Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
A hush washes over the crag as an Ondra-like scream echoes off the canyon walls. The crowd looks up in search of the strongman, but he is sitting on flat land. He lets out another guttural roar as he pulls on his second climbing shoe—banana-shaped and three sizes too small. There is a quiet murmur among the climbers—which route is beastly enough to warrant such an aggressive shoe? He ties in and, wincing with each step, hobbles over to the base. He pulls onto the 5.8 slab, and his smeared feet blow off the second move.
There is an epidemic among climbers. People are squeezing their feet into aggressively downturned rock shoes, believing that it will make them perform better all around. “Downturned” refers to the asymmetrical shape of the shoe, in which the big toe scoops downward, allowing climbers to use it like a hook. This shape excels on overhangs, but can hinder performance on other styles of climbing. The intermediate climber on the cusp of crushing sees videos of pros climbing upside-down in downturned shoes, hears the screams of gym bros and bro-ettes hucking themselves out of the cave in downturned shoes, and is told by someone who has been climbing for six months longer than themselves that to nail their 5.10 proj they need a downturned shoe. Guess what that intermediate climber goes and buys?
The aggressive-shoe sickness has spread with the proliferation of mega-gyms over the last decade. These gyms feature thousands of square feet of steep, overhung, or even horizontal terrain, with big holds and gymnastic moves. Those tend to be the raddest looking and most interesting routes to climb indoors, and the wide-eyed incomers want a piece of that.
“A person of any age who is an athletic kind of person is going to want a shoe that will allow them to climb on the features inside the gym,” said Matt Ginley, sales manager of SCARPA North America, seasoned climber, and shoe aficionado. “They are going to benefit a lot more from a shoe which is designed for that terrain.”
It’s true. For those mega-steep and athletic gym routes, a rock shoe with an aggressive toe will help your feet grab onto holds, keeping you on even when your body is horizontal. According to Ginley, gyms started to feature this sort of terrain more in the last 10 to 20 years, as outdoor climbing shifted toward ever-steeper sport routes. “It’s almost like gyms changed a little bit and started offering more not-vertical climbing,” he said. “Overhangs to completely horizontal features.”
Areas like the Red River Gorge became some of the most popular climbing destinations in the world, home to steep, sandstone, single-pitch sport climbing—you’ll find more overhangs in the Red than slab routes. For climbing in places like the Red—just like climbing steep gym routes—an asymmetrical, downturned shoe can help you get to the top. But the reality is, as Ginley put it: “Not everywhere is steep.”
I was the poster-child for the unwarranted wearing of C-shaped shoes. I was bred in the climbing gym, and a few months after I started one of the “crushers” bestowed upon me the wisdom that, to be better, I needed an aggressive shoe. I’m ashamed to admit that I passed on this inaccurate advice to countless newcomers when I worked in a rock gym. For years, even when I became more serious and only climbed outside, I squeezed my feet into shoes that never quite fit—my long toes would be curled in the toe box, while my narrow heel sloshed around in the back and the upper dug into my achilles. I could only climb a few pitches a day because my feet hurt so much. The kicker: I don’t climb overhangs. It was never my style. I’m more interested in techy faces and long trad routes. So there I was, climbing delicate slab, learning how to crack climb, and multi-pitching in a stiff soled, Captain Hook-looking shoe. My feet would be on fire and my performance suffered, until one day I had the epiphany: There are other high-performance styles of rock shoes.
Somewhere along the way “aggressive” was conflated with “performance,” and it can be hard to get that out of your head. Similarly, as Andrew Bisharat wrote on Evening Sends, there is an unfortunate trend of downsizing shoes to masochistic extremes for enhanced performance. But if every shuffle of your feet causes you to wince in agony, it will only inhibit your climbing; you need to be comfortable in your shoes. Yes, you want your shoes to be snug. And yes, aggressive shoes are high-performance shoes. No question. But to set the record straight, there are high-performance shoes in every shape and style of shoe, and there are different shapes and styles of shoes for different styles of climbing. “You do want to have a shoe that performs at the highest level depending on the style of climbing and the style of rock that you’re climbing on,” said Ginley. “That’s why we continue to make a performance shoe in every category.”
So before you break out your wallet to buy a pair of rock shoes, know what you like to climb and choose a shoe that will help you do that better. If you are still soul-searching for your preferred climbing style, or just like to climb everything, buy one of the dozens of all-arounders on the market. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to look for:
A shoe that will offer comfort and performance on a variety of terrain will be the ideal style of shoe for an intermediate climber. Look for a moderate downturn with medium-stiffness in the sole. The downturn will still help you on those overhangs, while the softer sole opens up the world of smears and slab climbing, without being too soft and rolling off small edges.
The Slab Aficionado
For those who are obsessed with friction-y, off-vertical routes, you want to look for a shoe with no downturn and a soft sole—slippers are often a great option for slab climbing. To nail those smears you want as much shoe surface touching the stone as possible, which means flat and soft.
The Crack Climber
For the tradsters out there thirsting for fingerlocks and footjams, you’ll need a flat, stiff soled rock shoe. When you jam and torque your foot in a crack, you want to be able to stand on the sole of your shoe like standing on a plank. Climbing cracks in soft shoes will offer little support to stand up on, and will feel like putting your feet in a meat grinder when you crank them inside the crack. Avoid hook-and-loop closures because the straps can create painful pressure points during jams. Instead, choose lace-ups or slippers. There are also a number of high-top rock shoes on the market that offer extra protection for your ankles while crack climbing.
When multi-pitch climbing, if you’re going to be in your shoes for hours at a time, you’ll need something comfortable—a painful shoe could very well be the crux of a long route. A flat, stiff sole with a soft, lace-up upper will offer the most comfort during long days in the mountains, and prevent your feet from tiring prematurely with prolonged edging.
For highly technical, vertical routes that call for precision footwork on dime-sized edges, you’re going to need a stiff sole with a moderate downturn and crisp edges. The stiff sole will allow you to weight the shoe without rolling off the edge, and the moderate downturn provides tension in the shoe, giving you additional support, and allows you to pull with your toes.
Finally, for those who like it steep—overhung sport and high level bouldering—you get to wear an aggressive shoe! Look for something with a sharp downturn and put it to good use, helping your toes hang on to holds on those near-horizontal routes. There are advantages to both stiff and soft soled shoes in this category. Stiff soles will offer you more versatility and support while climbing on small holds and with techy edging, whereas softer soles will allow you to use your feet like a second set of hands by grabbing with your toes on holds.