One look at the MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes and it’s obvious that these shoes are designed for traction. Instead of adapting the tubular frame design that typifies the snowshoe industry, MSR developed a revolutionary new frame using bar stock aluminum, with crampon teeth cut into the frame. At 3.6 pounds for the pair, the Lightning Ascents are heavier than some other snowshoes, but their performance features may well justify the weight.
- Traction never before seen in a snowshoe
- Urethane decking attaches to frame with metal clips, rather than wrapping around the frame, and is therefore better protected from abrasion
- Televator heel lifts make climbing more comfortable and spreads weight over entire traction surface
- Design prevents ice build up
- Step-on binding is quick, simple, and versatile
What’s not so Good
- Paint finish chips easily and in large pieces
- Perimeter traction teeth in the aluminum frame wear down easily (though the steel teeth on the crampons and cross braces are unscathed)
- The binding does not maintain heel alignment
|2004-2005 Lightning Ascent|
|8 in wide x 25 in long (20 cm x 64 cm)|
|Measured surface area 176 in2 (1135 cm2)|
|Aerospace grade vertical aluminum bar stock, approximately 1 inch high and 3/32 inch thick|
|Propriety urethane with a mesh fiber core|
|Molded clear urethane, with molded gray and black straps, secured with steel, speed hook buckles|
|Aerospace grade aluminum around the perimeter, painted carbon steel on the cross braces and pivot crampon|
|Measured weight 3.6 lb (1.6 kg) per pair; manufacturer specification 3.6 lb (1.6 kg)|
|125 lb (57 kg) to 225 lb (102 kg), depending on conditions|
The MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes have one of the most innovative designs ever seen in a technical snowshoe. Unlike the industry standard tubular aluminum frames, MSR uses a “vertical blade” aluminum frame reinforced by vertical steel cross braces, all of which are adorned with traction teeth underneath. There is also a pivoting foot crampon that drives deep into the snow while you walk. I tested the MSR Total-Traction frame in a variety of snow conditions and terrain and found it offers much better traction than the industry norm, particularly in harder snow - though it does not replace conventional crampons in icy terrain. The frame flexes much more than even the flimsiest tubular framed shoes. Rather than this being a negative point, I found the frame flex enhanced traction in most circumstances by conforming better to uneven ground.
Aptly named, the Lightning Ascents excel at climbing steeper slopes. If the snow conditions are optimal (firm, but not too hard), climbing slopes of 45+ degrees is possible. The Televator heel lift relieves the calves from climbing strain. They also distribute your weight over the entire snowshoe frame (think traction) rather than solely over the foot crampons. With the heel lifts engaged, and weight distributed over the entire frame, there is a real sense of stability when climbing steeper terrain. The Televators have a nice engagement/disengagement too, with a positive click into the two positions. With practice, trekking poles can be used to move them into position.
It was really fun to climb with the MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes. The traction afforded by the “Total Traction Frame” allows you to explore terrain that is otherwise inaccessible when covered in snow.
The Televator in the raised position offers greater comfort and traction when climbing steeper terrain.
The Lightning Ascents are great descenders if you want maximum grip, and average descenders if you like to glissade down. Glissading is a fun, quicker means of negotiating a route back down that requires a break in traction followed by a controlled slide with each step. With the Lightning Ascents it is very difficult to break traction. The controlled slides are short with a lot of drag and snow flying. The positive side to this is a much more controlled descent when safety is a concern or when carrying a backpack.
Although glissading is out, the MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes make descending safe and predictable. The unparalleled traction locks into the slope; in this case, a slope of approximately 45 degrees.
Despite being shaped reasonably well to promote sufficient float, the Lightning Ascents are not great performers in deeper snow; they simply lack the surface area. Traction tends to weaken in softer snow too, though they still perform better than average in this regard.
The propriety urethane deck doesn’t wrap the aluminum frame, but is riveted to 20 aluminum clips that are inserted through the frame. This eliminates a common weak point of tubular aluminum frames; the decking material is much better protected from rock abrasions. The crampon-like frame, however, is quick to shed its paint, occasionally in large chips, when put in contact with rock, bare ground, or the opposite snowshoe. Some will be disappointed with the appearance of these snowshoes after a single trip. In contrast, most tubular frame snowshoes have a powder coated or anodized finish that will take much more abuse before looking as well used. After six months of heavy use, the loss of paint from the Lightning Ascents is significant, but only a cosmetic concern.
