Footwear for Mountaineering and Climbing
by Coley Gentzel
AAI Instructor and Guide
Comprehending, let alone attempting to summarize and explain, all of the various approaches to selecting appropriate and functional footwear for outdoor pursuits is no easy task. In light of that, I ask you to be gracious in your judgment and interpretation of the opinions contained herein. Due to its size and depth, I have to admit I am hesitant to open this can of worms. Here at the American Alpine Institute, we encourage an open minded, inquisitive approach to all decision making processes and hope that through the process of soliciting feedback and analyzing decisions, you will form your own opinions and perhaps even come up with new ways of approaching things like planning your footwear for mountaineering and climbing. That being said, here we go.
Gone are the days of "one boot does it all." These days, if you want to have the right tool (or in this case, shoe) for the job, you will want to keep your closet door closed lest you be accused of carrying on Imelda Marcos's legacy. Specialization seems to be the catchword in all forms of outdoor pursuits in our technically advanced day and age, and because of it, no longer will your mountaineering boots work just as well on the steep ice as they do on a featureless slab of granite.
Renowned Matterhorn first ascensionist Edward Whymper would surely roll over in his grave at the thought of the hordes of colorfully adorned rock jocks and mountaineers backing off and generally avoiding routes altogether because they aren't properly outfitted or because their gear is not up for the challenge. Not to say that all modern climbing pursuits are undertaken with the latest and greatest of course. I have seen you out there with your weathered backpacks, hole filled clothing, and circa 1980's gear. Truth be told, I still have a few vintage pieces myself, and when the mood is right, you might catch a glimpse of me in a neon fleece and leather Merrells. The mood is rarely right.
You would have to try pretty hard to think of an application for which there hasn't been a very specific piece of gear designed. For most applications (approach, ice climbing, rock climbing, etc.) you will likely have a substantial field from which to choose. Chances are, if you plan on taking life in the outdoors seriously, you will wind up with a variety of functional, and if the stars align, fashionable footwear adorning the floor of your closet, shelves in your garage, and the trunk of your car. I pride myself on not having a lot of extra and am always looking to sell or trade out-of-date or infrequently used gear. In spite of these culling efforts, I still manage to have between seven and ten pairs of boots, shoes, rock shoes, and general purpose kicks cluttering up (not too mention stinking up) my storage space at any given time.
Figuring out what to wear and when to wear it:
The first step in any sort of strategic gear planning endeavor should be to consider your objective. It's important that you identify exactly what it is you will be doing. If you have chosen your next climbing goals, chances are you have a good sense of the conditions you will encounter in the field, but that having been said, there is almost always some degree of unknown, particularly when you are heading into the alpine environment.
Unless you are able to quiz climbers who have been active in your targeted area, you are not likely to have perfectly reliable information on things like snow levels, snow conditions, river crossings, and the like. As your database of personal experience grows, so will your ability to make mostly reliable educated guesses. More than once I have gambled and lost the footwear bet, erring to each side of conservative. If you find yourself in the same boat, don't be too hard on yourself, for it's safe to say that you will almost never get it exactly right - and when you do, luck will play as big a part as anything.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Will you be climbing on snow? Ice? Rock? Combinations thereof? The possibilities for terrain are almost as vast as the products that shoe and boot companies manufacture to tread upon them. To try and narrow this selection process down, I will present a few key questions to ask right off the bat.
- Will you need your footwear to be waterproof? In my mind, this typically has to do with warmth. I am willing to tolerate wet feet as long as I will have the opportunity to dry them eventually and as long as they are not too cold as a result. An example of how these factors could play out would be to use a pair of approach shoes to approach and climb an alpine rock route in the Cascades. Your approach would probably involve a stream crossing or twelve as well as crossing a snow patch of some sort. If the sun is shining and the trail is dry, your feet should have a chance to dry along the way, and in foregoing your heavier leather hiking boots, you will have saved yourself countless miles of heavy plodding in needlessly clunky boots. If you are in weather conditions, temperatures, or terrain where your boots won't dry out and your feet will be cold, this would be a poor choice.
- Will your objective involve substantial use of crampons? Spending hours in crampons with boots that are too soft or flimsy has ended the enjoyment and even the outing itself for more than one would-be summitteer. If you plan to spend a substantial portion of your time crossing snow or glaciers that could require the use of crampons, make sure your footwear is up for the task so you don't exhaust your feet and calves.
Knowing what sort of conditions will call for the use of crampons is another issue entirely. Things like elevation, aspect (shady north slope vs. sunny south slope), freezing level, and time of year can all come into play. If you aren't familiar with how to analyze or make educated guesses about these things, you will be after a few times of trial and experience.
