Articles - GEAR REVIEW: Technical mountain boots for climbers
Bruce Goodlad - Posted on 31 Jan 2012
There is a huge range of boots in the shops, many of them designed with fairly specific uses or certainly fairly specific temperature ranges that they are designed to be worn in. Each manufacturer has a slightly different 'last' (the foot-shaped board that the boot is made on) so not all boots will suit everyone's foot shape and most of us have different shaped feet anyway. To give you some useful information about buying some boots for this winter's adventures in I am going to start with a few things to think about when actually trying on the boots in the shop and then we will go on to look at a few categories that will help you narrow down your search.
1. How to try on boots
A good tip someone gave me was to try boots on in the second half of the day when you have been walking about and your feet are hot. Your feet will have expanded, which is what they do during a long day on the hill. Take your own socks that you would normally climb in to the shop; make sure they are good quality wool socks, any major problems I have had with boots has usually been due to cheap socks. When the boots are on your feet they should feel snug round your heel and ankle. A few millimetres of movement is not a problem; as the boots break in they will mould to the shape of your foot and this movement will vanish. You should be able to flex and curl your toes and when you kick something you should not feel the end of the boots with your toes; if you do you will really bash your toes to bits walking down hill. Once you have taken the boots home wear them round the house for a few hours. Don't take them outside until you are sure they are the right size. All good shops will change them if the size isn't correct as long as they are still in shop condition. All our feet are different shapes and most boots are different shapes even within a particular brand so you need to put time aside go to the shop and try loads of different pairs on until you find the model that is right for you.
2. How to break your boots in
Once you have decided you have the correct size and model you will need to break them in - don't wait until your first big walk in or you will have problems. I always tape the heels of my feet at the start of each season, be it winter in Scotland or summer in the alps as my skin takes time to harden to the walking action of stiff boots. Start with short walks getting longer and try scrambling and climbing in them before you head onto big routes to get the feel for their performance. Most insoles that come with boots are rubbish and offer no real support to the foot so I generally just through the insole away and replace it with a supportive insole or orthotic support by someone like Superfeet. Your knees ankles and hips will thank you for it. Make sure you remember to adjust your crampons to your new boots before you head onto the mountain. Sounds obvious but I see people with crampons still in the box at the bottom of Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis trying to figure out how to adjust them.
3. Looking after your boots
The quickest way to ruin a new pair of boots is to dry them too quickly in direct heat. Take the insole out and dry the boots slowly - stuffing with newspaper helps. When I am doing lots of winter climbing I have two pairs on the go at once to avoid constantly having wet feet but this is an expensive solution. If you have Gore-Tex lined boots you will have to accept pretty early on that it won't keep your feet dry and there is nothing you can do about it. If you have leather boots regular application of a wax helps keep the water out.
4. Crampon Compatibility
It is essential to use a crampon that matches the stiffness of your boot. If you get this wrong at best your crampon will come off - at worst it will snap. Without explaining the system in detail if you have a flexible boot you will need a flexible crampon. When you are climbing on your front points on ice or mixed ground you will want a rigid boot to support your foot and a reasonably stiff crampon to provide the support. I would only suggest a fully rigid crampon for icefall climbing where the rigidity aids kicking into hard ice.
I have split the boots into three categories to help you decide on a suitable boot for the activity you will be doing. There will inevitably be some cross over, which I have tried to highlight.
For: Cascade, 'Shoulder Season' Alpinism and Scottish Winter
In this category I have included boots that have built in gaiters as these are brilliant for keeping snow out of the boots and off the boots. Without them what often happens is that snow gets caught on your laces then melts, wetting the boots and making your feet cold. No matter what the manufacturers say these boots are not completely waterproof. All you need to do is spend a few hours walking across a Scottish hillside to prove this. Where these boots are brilliant is anywhere there is loose snow that may melt on your feet and any cold weather alpinism that isn't ridiculously cold (when you would want something beefier like a La Sportiva Spantic). The advanced construction techniques used here also allow for a very light boot relative to the insulation quality. They are also generally very neat on your feet so feel precise and accurate to climb in. I wouldn't suggest them for general summer alpinism as the fabric uppers are not robust enough to be stuffed into cracks and being scuffed on rocks all day. I would use these boots climbing in the Alps on cold days in June and September and for short alpine winter routes but I would think carefully about the temperatures in the depth of winter. I would also use them cascade climbing and winter climbing in Scotland and other parts of the UK.
La Sportiva Batura Evo
This new version of the Batura came out last winter and features a new zip design and some changes to the lacing system. The boots are mid-range in terms of warmth; I have worn these to the top of Mont Blanc on a number of occasions in September when it has been about -15c and had warm feet every time. The boot feels precise and comfortable when climbing and is great for most winter activities unless it is really cold. Available in half sizes.
Mammut Eiger Extreme Nordwand TL
Let's start with the obvious they are the most expensive boots in the review but they are the warmest by quite a long way - they claim to be warm down to -35c, which is an impressive. I haven't tested them to those levels but I had them out and about a fair bit in the Alps this autumn and I was really impressed with their warmth and their dexterity. The boots are really easy to put on and have a fast lacing system that can be easily adjusted with gloves. The insulated outer gaiter comes higher up the leg than the other models tested which is great when trail breaking in deep snow. The only negative from testers was that this could have done with drawcord. If you want a light, warm precise boot for winter alpinism this is the boot.
