Nineteen years ago, I bought my first pair of climbing shoes—the Moccasym slippers from Five Ten. Ten years and a bunch of different climbing-shoe models later, I bought another pair of Moccasyms. Today you can still buy them. And for certain kinds of climbing (granite friction slabs and splitter cracks), they’re still one of the best shoes that exist.
You might read that and think, Some things never change. But when it comes to climbing shoes, you couldn’t be more wrong. Back when I bought that first pair of Moccasyms, there weren’t many brands to choose from. As of 2019, there were at least 41 climbing-shoe manufacturers worldwide (and I can think of a few more now). While larger companies (Five Ten, La Sportiva, Scarpa) still dominate much of the market share in the industry, it’s great to see some interesting boutique companies popping up with quality offerings. Here are a handful of brands making a splash.
Acopa was founded in Guadalajara by Mexican climbers Ernesto Vazquez and Dario Piana in 1997 and brought to the States by climbing legend John Bachar and Steve Allen Karafa Jr. in 2003. In 2006, Acopa was well on its way to being one of the top shoe companies in the U.S. But en route to the airport from the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Bachar lost control of the SUV he was driving, and Karafa died in the accident. Acopa lost one of its stars, Michael Reardon, a year later, and Bachar died in a free-soloing accident in 2009. By 2010, Acopa had closed up shop. But ten years later, Piana and new business partner Sergio Langarica have revived Acopa, and the beloved brand and its tried-and-true shoes are back in business. One of the headlining models is the JB ($199, named after Bachar), a shoe which climbs and looks very similar to La Sportiva’s TC Pro. But before you go crying copycat, consider this: the original JB actually predates the TC Pro.
UnParallel “was started in 2017 by Sang Lee, who handled development and production for Five Ten climbing until Adidas closed the Redlands outlet” in California, according to the website UKClimbing. A quick glance at its lineup reveals that almost all of the company’s designs appear to be modeled after Five Ten shoes. (Adidas owns Five Ten.) I tested the UnParallel UpLace ($140), and frankly, I loved it. It edged precisely, while also doing well in tough crack sizes, in a comfortable package that can be worn all day long. Additionally, UnParallel does resoles and, based on my experience, a good job of it. I’ve tried a dozen or so shoe resolers over the years, and UP is in my top two or three.
I learned about Butora during a brief stint managing the retail shop of a climbing gym in Colorado in 2016. I was impressed by some of the South Korean company’s offerings—particularly the Acro, which I wore one day to climb in during a shoe demo—but honestly, I didn’t expect it to make much of a dent in the American market, because other Asian climbing-shoe brands have struggled to succeed it here. Boy, was I wrong. Today Butora not only has a devoted cadre of followers, but its Chinese factory also produces Black Diamond’s line of footwear. This knowledge has led to some cool features, such as high- and low-volume options in all of its offerings instead of the typical male and female choices. Butora is taking a more gender-neutral path: all of its models are fairly unisex, and there’s no gender-based assumptions about foot volume. Price points are pretty low compared to other shoe companies. The Acro ($154) is hard to beat, and the Altura ($155), its high-top, is like $40 cheaper than other competitive high-top models from Acopa and La Sportiva. If Butora keeps it up, it may unseat some of the industry giants in the coming years.
When I first saw this company’s glittery (yes, that’s right) high-top climbing shoe, the California ($125), I thought it was a joke. Turns out, Tulson Tolf is actually quite serious, as evidenced by some of the names on its sponsored squad: Kilian Jornet, Karl Egloff, and Denis Urubko are all TT athletes, and although those guys are definitely more mountaineers or mountain runners than rock climbers, Rock and Ice magazine thought well enough of TT to give the sparkly shoes a pretty sparkling review. I haven’t tried them or seen anyone else wearing them, though—and it seems like they would be hard to miss.
First: this brand’s shoes cost $350. Second: each pair is custom-made using a 3D scan of your foot. As such, kN Climbing is about as niche as it gets, which is why I’m including them here. Back in the day, nobody anticipated the rise of print-on-demand books or the massive explosion of self-publishing facilitated by Amazon and other companies. Could a similar model be the future of rock-climbing shoes? That depends on whether kN Climbing’s unique methodology will actually yield a significantly more effective—or more comfortable—climbing shoe. It was a three-week process to get the right fit dialed, have the shoes made, and then shipped, but it was totally worth it: my very first time wearing them, I sent a 5.12a arête that a friend and I had recently bolted. They definitely nail the comfort-performance ratio as well (if not better) than most shoes I’ve ever worn. In the few months since I started wearing them, they’ve become my go-to shoe for almost everything I climb (bouldering, sport, and trad—the only exception being very precise edging routes, since the model I got lacks a midsole and, as such, isn’t great for edging). I can’t say how well they’ll stand the test of time, but my initial impression is that kN Climbing is onto a very, very good thing that will only get better.