- Will this objective involve technical climbing? If so, you'll need boots that are appropriate for the type of technical climbing you will be doing. "Technical" is a term that is certainly open to definition. Your interpretation will likely be different than mine, which is different than the next person's. Technical climbing is widely interpreted to mean something similar to "involving specialized techniques, training, and tools to overcome difficulties." (I made that up so don't go looking for that definition in Freedom of the Hills or anything).
For a quick real life example, let's take Mount Whitney. On the mountain's standard route, the Mt. Whitney Trail, you can get to the top with little more than a pair of shoes and water if you like. The passersby may wonder why you have forgone clothing of some sort; nevertheless, you could do it. Most folks would say that because you didn't need any special equipment or skill outside of the ability to walk, this is a non-technical route. A step above that is Whitney's Mountaineer's Route. When snow fills the gully on this route you may need crampons, a sturdy leather mountaineering boot with at least 3/4 shank, and an ice axe. Ropes are used on only the most exposed parts, so the climbing is generally thought of as mildly technical. A step above that would be Whitney's East Face route, which for all but very skilled, competent soloists, requires the use of ropes, protection, and specialized rock climbing shoes. This route is most definitely considered technical. Add winter conditions requiring a warmer (plastic or composite) double boot, crampons, and probably ice tools, and all of a sudden you have a very technical route. In snow and ice climbing, technical difficulty often has to do with the angle of the snow and ice you are climbing. As the terrain gets steeper, your choices of boot should tend more towards very stiff snow and ice climbing boots over softer models that are more comfortable for walking and OK for low angle snow and ice.
- How many miles will you be covering and over what sort of terrain? Climbs involving miles of trail approach over relatively flat ground will dictate a different strategy than hiking to a roadside crag or waterfall ice climb. Again, the questions above should be considered in combination with this one. Mountain boots have a range of appropriateness with regard to length of approach. Whilst the hardmen of old may have clomped endless miles in their lug-soled boots, these days most people opt for a more comfortable approach shoe, and many use a combination of pieces rather than enduring foot-hamburgering-mile after mile in a stiff boot meant for snow.
- Will your objective involve rock climbing and, if so, how much and at what difficulty? Not all footwear is created equal, and as mentioned above, specialty is the name of the game. Many approach shoes and even mountain boots are equipped with varying amounts of sticky rubber that is oriented towards rock climbing. From boots to radically curved rock shoes, there are models out there designed specifically for what it is you will be doing. Consider the nature of the rock you will encounter on your climb. Will it be scrambling, class 3-4, or 5th class? Will you be rock climbing all day or just a few pitches? How steep and how hard is the technical climbing. The more difficult and sustained the route, the more likely you'll want specialized footwear. The easier and more varied the terrain, the more likely you'll be happy with more general purpose and versatile footwear.
- Is it absolutely necessary? (Overkill vs. under-prepared) For those of us used to carrying what we pack for miles on end and up countless feet of vertical relief, we most likely have learned to pack as light as possible. There are times to pack with comfort in mind and times to shave any weight you can. I will leave it up to you to determine when and how to apply each of these strategies. I always encourage people to analyze everything in their pack and decide whether or not it's totally necessary. Safety always comes first, so consider things very carefully that have ties to personal safety and well-being before leaving them at home. You may be wondering how these principles tie into footwear. Here are some examples. Do you need rock shoes or can you climb the route in boots? If a route has a snowy approach, do you need heavy boots for the snow or can you get by with a lighter boot than can take a strap-on crampon. Is the hike long enough to warrant carrying boots and hiking in tennis shoes or will one pair of light and technical boots be good enough for both applications?
A Few Notes on Strategy
For climbs that require the use of boots and rock shoes, consider whether or not you will be returning to the base of your climb and, if so, via what means i.e. rappelling, down climbing, or perhaps hiking back to the start of the route. Is returning to the start of the route absolutely necessary or should you carry everything over? I'll be honest, I hate carrying big packs. They suck the fun and life out of pretty much everything you have to do while wearing them, and so as a connoisseur of fun, I go to great lengths to avoid carrying more weight than is absolutely necessary.
If you have made it this far, you are probably starting to grow tired of long-winded explanations of things that are largely subjective. Most people prefer direct advice and input rather vague concepts and wish-washy dances around the issues at hand. So here are some recommendations on footwear that we have found to be the best in each category listed below. None of the companies listed below have provided any compensation or endorsement for these recommendations. Rather these recommendations are made in a purely unbiased fashion based on personal experience, feedback from industry professionals, and AAI's Guides Choice International Gear Testing program.