Scarpa Phantom Guide
For me these were the least warm of the boots in this category but still plenty warm enough for Scottish winter, cascade climbing and winter day routes in the Alps. The boots are comfortable, light and precise and come in half sizes so it is easy to get a good fit.
This is the category that most people will choose to buy a boot from as these boots are the most versatile, performing on all types of mountain terrain from cascade climbing in places like Kandersteg to mixed climbing in the Cairngorms and climbing big ridges in the Valais. If you can only afford one pair of boots don't look anywhere else.
La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX
A development of the legendary Nepal Extreme, which has been become the benchmark of quality in an alpine and winter boot. These are a bit lighter than the Extreme but are every bit as comfortable and perform superbly in all situations. I don't know what it is about the Nepal design but they do seem to fit loads of different people, making them one of the most popular alpine boots of all time. Being leather you can keep them waterproof, which is a great asset in the Scottish winter. If you want a solid reliable boot and don't mind a bit more weight look no further.
I almost put this in the previous category as its warmth for weight and performance is superb, it just doesn't have the full gaiter to keep the snow off the laces that the other boots had. But there is a small gaiter to keep the snow out of the top of the boot, which is more than enough in summer. Kayland are a brand that you don't see quite so much of but I am a big fan. The M11+ has great levels of precision and performance in all situations. The only real negative is that the flat sole, which gives them the good performance isn't as comfortable for walking as some of the other more rockered soles I have tried.
Scarpa Jorasses Pro GTX
Scarpa have done a great job of keeping the weight down but keeping performance up with the Jorasses Pro GTX. The boot performs really well in all situations and despite initial scepticism about the durability of a fabric upper they are wearing pretty well. Lots of shops in Chamonix are now stocking these as their hire boots they have been so impressed by the fit, performance and durability.
Mammut Mamook GTX
Another great boot from Mammut, which they seem to have kept to a sensible price despite the Swiss Franc. I liked the Mammook for general mountaineering and mid-grade climbing but I did find them a bit clumpy when it came to precise rock and technical mixed routes.
Asolo Lhotse GV
If you are on a tight budget the Lhotse is a great boot for the money and up there with some boots that cost £100 more. The only downside is they don't have extra insulation so aren't so as warm. On the feet there is a bit of rocker to make walking easier but still enough precision when required. A good solid boot and great value.
Also worth a look in this category are the Berghaus Kibo (£200, 1.82kg), for all-round mountaineering in the Alps and easier Scottish winter routes, and the Kayland Apex Dual Guide (£280, 1.72kg), a 'do anything' alpine boot warm enough for cold 4,000m summits and technical enough for most routes. Just a note that it can be difficult to track down stockists of the Kayland boots featured in this review in the UK.
General and rock boots
For: Scrambling and Rock-based Summer Alpinism
These boots excel on rocky terrain where you made need to cross a glacier to get to the climbing and for technical rock ridges which may need a crampon for some of the day but not for the main event. Perfect for mountain ridges in the UK and the Alps but not warm enough for Scottish winter or routes predominantly on snow abroad.
Scarpa Charmoz GTX
Despite what I said above in the intro to this category, the Charmoz are actually warm enough that you could use them for easy Scottish winter routes and most summer alpine routes. Fit and precision is excellent and although they are heavier than the La Sportiva Trango I found them more versatile.
La Sportiva Trango S Evo
The Trango range revolutionised our view of lightweight performance boots and the range continues. The Trango S does most things really well but excels on technical rock. The only problem I have with them is that the toe box is quite narrow so if I am not careful I often skin the top of my toes on long descents. This is probably the shape of my toes but it is worth thinking about when trying them on.
Kayland Vertigo High
I had wanted to test the Kayland MXT as they are the replacement for the Apex Rock, which has been a favourite of mine for the last few years and used on loads of Matterhorn and similar ascents all over the Alps. But I could only get hold of the Vertigo High, which Kayland assure me is the same boot with a more flexible sole. Are they a worthy successor? I thought they were superb, light comfortable and precise - what more do you want in a scrambling boot? The Vertigo will take a bendy crampon but I would personally prefer the more burly MXT.
Garmont Vetta MNT Plus GTX
This is an interesting boot as it looks a bit like an approach shoe but is actually stiff enough to take a crampon really well. The low cut design makes it flexible for rocky ridges but does require a gaiter in the snow as it is so low, while the rockered sole is comfortable to walk in. Perfect for approach to high mountain rock and scrambling style routes and even good for easy snow climbs if there isn't any fresh about. The major comment from everyone who tried it was how narrow it was - if Garmont had used the same last as the Dragontail I think this would have been more popular. Also worthy of a mention in this cateogory is the Meindl Mont Blanc GTX (£200, 1.74kg), a really comfortable fabric boot that will take a crampon and are ideal for those making the transition from winter walking to easy alpinism and climbing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - BRUCE GOODLAD
Bruce Goodlad is an internationally qualified IFMGA guide, running his own guiding company based out in Chamonix. He has just published a new book Alpine Mountaineering (£16.99, Pesda Press, 2011) covering all the essential skills you need to know for climbing in the Alps. www.mountainadventurecompany.com
THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE DECEMBER 2011 ISSUE OF CLIMBER MAGAZINE