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No matter what the temperature, thrashing around produces a lot of body heat and moisture, and it is imperative that this be controlled and disposed of properly or it will turn to ice with all sorts of evil consequences.
If you are going to be active in the cold, the best mode of dress is a loose, layered one. Fishnet underwear, which provides good insulation because of the air spaces but lets heat and moisture radiate away from the body, is a good foundation garment. Wool makes the best next layer because, unlike cotton, it dries from the inside out and breathes (passes moisture) very well. The outer layer should be thin, designed to keep moisture and wind out. Overall, a long flowing cagoule-like mountaineering parka is good. Under these layers, heat and moisture rise, and the top of the costume, around the hood of the parka, can be easily opened or closed to accommodate this. When you start building up too many BTUs and too much moist air, you can open the throat and let it escape, and when you have cooled down, you close the throat and start building up the heat. For the feet, rubber boots with leather uppers are the best.
This is how we remained warm, more or less, through the worst week of winter weather anyone around the Black Forest could remember. As to questions about where was all our stylish, puffy, down gear of the sort smiling models display on the covers of outfitters' catalogs, it was where it belonged, stuffed in our packs, waiting to be used at night when we stopped and when we slept. There is not much that provides better and lighter insulation than down because of its properties for trapping air between the little feathers. However, despite all the down being sold in such arctic areas as San Diego and Houston, it has severe limitations. If it is squashed flat, say under a pack, it can't trap air and does not insulate. For the same reason it loses its clout if it becomes wet. Down is great for sleeping in or standing around in, but otherwise it is not so hot. In a recent spree of false role playing, and as a status symbol, it has been misused, oversold and overbought.
On the right kind of trail you can lope along on snowshoes, getting a pleasant, bouncy, trampoline effect from the webbing. You can bound down an open slope in big leaps, achieving somewhat the sensation of rappelling without ropes. Otherwise, there is nothing very sporty about snowshoeing, which is really nothing more than awkward walking. Also, it is not a high-skill activity. Anyone who can simultaneously walk and chew icicles out of his mustache can learn to snowshoe passably in half an hour or so. Like other ordinary things such as crawling, planting bulbs or sawing wood, it gets easier the longer you do it, but the basic act is not difficult.
Snowshoes have been around for a few thousand years and nobody has yet invented a ski, sled or snowmobile that better accomplishes what they are intended to accomplish—getting a man through deep snow and over rough terrain. Because there are a lot of different snow conditions, a great variety of snowshoes have evolved. There are, for example, almost circular ones, often called bear-paws, which while a little awkward are great supports in very deep, soft dry snow. At the other extreme are long narrow six-foot shoes with extended wooden tails on which you can travel very fast in hard snow and open country, say, across prairies or tundra. Both pairs of my shoes are of a general type developed and used in woodlands. They are less round and provide less support than bearpaws, are rounder and not so fast as the narrow, arctic type, and have short tails and are more maneuverable than either of the extremes. The larger pair is laced with rawhide and the other with neoprene ribbons. Much as I hate to admit it, the neoprene is more practical because it does not take on water and does not have to be periodically varnished, but I have always preferred rawhide and, somehow, it feels better underfoot.
Sentiment aside, Sam and I thought that we might have snowshoe problems in our travels in the Black Forest. The larger rawhide shoes will keep about 240 pounds on the surface of the snow. The neoprenes are rated at about 200 pounds. Obviously Sam had to use the bigger ones, but with a pack he was going to be 20 pounds or so overweight, and I was going to be about as much over the best load limit on the neoprene shoes. If we got into very deep light snow we might have some hard going—as in fact we did.
There are a series of open meadows extending from Potato City back into the forest. The wind had graded and packed these snowfields, and we moved across them smartly, cruising along on the crusty surface. However, there was only about half an hour of this easy going. In the woods there was a three-foot snow cover on the flat, but frequent and extensive drifts were twice as deep or more. Also, because it had been so cold, the snow remained very light and fluffy. On our overloaded shoes we sank six inches to a foot with every step. Obviously this was better than sinking in three to six feet, as we would have if unshod, but it still promoted slowness and exhaustion.
Woodland shoes have an upward tilt on the prow. The purpose is to keep the shoe pointing up through the snow, preventing the tip from digging down diagonally into drifts and stopping or tripping its wearer. In effect, these shoes are flattish scoops. Even properly weighted you expect to sink a few inches, and with each step some snow collects on the scoops. Getting rid of it accounts for the customary snowshoe gait, which is more a glide than a stride. On each step the foot is shuffled forward and then given a little shake to kick off the snow. When you have a six-inch dollop of snow to clear, as we did most of the time, you have to lift your foot higher to get out of the hole you have dug and then kick harder. Stumbling and fatigue result.
All of these problems only really concern the first person in a party because he packs down the snow, and anyone who follows can step in his tracks and ride along nicely on the surface. In the flat, better packed snow, one of us might be able to break trail for a quarter of a mile or so. In the drifts, ascending and descending the mountainsides, we sometimes could keep going for only 20 yards before we were gasping and heaving and had to stop to open our parkas to let off steam and make way for the other to have a go at trailbreaking. It is a situation in which strength is far more valuable than expertise, and as the days went on Sam took longer and longer turns in front. It was the horse's edge—or penalty.