Wanted: versatility and utilityNine top approach shoes put through their paces
When it comes to moderate rock routes and summer alpine climbs, it pays to have a versatile approach shoe, not simply a trail runner with some sticky rubber slapped on it or a stripped-down hiking boot. A technical approach shoe must strike a fine balance between hiking and climbing, enabling you to churn out five trail miles with a moderate load and get you up that 5.6 ridgeline with nary a slip — exactly the criteria we gave manufacturers for their test entries, which varied from strong climbers to stout hikers and everything in between. With the right pair of mountain scramblers, you should be able to leave your rock shoes at home for moderate alpine rock climbs from the Tetons to the Sierras. Construction. Alhough each manufacturer has their particular formula for putting together a shoe, the construction materials and methods are similar, from the upper to the midsole to the sole. Uppers are typically made of combinations of leather and synthetic materials. Some manufacturers place a premium on durability, while others look toward breathability and comfort. You have to decide which is a greater necessity — do you usually tackle climbs with lots of trail mileage that demand durability, or do you live in a hot climate, where breathability is at a premium? Other important considerations for the upper include the lacing system and sticky-rubber toe rands. Ideally, the laces should extend as far as possible down the toe box; this enables you to tighten the shoe around your forefoot, giving you a climbing-shoe feel. Sticky-rubber toe rands are also a necessity for crack climbing and increased durability. The midsole of a shoe is the platform on which you stand, hike, and climb. Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam is the most common material for midsole construction and typically comes in two forms: sandwiched or molded. Sandwiched EVA provides a more cushioned feel, while molded EVA gives greater durability and uniformity. Another material, molded polyurethane (PU), most often used in hiking boots, is firmer and denser than EVA. While it is very durable, it comes up short in cushioning. All the shoes in our test featured some variety of sticky rubber on the sole, whether it was an in-house formula or a third-party product such as Vibram. While the stickiness of the rubber certainly played an important role in climbing and scrambling, the lug pattern and thickness were just as key. While you need a decent lug pattern for trail hiking and scrambling, it can interfere with actual climbing. Thick, chunky lugs will tend to skate and catch rather than smearing or edging smoothly.
Hiking. It’s easy to obsess over the climbing ability of a shoe while ignoring how it hikes. However, remember that you’ll probably spend much more time hiking in your shoes than you will climbing. Size your shoes to be moderately comfortable on a five-mile hike, while ensuring that you can cinch up the laces for a tighter fit on your climb. Your toes should not reach the end of the shoe, but neither should they be swimming in an overly spacious toe box.
Scrambling protection. Don’t overlook how well a shoe protects your tender feet while you’re scrambling over loose talus and rough terrain. If the shoe isn’t burly enough, you’ll end up with bruises and contusions that will make your upcoming climb feel like a Vise-Grip torture test. However, if a shoe is too burly, you’ll end up having precious little sensitivity on the rock.
Climbing: edging, smearing, and jamming. Ah yes, the business. What good is an approach shoe if it can’t handle the climb as well? On alpine rock, you’ll want a shoe that can smear, edge, and jam with aplomb. Most shoes will skew in the direction of either edging or smearing, depending on sole and midsole construction. Choose a shoe that fits your climbing style.
The Test Results(all weights for men’s size 10)
FiveTen Access, $851 pound, 10 ounces Summary: FiveTen fathered one of the earliest approach shoes, the Five Tennie. More than 15 years later, they’re still in the game and charging hard. The Access features FiveTen’s signature Stealth rubber (subjectively the stickiest we tested) melded with a molded EVA midsole. The lacing system extends low onto the forefoot, providing a snug climbing fit. However, the lacing tabs sewn onto the upper can snag when you’re jamming, and the toe lacks a sticky-rubber rand. The sole has low-profile lugs and provides relatively smooth smearing. Pros: Light. Excellent hiker. Stickiest feel. Cons: Chunky lacing. No toe rand. Overall grade: B
Garmont Sticky Twist, $1092 pounds, 3 ounces Summary: A direct descendant of Garmont’s popular Sticky Weekend, the Sticky Twist is an outstanding all-around approach shoe. The lacing extends quite a ways toward the toe, just short of the sticky rand. The sandwiched EVA midsole seems a bit chunky in the heel, but overall the shoe strides quite well. The moderately lugged Vibram sole provides an excellent balance between edging and smearing. Pros: All-around performer. Cons: Slight forward heel tilt. Overall grade: A-
