March 3, 2015

Choosing The Right Boots For Alpine Climbing

Recently, I was having an email conversation with a client about what boots he should get for his trip. By the time the conversation was over I realized I had written some fairly useful information about alpine climbing boots, which could be handy for anyone planning a trip. This blog post grew from that seed.

Of all the gear we bring with us on an alpine climb, boots are one of the most important pieces. It's much easier to make do with the wrong jacket or harness. Having the wrong boots can stop a climb in it's tracks, and it's worth doing the research and trying on as many as possible to find the perfect pair for your route.

I use Scarpa and La Sportiva as examples here because I'm most familiar with their products. This is because they are the most widely available in the U.S. and they also fit my feet well. There are a lot of other good boot companies out there, including Kayland, Zamberlan, Asolo, Lowa, Boreal, and Salewa. It's all about what fits.

"Shank" is a term that historically has referred to a metal bar or plate running the length of the boot sole to add stiffness. "Full shank" boots are very stiff longitudinally and are appropriate for water ice and steep alpine ice climbing. "3/4 shank" boots are softer fore-to-aft and hike and climb rock better than boots with a full shank but do not climb water ice or steep alpine ice very well. These days manufacturers create that stiffness with different materials, but we still use the terms to refer to the performance characteristics of the boots.

What follows is a list of the basic types of mountain boots, with pros and cons, and examples of models in italics. 

My high mileage La Sportiva Trango S Evo. The "red boot" is the classic three season climbing boot. One size 42.5 boot weighs 740g or 26.1oz.

Three Season: La Sportiva Trango Cube, Trango S Evo (the red boots); Scarpa Charmoz Pro. Uninsulated, 3/4 shank. Appropriate for use in the summer, on warmer spring and fall trips depending on conditions, and on shorter/less steep alpine ice. Lots of ankle mobility and very light. Climbs rock relatively well, does okay on moderate alpine ice. Not very good for water ice or steep, sustained alpine ice. Compatible with strap-on and "semi-auto" crampon bindings. The red boots changed the paradigm for this category and led the way in current lightweight developments. 
La Sportiva Trango Extreme Evo Light GTX, a single boot with a long name.
La Sportiva Nepal Evo Women's single boot. One size 39.5 boot weighs 970g or 34.4oz.

Single Boots: La Sportiva Nepal Cube, Nepal Evo, Trango Extreme Evo Lt (the silver boots); Scarpa Mont Blanc, Mont Blanc Pro and Rebel Pro. Insulated, full shank. Appropriate for use on winter day trips and sustained steep alpine or water ice. Can be used for winter overnights (I've used them for a 5 day trip) but keeping your feet dry becomes big challenge as the trip goes on. Wet feet are cold feet. The silver boots and Rebel Pro are at the lighter end of this category. Both weigh less but have less support and less insulation (particularly the Rebels) than other single boots. Single boots are what folks are using for most winter climbing in the lower 48 and lower altitude Canada, and for sustained summer ice in The Sierra and Cascades. Compatible with all crampon bindings. 

The toe area of a three season boot (left) and single boot (right). Note the prominent reinforced lip or "welt" on the single boot. This is for fully automatic crampon bindings, the kind with the wire in front. All single, 1.5, and double mountain boots have a welt in the front. If your mountain boot doesn't, it's not good for ice climbing.
1.5 Boots: This is a new category in the last 5 years or so. Insulated, full shank. It's a single boot with an integrated gaiter that covers the whole thing. Performs like a single boot, but warmer. Kind of a niche boot. Might be a bit easier to dry out on overnights. Will keep your feet warm year-round in the lower 48 and lower altitude Canada; and lower altitude Alaska after mid-May if you're careful. A bit warm for lower 48 in the summer. Compatible with all crampon bindings. La Sportiva Batura; Scarpa Phantom Guide.
La Sportiva Spantik, a double boot.

Double Boots: Insulated, full shank, with a removable liner. You can take the liner into your sleeping bag at night and dry it out. This lets you have dry (and therefore warm) feet day after day. Sometimes called "6000 meter boots", which refers to the sort of altitudes they're used at. Heavy. Stiff uppers don't handle rock or mixed climbing as well, though the Phantom 6000's are alright. Appropriate for really cold conditions and long trips, Alaska and higher altitude Canada. Compatible with all crampon bindings. La Sportiva Baruntse and Spantik; Scarpa Phantom 6000.


So what to get? For folks who are involved in any outdoor pursuit (climbing, backpacking, mountain and road biking, skiing and snowboarding, paddling) at any even remotely serious level the idea of a "quiver of one" for gear doesn't work. There's no perfect boot for everything, and the more things you do the more true that becomes. A pair of double boots will keep your feet warm and dry in the gnarliest conditions this continent has to offer, but wearing them on a summer ascent of Mount Rainer's Disappointment Cleaver or Polemonium Peak's V-Notch Couloir will have you hating life. On the other hand, spend a few days at any water ice crag in the lower 48 and you're bound to see some poor soul trying to climb steep ice in three season boots.

The only alpine climbers who own one pair of boots are those who haven't bought their second pair yet. Those who own two pairs usually either own a pair of three season boots and a pair of singles, or a pair of single boots and a pair of doubles.

Fit is the most important selection criteria. Weight comes second. If gear shops near you carry several different models, rejoice. If not, several online retailers offer free return shipping. Order a few different models, wear them around the house for a week, and then decide. You can't try on too many different pairs. Aftermarket insoles (like Superfeet) can do wonders for improving fit. The liners of double boots can be thermo-formed (or "cooked") to your feet at a good ski shop, look for the most grizzled boot-fitter on staff. Some climbing shops (like Mammoth Mountaineering) also offer this service.

Alpine climbing is a gear intensive sport. All that gear costs money. If you don't want to buy a lot of gear, you have other choices from the climbing buffet. Bouldering and sport climbing are both great ways to enjoy the vertical realm with a lot less equipment. If you still want to go to the mountains, get the right boots for your trip. They last a long time and have a reasonable resale value if you end up deciding that alpine climbing is not for you.

2 comments:

  1. thank you for how to choose the right boot. It is really nescessary for me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A list of the basic types of mountain boots, with pros and cons and information about alpine climbing boots really awesome for anyone planning mountain travel.

    ReplyDelete