MSR rivets the decking to aluminum clips inserted through the frame (left), reducing the decking’s contact with the ground. With most tubular snowshoe frames, the decking wraps around the frame, subjecting it to frequent abrasion. If you’re a big fan of the sparkly orange metal-flake finish on these shoes like I am, you’ll be disappointed after your first trip out. The finish on the MSR Lightning Ascents chips easily and does so in large pieces (right).
There are other wear issues with regard to the frame. The crampon teeth on the perimeter frame are beginning to round off after one season of use. MSR should consider using higher grade 7000 series aluminum for this application. The carbon steel cross braces and binding crampons do not share the same fate. Except for chipped paint, they remain relatively unscathed.
The step-in binding is one of the easiest snowshoe bindings to get into we've seen and fits anything from running shoes to thickly insulated snow boots. As the name implies, you step onto the binding rather than feed your foot into it. After placing your heel against a fixed, but adjustable, heel strap, pull the two top straps over your boot and slip them into the side of the speed-hook buckles. Pull tight and lock the appropriate adjusting hole onto the pin of the buckle. This is all done in one motion, and can be done wearing the thickest gloves or with cold fingers. The strap ends are kept under control by feeding them into the small black strap keepers. The strap keepers on the test sample Ascents were installed with the openings pointing up. This caused the straps to slip out when snow or brush pushed against the straps. I found removing the strap keepers and reinstalling them with the strap opening pointing down prevented this from happening.
The MSR Lightning Ascent bindings feature quick entry/exit. The speed-hook buckles allow you to step into the binding rather than wiggle your foot through a series of straps.
My heels have a tendency to shift towards the inner edges of the Lightning Ascents. The effect on performance is subtle. As I straighten my feet, the snowshoe tips rotate inwards making it easier to step on top of the leading shoe when taking a step. After tripping myself a few times, I eventually learned to adjust my gait to compensate. Such compensation should be unnecessary, and likely has an affect on performance and fatigue. Since a few of my friends who own these snowshoes have the same complaint, I conclude that the problem lies in the snowshoes' bindings.
The Lightning Ascent binding uses a fixed hinge pivot system with a stop to prevent the snowshoe from rotating to vertical and dragging over obstacles. The stop still allows the snowshoe to rotate more than one with a pivot strap, so the snowshoes do drag when hiking. Although the shoes maneuver well over obstacles, they will trip you when trying to walk backwards. This system works well enough, but the metal-on-metal pivot parts rattle and squeak more than strap-style pivots. The clevis pins used for the pivots have been known to fail on other MSR snowshoe models, although I had no problems with the Lightning Ascent clevis pins through one season of use.
The pivot system on the MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes allows the back to drop to this point before the hinge’s integrated stop prevents further rotation. The stop does help when stepping over obstacles, but allows the snowshoes to drag when hiking.
I have a pair of older snowshoes that are notorious for packing snow on the heel plate. Without stopping to chip the snow off, the heel plate becomes a “Televator” of sorts, a real problem when I’m trying to go downhill. Snow can also pack onto the bare aluminum surfaces of crampons or to the sides of an aluminum frame. Throughout my testing I never experienced snow sticking to the MSR Lightning Ascents. Ice that might normally build up on other snowshoes tends to break up on the frame’s vertical blades.
MSR claims the Lightning Ascent is the lightest snowshoe in its class at 3.6 pounds. With similar sized snowshoes like the Northern Lites Elite weighing 2 pounds 3 ounces, one must wonder exactly what class MSR is referring to. The Northern Lites Elite does not have nearly the traction of the MSR Lightning Ascent, so perhaps the Ascents are in a class all to themselves. Considering the traction, Televators, step-on bindings, and durability of materials throughout, 3.6 pounds is very respectable for the level of performance these shoes achieve.
The traction! MSR designed traction into the entire frame creating a snowshoe that out performs all others in steep and technical terrain.
Recommendations for Improvement
Although the Lightning Ascent’s weight is very respectable for the level of performance they achieve, MSR could reduce the weight further by replacing steel components with titanium and using a thinner decking material. But at an already high price of $250, I don’t envision this happening any time soon.
A more practical improvement would be to apply a more durable paint finish. One or two trips are all it takes to give the present finish a well used look.
The phenomenon of the heels rotating inwards is a problem that needs to be addressed. MSR should consider making anatomical left and right specific bindings that align the feet to the snowshoes.