Back in Style: High-top Rock Shoes
When Frenchmen Rene Desmaison and Pierre Allain introduced smooth-soled rock climbing shoes in the 1960s, they were naturally made with ankle-protecting high-tops, like all mountain-oriented footwear of the day. RRs, EBs, Boreal Fires – all the popular rock shoes up until the mid-1980s were high-tops. But as soon as gymnastic sport climbers traded foot jamming for tiptoeing in pockets, shoe manufacturers produced a crop of low-top rock shoes better suited to the “new” style. Low-tops ruled the 1990s and 2000s … until now.
If you haven’t heard, trad is rad again. And it’s back for good. Three shoe companies – Acopa, Five Ten, and La Sportiva – now offer modern, performance high-tops that might just change your attitude toward slabby dime edging and offwidth foot-torquing.
The late John Bachar himself designed the Acopa JB, a robust high-top with a simple, retro look that debuted in 2009. The JB is made on a straight, slip last designed for comfort and stiffness. Of the dozens of rock shoes on the market the JB, rivaled only by Acopa’s Legend, is the stiffest. From toe to heel the sole only flexes under tremendous pressure, offering a fatigue-reducing platform for all-day wear. The beefy toe box provides excellent protection in hand-sized and larger cracks, but the JB won’t fit into cracks smaller than thin-hand size. That said, sharp cracks and micro edges are no match for these babies. The JB sports soft and surprisingly sticky 4.2-mm RS rubber on its sole, and extra rubber on the toe, heel, and rand. A padded tongue and a canvas-lined upper all make for a comfy shoe designed to be worn for hours at a time. Bachar believed that even high-end rock shoes should be comfortable. In fact, he recommended wearing the JB the same size as one’s street shoes – the same way high-tops of the 1960s were worn.
New this year is the Grandstone, Five Ten’s only high-top. The forefoot is stiff, coated with rubber, and has a more chiseled toe than the JB. The narrow toe profile fits into all but the slimmest finger cracks. The Grandstone flexes generously under the arch and has a flat, asymmetric last, both of which allow it to conform to a climber’s foot. This adds sensitivity but subtracts support for all-day use. After attempting to free El Capitan’s Mescalito with Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson helped with R&D for the Grandstone, which is designed with El Cap free routes in mind. Naturally, this shoe excels at edging and cracks. The split-grained leather upper and canvas lining not only add comfort and durability, they ensure that the Grandstone won’t stretch much. Make sure they fit well out of the box because they’ll stretch less than half a size. The sole is 4.2-mm Stealth C4 rubber – probably the most popular rubber in America – an ideal blend of sticky and durable. Finally, the Grandstone retails for $129.95 – $25 less than the Acopa JB and $40 less than La Sportiva’s TC Pro.
The La Sportiva TC Pro, new in 2009, is widely considered the best shoe for granite climbing, period. It’s more of a ¾-top than a true high-top; the leather protects ankle bones but rides lower than both Acopa and Five Ten high-tops. The 4-mm Vibram XS Edge rubber is a new compound designed to stick to micro edges – and it works. The P3 midsole ensures a very stiff forefoot, while the toe-to-heel is of medium stiffness, in between the JB and Grandstone. The flat, asymmetric last and leather upper offer both precision and all-day comfort depending, of course, on how one sizes them. The only drawback (and a very minor one) is the tongue, whose edges tend to roll during foot entry. At $170 a pair the TC Pro is the most expensive rock shoe currently on the market, but I don’t know anyone who regrets paying the price.
High-top climbing shoes are making a comeback, and for good reason. They’re stiff, comfortable, and they protect ankle bones from being torn to shreds in fist cracks and offwidths. Three companies now offer similar but distinct models for trad climbing of all kinds. The most important factor is how a shoe fits your particular foot, so try each of them on and go with the model that fits you best.