2005 Rock Shoe Review

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Climbing staffer Brittany Garrison putting La Sportiva's Barracuda to the test in Unaweep Canyon, Colorado.

2005 Rock Shoe Review

11 Top Rock Shoes for 2005

The shoe train keeps on rolling: Last year 38 new models debuted; this year another 28 models are entering the market. Whatever your climbing bliss might be, you’re sure to find a shoe that fits it, and you. The innovation that marked last year as a standout in shoe development continues unabated in 2005. Most notably, several companies are unveiling new rubber formulas this year.

The number of new shoes on the market does, however, create a conundrum for our devoted test crew here at Climbing. We have a good dozen people here to rough up the latest kicks, but to be frank, that’s too few pairs of feet to give a fair test to 28 new models and show you the results in time for the summer season. Not to mention the 15-page sprawl of a review that would result if we covered everything.

So, in the interest of fairness, we asked each manufacturer — 11 total — to select one new shoe for us to test for this issue. And test ’em we did, from the razor crimps of Hueco to the splitter fingers of Indian Creek. The other 17 models? Fear not, dear reader. After we closed this issue (in early March), we continued our testing on through the end of April, putting every new shoe through its vertical paces. For the full results of the review, fire up your Internet connection and head over to climbing.local. There’ll you’ll find the lowdown on each and every model, plus how-to-buy info and bios on our test crew.

The Test ResultsAcopaBorealEMSEvolvFive TenLa SportivaMad RockMammutMontrailRed ChiliScarpa

Testing and grading. Shoe testers can fall into several traps. The easiest is to criticize a shoe’s performance when the real problem is with the fit. To wit: “Man, this shoe sucks ’cuz it crunches my big toe.” No. Each shoe is formed around a specific, unique, foot-shaped "last" (see below), and if the last doesn't match the general shape of your foot, the shoe won't fit — and therefore won't perform. When we receive new shoes for testing, I ensure that only testers who fit a shoe well are reviewing that model; if someone makes even a minor complaint about fit, she’s done with that shoe. You should follow the same program at the shop.The second tester mistake is to judge a shoe in a performance category for which it was never intended. To complain that an unlined, midsole-less leather shoe designed for radically overhanging terrain doesn't edge well on slabs is pointless.To prevent these errors and to give you some inside information, we asked each manufacturer for explicit fit and performance data, which we've listed for each model reviewed. The overall grade we've given each shoe reflects our judgment as to how well the shoe actually met the manufacturer's stated intentions.

Sizing. Buying the wrong size shoe is the harshest purchasing error you can make. If you size your shoes too large or too small, too narrow or too wide, you'll end up burying them in your closet, right next to your permanently mud-stained Vans sneakers from 1984.

Shoe companies offer comparison charts cross-referencing U.S., U.K., and European sizing methods. Don't trust them. Different models made by the same company fit differently, and even the same style can vary in fit from pair to pair. Go to a shop to try on shoes, and spend as much time as you need to find the ideal fit.

Lasts. Climbing shoes are built around a three-dimensional form known as a last, which largely determines a shoe's fit. Traditional lasts are modeled on the shape of a relaxed foot, but many modern lasts take the shape of an active, pointed foot -- ideal for the demands of technical climbs.

A climbing shoe can be either “board” lasted or “slip” lasted. Board lasting uses a stiff, supportive insole as a platform, plants a last on top of that, and forms the upper around the "board" and the last. A slip-lasted shoe's upper, in contrast, is constructed in a rough, sock-like shape, then slipped over the last for forming, with the midsole and rubber added afterward. Slip lasting delivers more sensitivity and flexibility than board lasting — great for technical and difficult climbing, bouldering, and climbing on plastic. Board-lasted shoes typically are more supportive and all-day comfortable, suited for easier climbing, multi-pitch outings, hard edging, and certain kinds of crack climbing. Most modern climbing shoes are slip-lasted, including all the shoes reviewed in this issue.

Some lasts are flat, while others are downturned or cambered. A downturned last cants the toe box downward to focus the shoe's power into the front of the toe box. A true cambered last forms a shoe that curves radically upward from the heel through the arch, then back down again through the toe box. This dramatic, spring-loaded shape concentrates power onto your big toe, making it the focal point of the shoe. Downturned and cambered lasts, and occasionally flat lasts, are also asymmetrical, meaning they follow the true anatomical perimeter of the focused, poised foot.

Every shoe on the market is lasted differently, so take the time to try on every available model of the style in which you're interested. We've included general lasting information for each shoe in the review, but make no specific assumptions as to which shoe will fit you.

Midsoles. Always determine a slip-lasted shoe's midsole design. Its shape, material, thickness, and placement help determine how a shoe performs. The midsole is situated between the shoe's inner and its sticky-rubber outer sole. Materials and dimensions vary, from traditional hardened-leather sheets that run the full length of a shoe, to lens-shaped composites, sometimes less than a millimeter thick, that reinforce just the toe box. With a thick, firm midsole, a slip-lasted shoe can be as stiff as a board-lasted shoe. Many manufacturers cup or curve the midsole to help focus power on the toes or stiffen the toe box's perimeter, leaving the inner area soft for better smearing. A few manufacturers even contour midsoles to better match the outsole to the foot's anatomy.

Uppers. Rock shoes have been traditionally made of somewhat stretchy leather, but manufacturers are increasingly using so-called synthetic leathers, marketed under names like Cowdura, Ultrasuede, and Durahyde. Synthetic leathers are more consistent than real leather, and offer minimal, predictable stretch. More recently, some manufacturers have begun to use mesh fabrics and stretchy synthetic fabrics that have no resemblance to leather whatsoever. Still, many purists argue that nothing beats well-broken-in leather for a truly personalized fit.

Lining. The lining of a rock shoe, if it has one, serves two purposes. First: to reduce stretch. While unlined shoes can stretch up to a size and a half, lined shoes may only stretch a half size, or not at all. Second: to provide structure and shape. The lining helps support and retain a down-turned or cambered shoe's active-foot structure. A lining also increases the durability of any shoe. Still, many shoes are unlined, which results in greater sensitivity and a more customized fit as the shoe breaks in.

Fit system. Shoes using a lace-up closure used to dominate the market, but now Velcro and slipper models constitute a significant number of shoes sold. Still, nothing beats a lace-up for fine-tuning fit. For high-performance lace-ups, make sure the laces reach as far down the toe box as possible.

Velcro closure systems strike a solid compromise between lace-ups and slippers: good adjustability with easy on-off convenience. Velcros pull on fast when you're itching to climb, and you can open them at belays or between boulder problems to relax your feet, but they can pop open while you're engaged in rigorous foot-torquing moves.

Slippers feature some sort of stretch fabric over the top of the foot that allows you to pop them on and off, but some models are extremely difficult to put on. Slippers have other family characteristics, though not all models share them: they often are sensitive enough to feel the slightest bumps or ripples; they flex so easily that trying to edge in them strenuously works your foot muscles, making them excellent for training; and they also work painfully well in thin cracks — if that's your intent, size them a bit larger than normal so your toes can lie flat.

The Test ResultsAcopaBorealEMSEvolvFive TenLa SportivaMad RockMammutMontrailRed ChiliScarpa