The first climbing boots I ever owned were a second hand pair of blue and grey EB’s that my dad gave me when I was about 12. Now this was along time ago but I remember they were very big a clunky, being designed without any thought about the average wearers foot shape, and with a rubber compound that was closer to plastic. Never the less they looked like rock boots and they did me fine seconding V Diffs – even though my trainers would no doubt have done me just as well. The funny thing was in the early eighties that’s just about all there was to wear, and it was perhaps only with the arrival of the awesome Boreal Fire that things really got started in the rock boot world. What seemed to happen was the boot makers, men who who’s skills were born from tradition, and who valued longevity and strength above all else, slowly began working more closely with the cutting edge climbers of the day, such as John Bacher or Hans Mariacher, and so slowly boots went from ‘boots’ to ‘rock shoes’. Not only did the colours and names become more happening, but also the fit, rubber and overall performance. In the space of 20 years, starting with the Fire and perhaps culminating in the Sportiva Mirage, rock boots developed slowly season after season, as climbers and boot builders worked in a sort of arms race in boot performance (or should that be foot race?), which each trying to capture the performance edge. Like the arms race it’s us foot soldiers who benefit, and its obvious that climbing standards would be far lower today without the rapid pace of boot development. Since the Mirage, which I think was the last big jump, we have entered a period were the number of brands has exploded, and with it smaller improvements, which along with increased niche models dedicated to each type of rock and climber type, means the selection is dizzying. This article aims to help you understand what makes a rock boot tick, so that you can go out and make that right choice and find a boot that sticks.
RUBBER – Black magic or black propaganda?
You want rubber? Well you’ve come to the right place but the question is which one? With rubbers like Boreal’s Fusion, Vibram’s XSV and Megabyte, Stealth C4 and Mad Rock formula #5 all claiming to be stickier than Alex Huber’s leather trousers. But who’s telling you the truth? Some people get obsessed by rubber (if you know what I mean), telling you it’s impossible to climb X unless you have Y on your feet, while others will say it makes no difference, no doubt pointing out that Johnny Woodward climbed Beau Geste (E7 6c) in un-sticky pre Fire rock boots, whereas most the people who make a big fuss are climbing around E1. In away they are both right.
There are very, very slight differences in all the rubbers on the market, often nothing more than a slight variation in softness. A soft boot will mould more completely around the hold you’re standing on, allowing more contact area with which to stick, with the downside being that on low friction rock, such as limestone, you may want a rubber that is harder, and so reduce creep, with a harder rubber being better at holding the edge. Softer rubber also wears faster, and so manufacters have always been trying to come up with a medium soft, medium stiff, and medium longevity rubber – which is what most boots have nowadays. The only difference is that some companies have said ‘you want boots that stick? Well here you go – just don’t expect them to last as long’, producing rubbers that stick better but come with a boot health warning (a bit like the rash of sub 9.5mm ropes on the market). This is great if performance is what you want, but no so good if you’re miss sold them as your first boot for scraping up miles of 5’s down the wall. So the answer to ‘does rubber makes a difference’ is that if you climb on a specific rock type there will be one rubber that may work better, but if you climb on more than one rock then all rubbers are designed to work equally well. The biggest factor in stick is that you believe it will, because on the right feet any rubber will stick, and its the belief that’s important and your trust in it that counts.
The last is a piece of hard plastic shaped like a foot that is placed in the boot after it’s sewn together and used to create the finished shape (done by heating up the boot and letting it form to the shape of the last). In the old days this last was shaped like a relaxed foot (actually I think in the 70’s it was more like a cucumber), giving a finished boot that fits nicely when you stand normally in them (that is if the last was shaped like your foot). A big change came about when climbers pointed out that a more asymmetrical last would be more comfortable on a human foot, as non-asymmetrical standard boot lasts don’t work when the boots are worn several sizes small than your shoe size rather than one size larger! A second change came about when the passive foot last was changed to something more active, recreating the foot shape when climbing. Some of these lasts have a pronounced downward cant to the toe, which greatly increases its force, while also allow the feet to grab, with the downside being that aren’t the most comfortable boots for general climbing, as the feet are held in the power position.
UNDERSTANDING TOE POWER
If you want to pull yourself up on a large flat hold than you can use the whole surface of your fingers, placing them flat and horizontally, pulling down on them to get you to move. With a narrower hold were you need to use just your finger tips, this hand position is utterly useless and won’t move unless your fingers are crimped (lets ignore open handing!). Now think about your feet. Standing on a big hold is easy, you just the place your foot flat and stand up, but what happens if you only have a 1cm deep foothold? The same thing happens, your toes have to bend and crimp in order to have to power to support your body. Now a good boot is designed to maximise this toe power, and a bad one will squander it. For example if you’re toes are arrow straight in your boots then there is no power at all, because as you toes naturally curl you’re actually making the boots feel even bigger, and you’re counting on the boots being stiff enough to do the job themselves. What usually happens is that you’re forced to use other parts of the boot to get the support the toe lacks, or just using big holds and smearing, and it’s common to see beginners side stepping their way up routes as their boots have no toe power. The greater the crimp the better the toe power, and that’s why say limestone climbers traditionally went for stupidly small boots. The downside is that the toe isn’t designed to be stressed so much, and for many max toe power will result in severe joint problems. The ideal for most climbers is a toe position where the toe is bang up to the front, with the toe flexed enough that it will provide that crimp on small edges, yet not be so bent as to limit smearability, reduce the foots ability to jam in cracks, or make the boot chronically painful for the life of the boot.
