Q:

Why are leather mountaineering boots so rare?

Why are mountaineering leather double boots such as the Boreal G1 or Vasque Vertical such a niche product? They are supposed to provide as much warmth as plastic double boots, without any the discomfort of wearing something fit for Frankenstein. These boots have summited Denali and Everest, yet event the "experts" at specialty gear stores frequently don't know about them. What's the catch? Andy Veres Alexandria, Virginia

Sep 18, 2003
Outside
Outside Magazine
A: Heavy leather mountaineering boots are a niche product for several reasons. For one thing, plastic boots did indeed improve on them in many ways. Plastics are much more waterproof, of course, and as a result also tend to be much warmer. They have no break-in period to worry about—they're typically comfortable or not right out of the box—nor do they break down with heavy use, as a leather boot can do. They also can be made stiffer than a leather boot, which is great for technical ice climbing. Sure, leather boots summited Denali and Everest, but that's because there wasn't a choice until the early 1980s. Ask all the folks who lost toes to frostbite in the days before plastics what they'd prefer.

Moreover, leather boots cost much more to make because they require much delicate handwork, such as stitching. Plastic boots are pretty much just molded and glued together. That's certainly why plastics have taken the telemark market by storm—they're just much cheaper to make (and buy) that painstakingly made leather boots. The Boreal G1 boots—if you can even find them in the U.S.—retail for about $500, more than even the highest end plastic boots.

The down side of plastics is their lousy "feel." Fine for bashing crampons into ice, not so good should you actually encounter a little rock and need to have some sense of what it is your feet are treading upon. Leather boots are much better for this.

Moreover, recent innovations in boot making are allowing leather boots to compete a bit better with plastics. Synthetic insulation, better tanning methods, and other boot-making advances make boots such as the Boreal G1 a good all-around mountain boot. And for purists, there's something that never will beat the great feel of a leather boot. I've had a chance to wear the leather Scarpa Cerro Torre ($319), for instance, and lo-o-ve them—much nicer than plastics, from a general comfort standpoint. But if I were heading to Denali, I'd take plastics.

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