TRAIL TALK // COMMUNITY
Danny Giovale, Founder of Kahtoola, Shares Inspiration and Trail Safety Tips
While summer may be fast approaching, there’s still plenty of snow in Oregon’s high backcountry. In some areas, such as Devils Peak or the Central Cascades, that snow often lasts long into early summer. And while Oregon’s portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) doesn’t really have any treacherous stretches (e.g., California’s High Sierra passes, or Washington’s Goat Rocks Knife Edge), packing along a pair of lightweight traction devices can help in descending icy, north-facing slopes and traversing slushy snowfields.
Trail Safety with Danny Giovale
We recently sat down for a little trail talk with Danny Giovale, founder of Kahtoola, and expert winter conditions mountaineer. We wanted to know what inspired him to create a traction devices company (a personal incident, perhaps?), the benefits of packing a pair of traction devices on a PCT hike, and what his advice is for approaching potentially hazardous snow conditions. Here’s what Giovale had to share.
Q: What inspired you to start your own traction device company?
In 1993 my brother and I climbed Campanile Basso in the Italian Dolomites. After rappelling the tower, we found ourselves descending a steep snow gully. I slipped while unroped, and slid hundreds of feet out of control. Incredibly, I survived the impact with only minor injuries. This motivated me to develop an innovative and important product that would help people avoid the type of accident I had.
‘Slips on snow’ is one of the leading causes of serious accidents and deaths in the mountains (as outlined in the American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering). This resulted in the development of our first product, the Kahtoola Traction System (KTS) hiking crampon. It was the first winter traction device designed to be used with flexible footwear.
Q: How are Kahtoola traction devices different from other brands?
Before Kahtoola, the more rigorous designs for traction products were developed by climbing companies for the benefit of technical climbers. At Kahtoola, we focus on products for more flexible and lightweight footwear. We believe that this category has been underserved, as so many adventures are not technical and don’t require rigid boots, double ice axes, etc.
However, they may actually be more dangerous because people think that non-technical hiking doesn’t require any safety equipment. We are motivated to be sure these adventurers have options to get around more safely, and put tremendous design and testing efforts into creating reliable traction products for them.
Q: Why would you recommend PCT hikers carry traction devices on their hikes?
High mountain passes and steep slopes can be dangerous in any conditions. Add lingering snow and ice, a summer snowstorm, a cold snap that freezes snowmelt and hardens snowpack, or simply a moment of inattention at the wrong time and your safety margin can completely disappear. Carrying and knowing how to appropriately use traction devices can add a critical margin of safety to your section- or thru-hike.
Q: What Kahtoola traction devices would you recommend for different trail types or conditions?
Both MICROspikes and EXOspikes are great for hiking. Choosing between them really comes down to the type of trails, terrain and conditions you will encounter. MICROspikes (< 13.5 oz/pair) really excel on rugged trails with steep, icy terrain, and EXOspikes (< 8.1 oz/pair) are great for all-around trail use and added durability on hard surfaces. Both of these work well on trail shoes and hiking boots.
Q: What signs should a hiker look for when considering whether to stop and put on traction devices?
When you notice you or your partner are slipping occasionally on snowy steps, you’ll find it much more pleasant to walk with traction device on. Having better traction is much more efficient and saves energy for the miles ahead. With EXOspikes, you don’t even have to worry about rocky sections as they’re able to handle quite a bit of that. That said, you should still try to minimize your impact on the environment and remove them on long dry sections when appropriate.
Q: Is there a point when a hiker should just turn around, or consider an alternate route?
In steep snowy terrain, conditions change dramatically throughout the day and in sun versus shade. The way to avoid a high-risk gamble is by getting updated information, looking for signs of upcoming hazards, and being willing to adjust—or abort—plans if not properly equipped for the conditions. Be careful following other groups or individuals and assuming that they are making good decisions. Bottom line: If the consequences of a fall are more than you’re willing to assume, and you’re not completely sure you’ll be able to avoid a fall, turn around.
Spikes for Every Trail Condition
Q&A Lightning Round
Q: What is your favorite long-distance hike memory?
Crossing the Windriver range in Wyoming with my family was a summer tradition.
Q: What is your 11th Essential (besides Kahtoola traction devices)?
Q: What is your top tip for outdoor adventurers?
Go big! But make it home in one piece.
Founded in 1999, Kahtoola strives to make the outdoors more accessible, safe and rewarding, while being a force for good. Their mission goes beyond making exceptional safety products, it also involves making a difference in people’s lives, empowering and supporting the good work of others, and sharing positive, inclusive stories that reflect the good in all of us.
Kahtoola shares its dedication to people and the environment through a program called Kahtoola for the People. This program supports the people and places that make exploring our world infinitely rewarding. Kahtoola also hosts fundraising events, such as their annual Kahtoola Uphill fundraiser to benefit Flagstaff-based Friends of Camp Colton. This organization educates the next generation of environmental stewards by connecting young people to the outdoors. Kahtoola is also a member of the Conservation Alliance and EOCA, which support environmental conservation and sustainability in North American and across Europe.
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PCT: Oregon is not affiliated with, and has no financial interest or stake in the Kahtoola company. This information is provided solely as safety information for Oregon’s PCT hikers.
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