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Climbing Shoe Buying Guide
A Bridge Between Rock and Feet

Climbing shoes aren't gear. They're the translators that let the feet speak rock language, with all its variances. One shoe knows subtle pocket poetry, one the taut prose of dime edging. Only a comfortable, patient boot can make it through the novels in Grade V granite. Am I getting carried away? The point I want to make is: there's no such thing as an "all-around" rock shoe. So get ready for the most complicated buy you will face as a climber. First, let's cover the rock-shoe characteristics you'll see in the nice little charts.

The Basic Criteria

  • Price. Rock shoes are made in small quantities, by small companies - you'll never see them on the $9.95 clearance rack at Payless. No, brace yourself, because you're talking serious change, $100 to $150. The best ways to save real money on shoes are to buy them used (usually a bad idea, since a climbing shoe will conform to its owner's foot), look for close-outs on discontinued models, or hang out with elite sponsored climbers who wear your same size. To soften the blow, try to imagine that your bucks are going to climbers instead of a huge, faceless megacorporation in Paramus, New Jersey, even if it's not quite true.
  • Weight. All rock shoes are light, and I'm not sure why we even bothered to put this in the chart, except maybe because it was one of the few things you can measure about a rock shoe. The weight of a shoe will usually depend upon its construction, which will depend upon its intended use
  • Size. If your foot is average-sized, you'll get your pick of shoes. But if you're shopping for a kid, are extremely petite, or wear size 13 or larger, the shoe you want might not come in your size. Check the charts.Keep in mind also that sizes vary between brands, both in the scale used (U.S., British, or European) and the fit for each size. It's essential that you try on the boot; never just mail order your street size.
  • Rubber. You won't find this in the charts, I guess because we couldn't figure out how to describe it. Sticky rubber? Check. All the shoes mentioned here are sticky. Really sticky. Be assured that the boot on your foot is soled with the stickiest rubber known to man. Fact is, over the years we've tried to test shoe rubber, only a few testers have ever claimed to notice a difference between the top brands.
  • Use and ability level. These are the crux issues for buying a shoe. The burly high-tops that hold their shape during a brutal bout of heel-and-toeing on The Crack of Fear are going to feel like cement overshoes in the gym. The powerful but crunched foot position you want for a short, extreme sport pitch will hospitalize you on an all-day route. Think about what you're going to use the boot for and buy accordingly. Your choices will reflect two factors: what/where you want to climb and your ability level.

The charts make a general statement about the ability level each shoe is designed for - beginner, intermediate, expert - but the question is really too complicated to answer with checked boxes. Acquiring shoes is a gradual process, and will parallel your climbing learning curve.

Let's begin at the beginning
Buying your first pair of rock shoes? Choosing beginners' shoes is easy. Why? Simply because, no offense, it doesn't really matter. This is not because you want an "all-around" shoe - if there were such a thing - but because you won't know the difference. If you've been climbing in your tennies, any climbing shoe is going to amaze you and improve your climbing 1000 percent. Look and ask around at your local crag for the shoes that suit your area. You'll probably settle on a semi-soft low-top, the closest thing there is to a modern "all-around" shoe.

Grade-wise, it's hard to say what defines an intermediate climber nowadays. A Berkeley kid might climb 5.11 on her first gym day, while many a distinguished Gunks rock rat spends years working his way patiently through the traditional grades to 5.9. There's only one objective benchmark to indicate you've become an intermediate: the day you buy a second pair of climbing shoes.

Your second pair of shoes
Two pairs of climbing shoes is an outward sign of an inner growth. You've either started to branch out in the kinds of climbing you do, or, God forbid, you've begun training.Let's say you started out a year ago with a medium-soft, low-top, not-too-tight sport shoe - maybe a Boreal Zephyr, Sportiva Aero, or 5.10 Hueco. Such boots are also best for the mixed crack and face of general trad climbing.

  • Slippers Your second shoe should probably be a slipper, especially if you climb indoors. Why? First, slippers work great on plastic. They're super sensitive so you can really feel those glassy blobs you're supposed to stand on. And since gym holds are generally rounded and relatively large, a slipper's poor edging performance is seldom a problem. The slipper's floppiness also makes it strenuous to climb in, which is good in a training shoe - your foot and calf muscles need toning the same way your upper body does.
    Other benefits of slippers: you can fit them tighter than your old shoes, so they're precise; after the three minutes it takes to top out your route, slip the things off your heels while you belay or rest. Slippers are compact, so you can hide them in a fanny pack or briefcase and take advantage of unexpected climbing opportunities.
  • Stiff high-tops OK, another second-shoe scenario: maybe you started in a tighter, gym-friendly sport shoe - like a 5.10 UFO, Sportiva Kendo, or Scarpa Dominator - and now you're lusting for Yosemite or the Tetons. For you, shoe number two might be a stiff high-top. You've already got a good sport shoe, so fit the new boot for comfort, maybe even with a sock. Socks will cushion your tender feet against the brutality of Valley foot jamming, and keep your toes warm while you belay your slow-ass partner up the Exum.
    Now, let's say you've accumulated a general sport shoe, a slipper, and a high-top, all-day shoe. You can go a long way on these three shoes - gym, sport, short or long trad, alpine free climbs. If I really did have to give away my extra rock shoes, I'd cling to these as the bare minimum.

Specialty shoes for specialty climbing
Beyond this point, we're talking specialty shoes. Though "slabs" are temporarily out of fashion, every rock expert should own an edging boot. If you hate thin face climbs, maybe that's because you've been wearing the wrong shoe.It's easy to overestimate a shoe's edging performance. Step out onto a little nubbin, crimp down your toes and your soft sport shoe or slipper will edge pretty darn well - for a move or two. Ten feet higher, your calves start to burn, your feet buckle and cramp, and you're out of there.

  • Edging shoes An edging shoe must be stiff; this means it'll have a good midsole, coupled with thin rubber to retain some sensitivity. An edging shoe should click into place; it should hold its shape and distribute the stress away from your big toe to your whole foot. Edging shoes take a little getting used to. Pawing, smearing, or other sloppy maneuvers will lead to doom. Once you get the hang, though, edging is jigsaw-puzzle fun.
  • Steep-rock shoes Next? Check out one of the new steep-rock shoes, like the Sportiva Mirage or Boreal Stinger. Slippers go a long way on overhanging limestone, but as you go up the grades, you encounter smaller edges and power dynamics where a solid foot platform comes in handy. The weird, twisted contours of such shoes match your foot anatomy, and the sculpted footbed helps you "pull" on footholds. You may not need these shoes, but they're fun to climb in, and they work. You might even find them becoming your "all-around" shoe.
  • Comfortable shoes Now what? Well, if long climbs are your bag, your arsenal is still a little generic. You don't really want the same boot for Astroman as for Pingora in the Winds. For the long, harder crack stuff, you might pick a comfortable low top, like the Ace, or a high top, like the Kaukulator, fit snugly (and without socks). For all-day, mid-grade stuff mixed with boulder hopping and scrambling, a super-comfy high-top vies with a high-performance "approach" shoe - like the Sportiva Boulder - as footwear of choice.
  • Bouldering Into bouldering? You're probably set for shoes. With the advent of crashpads, boulderers now favor slippers, but if you find yourself beneath the huge dynos of Horsetooth Reservoir without pad or spotter, you'll be glad you packed your foot-saving high-tops.
Contributed By: Jeff Achey

Climbing's Editor at Large.










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