Mountain Running/Light Approach Shoes
Application and potential uses: Mountain running; approaching lowland rock climbs and multi-pitch routes in the backcountry; approaching alpine routes involving long trail approaches; looking good at the bar, post-adventure.
- Montrail Kinabalu
- La Sportiva Exum Ridge
- La Sportiva Slingshot
Approach/Technical Approach Shoes
Application and potential uses: This category of shoe blends approach comfort with technical climbing performance. Some approaches and technical rock climbs and alpine rock routes can be done in a single pair of sticky rubber approach shoes. Some models can work with a strap on crampon for light-duty snow crossings. The Cascades and Sierra in late season are perfect places to test the limits of your technical approach shoe.
- Five Ten Guide Tennie
- Five Ten Mountain Master
- La Sportiva Cirque Pro
- La Sportiva B5
- Kayland Vertigo K
- Montrail D7
- Scarpa Pro Ascent
Application and potential uses: Conditions in which your technical approach shoes are not quite beefy enough; you will spend some time in crampons but need a comfortable boot to hike in; you need to transition from snow to rock in the mountains and don't want two pairs of footwear.
- La Sportiva Trango Guide
- Kayland Vertigo High
- Kayland Super Trek
- Scarpa Triolet
Light Mountain Use/All Around
Application and potential uses: Light to medium mountaineering; glacier climbing; scrambling routes in the mountains; and multi-day outings where your feed need to be warm, relatively dry, and well protected from the terrain and elements.
- La Sportiva Trango Evo S
- La Sportiva Glacier Evo
- Kayland Super Rock
- Kayland Multi-traction
- Scarpa Charmoz GTX
Application and potential uses: Heavy-duty mountaineering with sustained time on snow, ice, glaciers, and technical terrain. These boots are heavy and will beat your feet up on long approaches and many miles on snowless trail. These boots are meant for step-in crampons, French technique, and front-pointing.
- La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX
- Kayland Super Ice
- Scarpa Freney XT
Plastic Mountaineering Boots
Application and potential uses: AKA: the foot punishers. Plastics are unfortunately a necessity for certain climbs. Typically plastics are employed on multi-day outings where sustained exposure to snow, particularly wet snow conditions or cold temperatures are expected. Because they are not very comfortable on approaches, some climbers opt to carry them in their pack and use a lighter boot on the approach. That choice adds comfort but also increases your total gear weight.
- Koflach Arctis Expe
- Koflach Degree
- Scarpa Omega
- Scarpa Inverno
- Lowa Civetta Extreme
High Altitude Mountaineering Boots
Application and potential uses: High, cold, and remote expeditions where you can't afford to sacrifice weight for sake warmth and reliability. The retention of your toes depends on the functionality of these boots and so no expense should be spared.
- La Sportiva Nuptse
- La Sportiva Olympus Mons
- Kayland 8000
- Kayland Explosion X2
- Millet Everest
- Scarpa Phantom 8000
My personal selections
As a regular giver-of-advice, I am frequently asked to put my money where my mouth is and to spill the goods on my personal selection of footwear. The list that follows is a summary of the footwear that I keep handy and use on a regular basis depending on my chosen objective. In perfect world I would have unlimited time and resources acquire the latest and great in every category and for every purposes. Sadly, I am constrained by both budget and time like most real people, and so some of these pieces are required to perform above and beyond their intended uses.
- Mountain Running/Light Appproach: La Sportiva Exum Ridge
- Approach Shoes: Five Ten Guide Almighty (on their 2nd resole)
- Light Hikers: Merrell leather boots 5+ years old. (rarely to never used)
- Mountain/Technical Boots: Scarpa Freney XT (ice climbing only), La Sportiva Nepal Extreme (Mountaineering in the Cascades).
- Plastic Boots: Scarpa Omega with Intuition Liners and fitted with supergaiters (for use in Alaska and winter mountaineering)
- Rock Shoes: La Sportiva Mythos (technical cracks and all around use), Five Ten Ascent (all day rock routes and alpine rock climbs in the 5.8-5.10 range), La Sportiva Syncro (on their 3rd resole) for sustained crack climbing and all day routes.
- Casual/Every Day Use: Chaco sandals. Worn for approximately 250 days a year for almost 6 years with no resole as of yet. Incredible.
Every outing is a little different, and I suppose it's entirely possible that much of this information may not be applicable for you do. Hopefully there have been at least a few tidbits of useful information that you can take away from the thoughts above. Experiment with your own systems and keep an eye out for new and improved makes and models. Modern equipment changes almost as fast as the weather, and as is the case with that, change is not always a good thing! Best of luck in the hills and may all your trails be happy, foot-blister free, and effectively outfitted.
Click on the link to see American Alpine Institute's alpine climbing courses.