There’s a thing you need to know, if you don’t climb: climbing shoes are astounding technology, involving a deep and intense knowledge of foot anatomy that I will never even remotely understand. The people who make these things do stuff with structure, with rubber, with leather and fastenings, that actually makes a difference to the performance of the shoe, and the bumbly wearing the shoe. It’s . . . freaking alchemy.
Anyway, I spent rather a long time at MEC, agonizing over buying my latest pair, a set of La Sportiva Katanas. I knew that my go-to Nagos were great all-day, long-day, walk-around-at-the-bottom-of-the-crag shoes. I also knew that a lot of people buy “aspirational” gear – stuff that’s way too technical for them. I remembered a friend of mine who, a year or so into climbing, bought a pair of pretty aggressive, technical shoes in hopes they’d make her climb harder, valiantly climbed through the pain for a few months, then sold them off again in defeat because her climbing had actually suffered because she couldn’t put her feet on anything without flinching.
(Because this is the other thing non-climbers should know about rock shoes: they are tight. Seriously tight. It’s hard to walk in most models. They work great if you’re hanging off your fingertips and need something to help your toe cling to that little crystal. They suck for anything humans normally do with their feet.)
So I didn’t want to talk myself into buying shoes that would actually hurt my climbing game. But I also didn’t – exactly – want to buy the all-day-comfort, perfect-for-beginners shoe again. I thought maybe, maybe, I might want to step it up. I texted friends from the bench where I was trying on the Katanas, then the old pair, then the Katanas again. Because I also knew that whatever the shoes feel like when you put them on, it is absolutely no indication of how they will feel after a five-minute climb, or a five-hour multipitch. And that it’s also true that whatever they feel like when you put them on, you don’t know what the breaking-in process will do.
But, I figured why not? I have old pairs of comfy shoes for those long multipitch days – with holes blown in the toes, but still serviceable – and I can get them resoled, resole them myself, or buy a new pair if I have to (they’re not that pricey as climbing shoes go). And I wanted to see what would happen if I took my shoes up a level.
I never want to say that a few millimeters more or less, here or there, in the structure of my gear matters, but. These shoes hurt a lot. I couldn’t wear them two days in a row for a while, and I collapsed onto the floor at the gym to pull them off between climbs. They burned. But then, after a while, they didn’t hurt so much (though I had a bit of a backslide a week ago when I cut a toenail too short. Ow).
And I was sending stuff I didn’t send before. Between finally conquering a route I’d been fighting for months at the gym, and clean TR and second sends of Welcome to the Machine and Tits ‘n’ Ass at Lac Sam, I was actually noticing a difference. I did a 5.10c at Montagne d’Argent in one fall a while back. Best I’ve ever done on that route. And then one day, bouldering at the gym, I put a foot way out for a tiny hold at the edge of my reach, and it stuck there. Magically.
Confirmation bias? I don’t think so, after this long. Here’s what I experience: when I’m in the middle of a route, and put a foot out for a hold, I am conscious of the energy all the way to the end of my big toe. I feel ways of using that energy that I didn’t before. The shoes force your smaller toes inward, focusing power into the big toe. Being that aware of my toes makes them feel more prehensile. It keeps my footwork in mind.
I’ve noticed that when I’m going for a small foothold in the gym, I need to be precise because these freaking shoes will stick to the texture of the wall above them if I’m a little bit too high. They’re forcing better footwork, and by extension, more economic use of the handholds I’m using. I even feel as though when I pop my feet on overhanging stuff to reset them, I’m doing it with more grace. My legs climb smarter.
Also, after a couple of months, I can keep them on longer and longer. Only pulled them off a couple of times tonight, and not with anything like the same kind of collapse-to-the-floor desperation.
Apparently, I was climbing better enough – and raving enough about The Shoes of Sharpness – that David (the traddest of trad, long-day-comfy-shoe climbers) finally caved and got a pair of more aggressive shoes himself – though not Katanas; they didn’t have them in his size. He got some Scarpas instead, and brought them to the gym tonight, and I might have crowed a little. “Come to the Dark Side! We have blisters!” I said, as he pulled the Velcro free even as I was lowering him off climbs. But, he did sail through a 5.11b/c. . .
Slight differences in construction. Noticeable differences in my climbing. Feeling pretty good about finally stepping up to the “aspirational” shoes.