La Sportiva Boulder SFC, $801 pound, 14 ounces Summary: La Sportiva took their venerable Boulder back to the drawing board and returned with the new Boulder SFC. The result is one of the best climbers — but also one of the worst hikers — in the test. The Boulder SFC’s sticky Frixion rubber sole provides outstanding smearing with reasonable edging and the sticky-rubber toe rand jams well, with lacing that extends right down to it. However, the molded EVA midsole gives little foot support, making the shoe better suited to climbing areas with short approaches. Pros: Light. Excellent all-around climber. Inexpensive. Cons: Poor hiker. Overall grade: B
Lowa Pinto, $1502 pounds, 8 ounces Summary: A solid, durable hiking shoe, the Pinto comes up short in the climbing department. With a mostly leather upper, molded PU midsole (the only one in the test), and stout Vibram sole, Lowa has put together a well-built hiker that edges reasonably well. However, the shoe’s lacing does not extend very far over the toe box and its minimalist toe rand is not sticky. The thick sole lugs (the chunkiest in the test) tended to skate rather than smear. However, if you’re looking for a shoe that will hike long distances and handle moderate scrambling, the Pinto may be for you. Fits medium-narrow to medium feet. Pros: Excellent foot protection and durability. Good edging platform. Cons: Expensive. No sticky rand. Overall grade: B-
Montrail D7, $80Editors' Choice award Winner2 pounds Summary: Best known for their trail-running shoes, Montrail now debuts the D7, a shoe that, not surprisingly, shares characteristics with its single-track rocket cousins. The sandwiched EVA midsole features a running-shoe rocker that wants to sprint down the trail. On the climbing side, the shoe’s lacingsystem extends all the way down the toe box, butting up against the sticky-rubber toerand. Though the D7 lacks a solid edging platform, its smooth-smearing, lightly-lugged sole more than compensates for this. This shoe should delight the light-and-fast, do-it-in-a-day crowd. Fits medium feet. Pros: Inexpensive. Hikes well. Outstanding for smearing and jamming. Cons: Lacks strong edging platform. Overall grade: A
Nike Air Cinder Cone, $1102 pounds, 6 ounces Summary: Bearing a strong resemblance to the EB rock shoes of yesteryear, the Air Cinder Cone offers a solid hiking/climbing combo. The shoe’s lacing extends low on the toe and features a sticky toe rand that’s integrated with the sole. (Said sole provides a good balance between smearing and edging.) The Air Cinder Cone hikes well, but could use a little less padding in the tongue and ankle. Fits medium feet. Pros: Smears and jams well. Cons: Chunky upper. Overall grade: A-
Salomon Pro Sticky Low, $992 pounds, 8 ounces Summary: Compared to the other test shoes, the Pro Sticky Low, with its burly leather upper and solidly lugged sole, initially felt a bit boot-like. However, it was quite agile on the trail and on the rock. The lacing runs low on the toe, which is swathed by a beefy toe rand. The shoe edges quite well but the sole lugging keeps the shoe from smearing smartly. The tongue and ankle padding could also be trimmer. If you’re looking for a shoe that’ll get you into the Winds and big-wall climb on Mount Hooker, this is the ticket. Fits wide feet. Pros: Durable, agile. Ideal for big-walling. Cons: Doesn’t smear well. Overall grade: B
Scarpa Nitro, $1102 pounds, 6 ounces Summary: One of the top hikers in the test, the Nitro has a unique, trapezoidal-shaped molded midsole design that, though odd-looking, provides an aggressive and very comfortable platform. On the climbing side, this shoe comes up short: The lacing does not cover the forefoot and there’s no sticky rand. The moderately lugged sole edged and smeared reasonably well, but without a sticky rand, jamming was less than stellar. Also, the Nitro was the only shoe in the test that lacked heel pull-on tabs. Fits medium feet. Pros: Outstanding hiker. Cons: Lacks heel pull-on tab. Mediocre climber. Overall grade: B
Vasque Talus GTX XCR, $1151 pound, 14 ounces Summary: The Talus GTX XCR was yet another hiking star. The solidly-lugged sole and comfy molded-EVA midsole ate up the miles. The XCR Gore-tex liner made the shoe highly waterproof — perfect for sloppy approaches — though the shoe showed reduced breathability in sweaty environments. The sticky Stealth sole made for good smearing despite the chunky sole lugs, which compromised jamming ability. Also, the lacing system needed to extend down over the toe box, and a sticky rubber rand was lacking. One durability issue presented itself right away: The heel pull-on tabs were very fragile, with some snapping the first day out. Fits medium feet. Pros: Hikes well. Very waterproof. Cons: Heel pull-on tabs not durable. Overall grade: B
FiveTen: 909-798-4222, www.fiveten.com
Garmont: 802-658-8322, www.garmontusa.com
La Sportiva: 303-443-8710, www.sportiva.com
Lowa: 203-353-0116, www.lowaboots.com
Montrail: 206-621-9303, www.montrail.com
Nike ACG: 800-806-6453, www.nikeacg.com
Salomon: 971-234-7001, www.salomonoutdoor.com
Scarpa: 801-278-5533, www.scarpa-us.com
Vasque: 800-224-4453, www.vasque.com