Outside magazine, May 1998
Some rock jocks may still claim squatters' rights in Yosemite and the Tetons, but for most of us climbing often means sneaking in a foray to the local bouldering area or, more likely, the indoor wall. This isn't all bad: The safe and competitive atmosphere of rock gyms has urged novices and intermediates to tackle maneuvers that would take them much longer to learn on traditional routes. Instead of spending a lot of time on your feet while you place protection as you would on a traditional route, on a pre-bolted sport route, indoors or out, you simply clip and climb.
Consequently, newer shoes are tailored more toward thin-midsoled performance than support, regardless of ability level. And assuming you don't want a costly array of shoes, each designed solely for one type of route, you need something versatile. But fit should be your first concern. Despite what you may have heard, rock shoes should be tight, not torturous. You want a painted-on fit with as little dead space between shoe and foot as possible, and no painful pressure points. Definitely try them out — most shops have a wall for just that purpose. Here are five shoes that will perform well on sport routes both in the gym and outdoors — and will still give you a reasonable go at longer, more traditional routes.
At its low price of $89, you'd expect the Saltic Garnet from Climb High (802-985-5056) to be rudimentary. But its pointy toe and sleek profile make this shoe a top performer on routes riddled with pockets and narrow fissures. A thin fiberboard midsole also makes it good for smearing on granite, where friction substitutes for features, though its lack of support means novices will find edging more than a little frustrating. The Garnet is lined with Cambrelle, a soft nylon that keeps the leather from stretching. One trade-off for the low price is the patchwork stitching inside, which makes it less than comfortable.
The Cliff, from La Sportiva ($100; 303-443-8710), is the most versatile choice for novices. A fairly traditional shape, in which the sole follows your arch only slightly and is flat at the toe, combines with reasonable stiffness to give you enough support for standing on barely visible edges or wedging into wide cracks. Yet the Cliff is supple enough for smearing, and it has a generous, contoured heel cup (too deep for some feet — the leather might bite your ankles) for hooking onto holds in the gym. The comfortable suede upper is unlined, so it'll stretch some; just be sure to buy the shoe tight and with enough of a gap in the lacing to take up any subsequent sag in the width.
The Boreal Diablo ($99; 714-498-1011) is the softest, most flexible shoe we reviewed, but it nonetheless maintains its structural integrity by torquing your foot into its strongest pose, although it could scarcely be considered natural. Imagine a ballerina on point. The thin, cambered sole arches your foot, while a tensioned rand cinches around the Achilles tendon — you have to stretch it like a rubber band to get into the thing — cramming your foot forward and curling your toes downward. You wouldn't want to wedge those digits into a crack, but you can stand on tiptoe in even the shallowest pockets. You'll also appreciate being able to grab at holds with your feet.
For practicing fancy footwork on slim edges and other more traditional techniques, consider the Scarpa Inferno from Black Diamond ($139; 801-278-5533). A stout midsole stiffener under the forefoot gives it more support than any shoe we tested, and the distinctly asymmetrical toe, unlike older climbing shoe designs, makes for more accurate foot placement. The Inferno's low profile and high rubber rand are sure to forestall agony should you chisel your foot into a long, thin crack. A three-quarter lining in the shoe restricts stretching everywhere except the outside edge of the toe box, where you can afford a little give, making it a shoe you can grow into, rather than out of.
Insofar as a rock shoe can be comfortable and still have the earmarks of high performance, the Five Ten Newton ($148; 909-798-4222) is it. The upper is made of synthetic leather, so it won't stretch, and it's fully lined with a soft polyester that, while it may not rival your bathroom slippers, is relatively unobtrusive. The Newton also features an S-curve lacing system that follows the natural lines of your instep and allows for a finer fit than you'd get otherwise. Add to the picture an asymmetrical last, a supportive midsole, and a fit that curls the toes ever so slightly, and it's a natural for longer free climbs. The squatters at Yosemite may even get jealous.
Photograph by Jim Cooper