Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
“La Sportiva is the first company I recall making women-specific shoes,” Lynn Hill, one of climbing’s biggest icons, explained to me recently. I was sure that by talking to Hill I would get to the bottom of weeks of research, and figure out once and for all the origin of women’s climbing shoes—but it was just another dead end in a harder-than-expected maze.
Women’s-specific climbing shoes are so widespread now that many climbers have probably never even given them a second thought. These days almost every shoe comes in a men’s and a women’s version. But this wasn’t always the case. For decades, there weren’t gender-specific models, and when I began climbing in the early 2000s, it felt like the general wisdom was simply “every shoe fits, so long as it’s small enough.”
The history of the modern climbing shoe really begins with the release of the Boreal Firé in 1979. This was the first shoe to introduce a rubber compound specifically designed for climbing shoes. The Firé changed what was possible in modern climbing and even helped the Gallego brothers in 1980 open Mediterraneo, the first route on El Capitan established by non-Americans. John Bachar took the Firés for a spin on Midnight Lightning and was so impressed that he teamed up with Boreal and imported 265 pairs to the Yosemite Mountain Shop—they sold out in a matter of hours.
The 1980s were the golden years of climbing-shoe development, with revolutionary breakthroughs flowing thick and fast. La Sportiva brought out futuristic creations like the Mariacher and Ballerina at the start of the decade. Boreal then began slip-lasted construction in 1985 and changed the way climbing shoes are made forever. That same year, Charles Cole introduced the world to his legendary Stealth rubber and Five Ten quickly became recognized as a leading climbing shoe manufacturer.
La Sportiva and Five Ten continued to drive innovations into the 21st century and emerged as front runners in the market thanks to the popularity of creations like the Miura and Anasazi Lace-up.
Despite these exciting developments, there is little information out there about when we started to get our chalky hands on women-specific climbing shoes.
Feet, regardless of gender, come in all different shapes and sizes; it’s natural enough to question if gender matters at all when talking about climbing shoes. It’s not uncommon to see climbers mixing and matching shoes, regardless of whether the shoe is intended for a man or a woman. Some manufacturers have moved away from gender-specific shoes altogether and have instead opted for using high- or low-volume variations.
The most comprehensive study aimed at identifying the difference in young men’s and women’s feet was conducted in 2001. After evaluating over 8,000 participants, the researchers discovered that men’s and women’s feet differ considerably in shape characteristics, especially in the areas surrounding the arch, first toe, and ball of the foot.
The study concluded that regardless of a person’s weight, shape or size, these gender characteristics were applicable 93% of the time, and that “these differences should be taken into account in the design and manufacturing of women’s sports shoes.”
After my initial research about the origin of women-specific climbing shoes came up short, I decided to reach out to several manufacturers and professional climbers to try to get to the bottom of it—hence how I ended up chatting with Lynn Hill. In our conversation, Hill mentioned various climbing shoes and brands she had used. Early in her career she was sponsored by Boreal and used their shoes.
Like most climbers in the 1970s, Hill learned to climb using a shoe that, by today’s standards, is about as useful as a hemp rope would be on a sport climb. “I remember wearing a bright pink shoe called something like the Resin Rose made by a French company,” she said while reminiscing on her early years.
The One Sport Resin Rose contained a tin midsole, and despite being widely used by many climbers of the time, it has been called the worst shoe ever made. While the tin helped the shoe edge better than its competitors, the metal invariably made its way through the midsole and shredded countless toes.
Of her many accomplishments, Hill’s biggest contribution to climbing came in the form of the first free ascent of the Nose on El Capitan. “For my first ascent, I wore a pair of Bambas,” she said. The Boreal Bamba was a low-cut shoe that was one of the first climbing-shoe designs to use a velcro closure system.
“After I had freed the Nose, I wore the Boreal Vectors,” she said—unsurprising, as the Vector was one of Boreal’s most popular high-performance shoes throughout the 1980s.
While both of these shoes were advanced for their time—and clearly good enough for Hill to do paradigm-altering climbs—neither of them was specifically designed to properly support a female foot.
I learned that La Sportiva began producing women-specific climbing shoes after Heinz Mariacher joined their design team. Mariacher was—and still is—involved in designing some of the best climbing shoes ever made. His spectacular resume of early creations includes the Mariacher, Miura, and Mythos.
In 2003, La Sportiva brought out an important variation of his most popular shoe, the Mythos Lady. The Mythos Lady was made with a softer rubber outsole than the men’s version to give lighter climbers more friction on the rock.
After speaking with Hill, I initially thought this might have been the first women-specific shoe ever made. After all, La Sportiva had been at the forefront of shoe innovation for over two decades; it seemed reasonable, if not likely, that the company had come out with the first female shoe.
But my assumption was wrong, I learned, when I stumbled across a Five Ten catalog from 1997. Within the catalog, the company proudly displayed the brand new Five Ten Diamond. This revolutionary creation included a narrow heel design, a higher arch, and a low-volume instep to adapt to the shape of a woman’s foot. The Diamond was an instant hit. For the first time, women climbers had a shoe that would create a balance between performance and comfort.
As popular as the Diamond was, it took a while for the other manufacturers to follow suit. Evolv launched the Rockstar in 2004 and Boreal introduced their first women-specific shoes in 2007. While many of these early models followed a similar pattern of a neutral last and lace closure, it wasn’t until Mariacher moved to Scarpa in 2006 that the industry started to see women’s high-performance shoes emerge.
“Instead of making women’s shoes the same volume and width as the men’s but softer, which was the approach at La Sportiva, at Scarpa, Heinz decided to develop an aggressive shoe last. This new design was dedicated exclusively to a lower volume foot,” explained Nathan Hoette, one of the shoe designers at Scarpa.
The Rockette and Sphinx were the first two high-performance models Scarpa released that catered for lower-volume feet. The Rockette, in particular, marked a big step forward. Several of the features first used on the Rockette—a 3D molded midsole, a floating rubber toe patch, and an X-tension system— were groundbreaking, for any shoe, in the possibilities they afforded a new generation of skilled and powerful climbers. Some of these features have only started to be used widely in other high-performance shoes in the last few seasons.
Fast forward to today and every climbing manufacturer offers a selection of shoes to accommodate feet of all shapes and sizes. The history of climbing shoes is still being written and every passing year sees new developments aimed at helping men and women, both push the boundaries of our sport.
Sam Laird is a Scottish-born nature lover. He has been obsessed with climbing, snowboarding and exploring the mountains for as long as he can remember. Sam’s main passion is bouldering, which has taken him on adventures across Europe, Asia and Australia. When he’s not on an adventure, you can find him at climbingshoereview.com sharing his passion for climbing shoes.