As I start writing this, I almost feel like a large part of this article is utterly useless. Anyone who has climbed in more than 3 different models of shoes will know that when it comes to rock shoes; what rock shoe works for you, what are the best performing rock shoes etc. all pretty much comes down to fit. Kilian Fischhuber won multiple world bouldering cups in a pair of La Sportiva Katana’s for crying out loud. I wouldn’t even climb a flight of stairs in the things. They’re great shoes but they don’t fit my foot (imagine a house brick shape) at all and even if I buy a pair a size or so up as my ‘comfy’ pair, it’s just loose in some spots and still too tight on others. Get me in a pair of Cobra’s though and I’ll happily go from pushing my grade on steep sport to chucking a lap up Sweet Dreams in them. They are comfy and they perform. For me. However, now, more than ever, there is a huge amount of technology and design built into climbing shoes. Most people, even though they won’t fit into everything, will still fit a number of models in any one category and so it is worth talking about how climbing shoes differ so if you are lucky enough to slide your foot into a number of glass slippers you can make an informed decision about what you want to climb in them.
To try to simplify things, I’ve broken shoe building into two main categories: Last and Structure. Where Last is referring to the shape of the shoe and incorporates the ‘Lateral Shape’ and ‘Vertical Shape’ of the shoe and Structure in its basics refers to how soft or stiff the shoe is, but in its more advanced form refers to the tension or torsion that is built into shoes for certain purposes.
Obviously going back to my first point, last is everything. Which is why it’s first. See what I did there… Usually when it comes to shapes in standard shoes it is all about finding which shoe fits the shape of your foot. This is very true in climbing shoes however the awesome thing about climbing shoes is the shoe also changes the shape of YOUR foot. So really it’s all about finding which shoe can work with your foot the best to change it into the shape you want. Simplifying it a little the two ways that shape or last changes is either lateral or vertical.
Lateral Shape - Turn the shoe upside-down and draw a line from the middle of the heel to the longest part of the toe box. This line and how asymmetric it might be gives you the lateral shape of the shoe. Click on the 'La Sportiva Climbing Shoe Asymmetrey Chart' for a bigger view in understanding lateral shapes.
This chart demonstrates the asymmetry of a few of La Sportiva’s models and how they are using the shoe to manipulate the shape of your foot. Going from RIGHT to LEFT – you have the Mythos: almost completely neutral in shape, the longest part of the toe almost sits centered with the heel and it spreads the load over all the toes, it is not trying to manipulate your foot at all apart from focusing the toes together. Moving left you have Katana Men’s and Women’s models: now the longest part of the shoe has moved from the center of the toes across to the big toe. Then moving left again you get to models like the Cobra, Miura and Solution until finally you get to the Testarossa sitting right over there on the left looking asymmetric as all hell.
The whole point of the lateral shape of the shoe is to get more of your body weight onto a smaller point. Or to put it practically: to get more friction on tinier holds. The Mythos will spread the load over most of the toes, but the Testarossa will focus all your body weight onto an area the size of a 5c piece.
Vertical Shape - Vertical shape incorporates how down-turned the shoe is and also how vertical your knuckles are sitting int he toe-box. The down turned shape has more to do with the intended angle you are aiming to climb where as the position of the knuckles has more to do with making your toes stronger so they don’t flex out as much.
Having a steep toe box that allows your knuckles to sit more vertically and puts them in a stronger position so that you can get more power out of holds. It is not always the most comfortable thing especially if you haven’t been climbing that long but it is perhaps the most important aspect in improving a climbing shoe’s performance.
The intention of a down turned shoe is basically to make holds feel more positive when on overhung terrain. The other benefit is that it puts your foot into an even stronger position so you can get more power when pushing off a hold. On the negative side of things, having a down turned shoe makes it harder to smear and flex your foot out and get a lot of rubber contact on the wall. In more modern shoes this problem has been solved by quite elaborate shoe structures but more on that in a wee while.
It’s important to note that while an asymmetric lateral shape often goes hand in hand with a down turned vertical shape it is not always the case. There is choice! Notable exceptions to this would be the La Sportiva Miura Lace and Cobra. Each have a very asymmetric lateral shape but are not intentionally down turned. On the contrary, the Otaki and Katana lace are down turned but only with medium asymmetric lateral shape.
Structure is a little more simple than the last. It basically refers to how stiff or soft a shoe is. It takes in to consideration the materials used to make the uppers, the thickness, type and layout of the rubber and any other attempts to stiffen or give flex at certain points of the shoe. How ‘sensitive’ a shoe is also has to with it.
Upper materials play a big part as they will determine a lot of the stiffness and support of the shoe. An unlined leather shoe like the Mythos or the Cobra will be quite soft and sensitive. Brands might add lining fabrics to certain parts of a leather shoe to limit its stretch and flexibility. A tried and true example of the this is the Katana Velcro. It is a leather upper shoe with a lining through the back and mid foot that is quite ridged. Then in the toe box it has a softer more pliable lining above the toes and left unlined leather beneath the toes. The result is a shoe that it quite supportive through the mid sole but is soft and sensitive in the toe box allowing you to flex the toes, feel what’s underneath your feet and stick to those precise smears. Manufacturers love to use really technical words for their lining materials so sometimes it can all seem little over the top but it is worth 2 minutes of your time to understand how soft linings are or how much they will stretch.
For edging, giving a shoe infinite rigidity sounds like a good thing for the first 15 seconds. Imagine a shoe so ridged that you could put the toes on a 3mm edge and the rest of your foot would stay perfectly level. The problem is that you can’t feel what you’re standing on and you loose the ability to smear. There has been some quite ‘primitive’ attempts at stiffening shoes up in the past by putting stiff boards in them or the like. However you may as well start climbing in some mountaineering boots. At least you can wear them with some soft fluffy socks. The go these days is to add tension into the shoe via how the rubber is organised and rely on it and the fit to give you support. That way you can have your cake and eat it too. Does that saying work in this situation? I’ve never really understood it. You can have the support and the sensitivity too.
In the basics of this idea you have things like a tight heel rand (strap around the back of the heel), but as you get more and more technical you get to things like the Sportiva P3 Platform, or Permanent Power Platform. This is a rubber tensioning system that basically acts like a torsion spring or leaf spring in a car. It gives the shoe a down turned aggressive shape but still allows it to flex out flat to get more rubber on the wall. It also lasts a lot longer than other tensioning methods so the shoes will be down turned for longer. A good example to show this is the Scarpa Instinct VS and the Sportiva Solution. These shoes are extremely similar in their aim but differ slightly on their tensioning system. The Instinct has a softer tension system while the Solution has a more permanent one. As the shoes wear in the Instinct VS will generally be flatter so it is more suited as an ‘all round’ shoe with slab and vertical in mind, and the Solution will maintain its down turned shape so is better for steep climbing. Saying all that, both shoes are great and I’d be happy with either on my little toes.
Other good examples would be -
If you’re reading this – Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of a long explanation on the differences between climbing shoes and what works best for what situations. However it is almost all completely pointless as the most important factor is FIT FIT FIT! Back when the Solution was launched, I wanted nothing more than copy my climbing idles and crank on a pair of those babies but I have been trying to get them on my feet for almost 10 years and they just don’t go. The Testarossa however… oh yeah, that’s the one for me. But hopefully you fit a number of different shoes so with the knowledge of what to look out for in climbing shoe shape (or how they shape you) and their structure and sensitivity, you can find that shoe that will stick to that hold that hasn’t stuck before.
Author: Matt Eaton