TIGHT FIT - RIGHT FIT - WRONG FIT
In order to achieve good toe power and reduce the chance of rolling or slipping in boots then it’s important to get boots that fit. In the old days boots doesn’t fit anyone, and so stretching was crucial in getting a boot that mirrored you food shape. These days lasting had achieved much greater sophistication, and it should be possible for most climbers to find a boot that fits their foot shape, meaning it’s no longer necessary to buy a boot five sizes too small. For most low stretch boots that fit your foot you can go down just half a size, and most of the time don’t even look at the sizes, just go with how the boot feels. Buying super small boots will still be necessary for some, but for the majority you should be able to buy good boots that work from scratch.
What does that mean to you? Well a relaxed last is good for standing around in obviously, as the foot is held in a relaxed, if a little cramped’ position. The crucial thing is to get the ideal fit so that although relaxed your toe has some power. What this means is that when you edge you edge on your toe, not on the boot. Boots, not matter how stiff, can hold all your weight, and it’s your toe that provides the boots backbone.
BOARD OR SLIP LASTED
When the boot has the last inserted there are two variations in construction that can play a big part in the boots performance. Board lasting is were a stiff insole is sewn into the boot and the last placed on top of it. This gives a solid and supportive boot, which tend to be more comfortable on long routes and particularly good for edging. The downside is a duller feeling boot, and one that can prove harder to break in sometimes. Slip lasted boots don’t have a midsole, and are in affect a sock, giving a boot with very good sensitivity, flexibility and fit, making them great for technical climbing. Downsides are that the strength of the boot comes from your feet, meaning they can be hard work on sustained routes unless your feet are up to it.
In-between the leather or synthetic sock that is the boot, and the rubber sole, you will find the midsole. There is a huge variation in midsole thickness, coverage and materials, from 1 millimetre thick composite that covers only the toes, to full length thick leather. The midsole does a more focused job than the insole of the board lasted boot, providing some support, and helping to maintain the boots shape and performance. If the midsole is too thick then even a svelte boot will feel clunky, wearers a well designed midsole, one that creates a horseshoe around the toe box, will allow both good edging and smearing.
SHOCK ABSORBING HEALS
When they first appeared people saw these rubbery heal inserts as a gimmick, but they’ve stood the test of time and become common. The best thing about these inserts, apart from reducing heal strike, keeping your feet warming standing around on cold belays and making you look an inch taller, is that they make walking much more comfortable, making them great for comfy all day boots.
RIBS AND ROCK TICKLERS
Many more boots now feature exotic rubber moulding, which makes them look more Anne Summers than Anne Aran, but like the rubber itself on some rock and on some routes having ribbed heals will make a grades difference. If you don’t have such exotic styling though I doubt you’d miss it.
Although most of the important stuff takes place on the bottoms of your boots, it’s still vital that you get to grips with the uppers, as it’s this that creates the interface between skin, bone and rubber.
In the past boots were made out of sued and canvas, causing some problems as sued in inherently stretchy, meaning boots would not retain their shape or fit for long, which instead of being a problem became part of rock boot fitting. Non stretch boots were traditional clunky affairs, being canvas lined board lasted boots that crippled your feet until eventually they finally did the impossible and stretched (if you put a size 8 foot in a size 6 shoe something’s going to have to give!). Luckily for our feet rock boot materials have advance significantly over the last decade, with low stretch synthetics fabrics, composite construction, and clever design making boots far more predictable. What this means is that you can now buy a boot that fits more confidently, rather then buying a boot that ‘will’ fit one day. Never the less the ability for a boot the mould to your foot is nice, and some boot achieve this by mixing both natural and synthetic fabrics.
Boots are either lined or unlined, with unlined boots being preferred by those who want to maximise sensitivity and minimise break in time. Lined boots give a boot structure, reduce stretching and increase shoe durability. The worst thing about boot linings is that they are a trap for bacteria, which can either mean just having very smelly boots to recurring bouts of foot lergy. If you’re a big sufferer of foot rot then it’s worth considering going for a pair of super thing socks and using anti perspirant jell on your feet. For the rest it’s best to try and keep the boots somewhere cool were bacteria won’t grow and away from family and pets.
VELCRO, LACE OR SLIPPER?
There are good and bad things about all of them – most of them too obvious to mention. If you don’t know what these are then buy a lace up, but whatever you end up with will work well 90% of the time.
When Asolo brought out their Kevlar Runouts over 15 years ago they retailed at over £70. This means that rock boots should now cost on average about £80 to £90. In fact rock boots cost the same, even though most are made in the same factory’s by the same people. Like the majority of outdoor products your getting a bargain when you spend £60 on a pair of good quality rock shoes. As for people who make a fuss, well they should try taking up bloody mountain biking and see the difference.
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram