Snowshoeing is considerably cheaper than skiing: a week of downhill skiing is a big cost to most budgets, but the purchase of a good pair of snow shoes is a relatively modest, once only financial event and lift passes are not a factor.
Snowshoers tend to be retired family types with an appreciation for the environment and the quiet simplicity of the sport. There's no need to queue for ski lifts and the weather is hardly ever a problem. All you need is some deep snow to walk on and straight away you can be quietly enjoying the mountains.
Sabine Gillet took to snowshoes for the first time when she was working in [R482R, Vail], Colorado 10 years ago. Sabine explains, "It's really lovely and quiet and so beautiful but it can be hard work. You decide - you can go where you like and make it as hard or as easy as you want. It can be like mountaineering, cross-country running or a nice walk. It's up to you." How does it compare with downhill skiing? "There is no comparison. Downhill is all hustle and bustle and usually crowds. With snowshoes you get the same mountain experience without the stress."
"You can go where you like and make it as hard or as easy as you want. It can be like mountaineering, cross-country running or a nice walk"
Gaël Bouquet-des Chaux is responsible for developing the sport at the Fédération Française de la Montagne et de l'Escalade, FFME, the multi mountain sport organisation that is the parent body in France. Gaël says, "Mountain walking is a big sport in the summer and these same people are moving naturally into snowshoeing. There is a minority of fitness fanatics but mostly it is a past-time for people who love the mountains."
Gaël is himself a guide and distinguished mountaineer but also a keen environmentalist and stresses the importance of links between respect for the environment and snowshoeing. He argues that 500 top level athletes gathering to race for half an hour can do a lot of harm to the local environment, whereas the great majority of snowshoers just want to take exercise in beautiful surroundings.
"There is a minority of fitness fanatics but mostly it is a past-time for people who love the mountains"
Gaël stresses the need to treat the mountains with respect. Just because you are out for a walk on snowshoes does not mean there is no danger. Recently there have been two serious accidents in France. The first involved two snowshoers off-piste at [R1764R, Mont d'Olme] in the Ariège, who caused an avalanche that in turn killed a 70-year-old skier and injured three others. In the second, a 30-year-old man using snowshoes off-piste was killed in an avalanche in the Vallée d'Ossau in the Pyrénées Atlantiques. In addition some snowshoers have been criticised for thoughtlessly damaging cross country ski trails. He recommends "if you do not know the area, go with a guide or a group that does". Gaël is optimistic about the sport, however he does not expect to see it feature in the Winter Olympics any time soon.
The governing body of the sport of snowshoeing in France is the Fédération Française de la Montagne et de l'Escalade FFME; their site is full of useful information including future events: www.ffme.fr