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The Fine Art of Buying Shoes

Of all the gear you are likely to purchase as a rock climber, your first pair of rock shoes will give you the single biggest and immediate leap in ability. Yet from there on in, the murky world that is a climbing shoe is likely to haunt you every time that you put your over-tight shoes on, or roll off of an edge...

Climbing shoes are an integral part of your climbing cupboard - but the variety and myths make buying the correct shoes increasingly more difficult. It is infinitely more desirable to spend the extra time and effort in purchasing your shoes, than regretting a hastily or ill-informed decision each time you put them on. Climbing shoes do more than look aesthetically pleasing - they are extensions to your body and if bought correctly can enhance your climbing greatly. Below is a guide to buying rock shoes, based predominantly on design as apposed to the Manufactures name, which is usually shrouded in fable and mystery (if their marketing department is any good).

General Rule of Thumb for beginners
- Comfortable is too large
- Painful is too tight
- Uncomfortable is perfect

 

Fit : First and Foremost

The most important factor to consider when choosing any rock shoes is finding a pair that fits well.

Your "fit" should be determined by the type of climbing that you intend doing, combined with your experience level. Remember that leather upper shoes are likely to stretch over time (mostly in lateral width), while lined and synthetic upper shoes are not likely to stretch much at all.

Climbing shoe sizing varies from brand to brand and, just to confuse the issue, often from model to model within a brand. Use numerical sizes purely as a guideline. As a rule of thumb, the level of shoe discomfort increases proportionately to an increase in climbing "level". This is primarily a result of molding the foot into as firm and precise an appendage as possible in an effort to eliminate "roll" (due mainly to weak feet or the shoe being to big and rolling around your foot) and increase sensitivity (sensual feedback) and pin-point controlled.

 

Shape of last

There are various sole patterns to accommodate various types of climbing and foot shapes. Some are more asymmetrically displaced towards the big toe than others. Generally speaking lasts vary from flat mildly asymmetrical to pronounced / aggressively down turned.

Aggresive

Designed for the advanced climber and particularly suited to steep environments.

Recommended shoes:

Because the very nature of steep/overhanging routes forces you to try to curl your toe down in an attempt to pull you in the route. Thus strong foot muscles and a shoe that helps get in beneath the roof, to the grip are necessary.


 
Moderate

Designed for the intermediate and advanced climbers these are the most all-round types, but excel in vertical to slightly overhanging.

Recommended shoes:

While a pronounced camber is ideal for steep routes, on vertical / midly overhanging routes the down-pointed nature of the foot makes edging and smearing difficult. The moderate last offers a performance fit, often associated with a mildly stiff midsole which together give great precision, great edging ability and good smearing ability.


 
Mild

Designed for the beginner and intermediate climbers and particularly suited to easy angled / vertical climbing.

Recommended shoes:

Generally the easier the grade the bigger the [foot] holds and thus the need for an aggressive shoe wanes. Coupled to this, the less steep the route is, the more the climber stands on his/her feet. Therefore the mild last is significantly flatter than any of the others. Also, as one tends to stand more in these, they often feature a stiff missole (offering greater support and a roomier toe box.


 

Sizing

Until you consider yourself at the intermediate or advanced stage, nearly everyone buys a pair too small at some point. This is often on the advice of shop assistants (who, if they are any good, will be intermediate/advance & therefore down-sizing) or friends who insist that "at least one size down" is the way. This stems from the days of climbing in tennis shoes, and obviously down sizing helped tremendously there. Having said that tighter is ultimately a better performer when you start pushing your grade limit.

 

Construction

Rock shoes are constructed around a last, which dictates everything from the shape and size of the foot bed as well as the profile (as discussed above). In the beginning shoes were constructed either on a board last or a slip last. Essentially a board-lasted shoe used a rigid midsole as the basis for the shoe - the upper and the dole derive their stability and shape from the board. Please note that the term "board lasted" is used here loosely. All modern shoe manufacturers build their shoes in Lasts, essentially the board lasted shoe is no more. That being said manufacturers today build a slip lasted shoe that has the stiff characteristics of a board lasted shoe without using the board.

In order to increase a shoe's sensitivity, manufacturers increasingly used thinner and thinner midsoles. What the climber gained in sensitivity, the shoe lost in overall form. i.e. there was less and less of a chassis from which to derive and maintain shape and thus fit. To combat this the slip-lasted design was born whereby the heel-cup is drawn toward the toe by a tightly stretched section of rubber. By pulling the shoe tightly from toe to heel, the shoe becomes more of a glove, and thereby takes on the foot's shape more and more.

 

Board-lasted

Board-lasted boots are stiffer and more durable than slip-lasted models, stretching less and lasting longer. Board-lasted shoes can also be resoled more often than slip-lasted shoes. Their stiff (board) midsoles provide added support and protection.

 
Slip-lasted

Slip-lasted rock shoes have thin midsoles and insoles, so they are flexible and sensitive. They help you feel the rock underfoot so you know where you're putting your feet. These thin soles also allow you to get onto and grip very small holds. The slipper / velcro design is also very handy for continually putting them on and taking them off.

 

However these days the lines of distinction are a little blurred. originally the rule of thumb said:

  • Slip-lasted = Soft, sensitive but a poor edging shoe due to the lack of midsole support
  • Board-lasted = Stiff, and good edging
But what if you wanted a sensitive edging shoe? Well you'd combine the two right... so a semi-stiff midsole is slip-lasted thereby creating a shoe that support to edge but the snug fit with its inherent sensitivity. Most intermediate shoes are constructed in this manner, with variation.

 

So what does it all mean?

With the above now in your mind, has shoe buying become any easier? Probably not!

  • Beginner: You climb mainly on-balance routes, often spend a significant period of time in your shoes. You find climbing shoes unbearably uncomfortable. The mild profile on a thick (board) last will offer you a relaxed fit with a greater volume toe-box, while the stiff midsole offers support to your toes when standing on edges.

  • Intermediate: You climb steep overhanging routes, as well as technical face routes. To perform you need a shoe which is sensitive enough to offer good feedback regarding your foot placement, yet on the technical face routes you need a stiff enough midsole to edge with. Hopefully your feet are reasonably strong and thus able to benefit from a softer midsole, and the end result is worth the pain of the snug toe box.

  • Advanced: You spend your life upside down (or on oil-coated vertical glass) and could benefit from gaining power in your foot holds, releasing power to your arms. Either a mid-soled shoe with a spipper without a midsole at all will give you the feedback you crave and the smear ability of Mad Rock.

 

 
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