to myself as I seek out every possible stretch of fresh snow, laughing happily as I slither and scramble my way back down the mountainside.
But pride comes before a fall – in my case, literally. Right as we approach the bottom of the hill, the path divides. One route I know is the gentle slope we came up; the other is a much steeper path down to the road where we will rejoin our minibus. Full of confidence and relishing the idea of sliding down the last 100m or so of the route, I head for the steeper section. But halfway down I realise I’ve made a terrible mistake. There is the road at the bottom, and there are some of my fellow travellers who were ahead of me, waiting for the rest of the group and watching my descent. But it isn’t the path I thought I was on. With only two choices, continuing on or climbing back up a very steep slope to try again, I opt to persevere, but of course you know what happens next: I get my showshoe stuck in a narrow gully, stumble sideways and fall over. Unable to stand on the steep slope, with my backpack throwing me even further off balance than I would be already, I have no choice but to slide the rest of my journey on my bottom until a friend comes up the slope to help me back on my feet. With my only options being embarrassment or seeing the funny side, I run down the last of the hill, brushing snow off my trousers and laughing all the way.
If you fancy trying snowshoeing, you don’t need any particular level of fitness but check in advance with your guide if you feel gradient will be a problem. As I mentioned, I am not especially fit, but I managed just fine; if you would be able to walk up a similar gradient, you will be OK in snowshoes. If you have knee or breathing problems, however, it may not be for you – take advice from the professionals.
I fell a couple of times (not including the steep slope incident!) but the snow makes for a soft landing. Snowshoeing is a fun way to enjoy the winter landscape, so give it a go!