But then we moved on to canvas shoes, at least you could feel the rock then!
Have you ever been told that you need a better pair of shoes? I’d be surprised to know that you haven’t. Regardless of it being your first time, you’re on the receiving end of unsolicited counselling being thrown at you repeatedly. You’re not sure if you want to politely disengage or if you should continue nodding your head while humoring Mr. know-it-all. I myself have had many such encounters and if you have too then you have my empathy. Nonetheless, I have now run out of patience and resigned to my own discretion. But wait! It wasn’t until some time ago when I isolated the truth from what I think is outright snobbery. And gathered that some suggestions do come from a space of experience and camaraderie, and therefore, are worth keeping.
Some of the first climbing shoes from the early 20th century had metal studs or hobnails attached to the soles. Rubber soles came much later. Tales from our own crags in Delhi have it that folks were climbing with PT shoes; the kind most of us grew up wearing in schools. These shoes were soft and rubbery on the sole.
“But then we moved on to canvas shoes, at least you could feel the rock then!,” says Mohit Oberoi in an article published in The Outdoor Journal. This was in the 80s and climbing was very much a rarity back then. For the most part, climbers had to make due with what they had.
However, we now have a wide variety of shoes that cater to different disciplines. If you’re looking to buy a pair, the type of climbing you’re into should help determine the choice of shoes. For example, if you’re a sport climber or a boulderer, you’d require a pair of unusually tighter shoes that you can quickly remove between climbs. Similarly, if you are into alpine climbing or trad, you’d go for shoes that are tight but comfortable enough to keep on for longer intervals. For more information on climbing and its sub-disciplines, read our last article on a guide to climbing and its sub-disciplines.
In the 17th edition of Adam Ondra’s Road to Tokyo, Adam discusses the alchemy of climbing shoes. You see the difference in sizes between his approach and climbing shoes. The climbing shoes are significantly smaller. If you’re a beginner, the thought of slipping your feet into shoes that small can be taxing, I agree! But for a beginner it’s equally important to understand the reasoning behind why climbing shoes are tight. The tighter the shoes the easier it will be for you to transfer your weight at a point. What this means is that you need to be able to support a lot of weight particularly on tiny footholds, often around the tip of your toes. You should ensure that the shoes you pick are compressed and avoid leaving any free-space so as not to cause malfunction or slip offs. Another thing to observe is to be wary of what’s causing discomfort vs what’s extremely painful. One way to distinguish discomfort from pain is that pain usually comes in the joints and bones whereas discomfort will be more skin related or pressure related. Ideally, I like to wear shoes that are tight enough to cause some discomfort but not pain.
Ondra further goes to explain a general difference between climbing shoes. The first difference lies in the stiffness of the shoe. Although any given shoe loses its stiffness over time, the distinction between a stiff and a soft shoe is not to be ignored. A soft shoe goes well on smooth and flat volumes. It provides you the surface area and friction needed for smearing on slabs whereas a stiff and an aggressive shoe is great for small footholds. The second difference, according to Ondra lies in shoes that are downturn and flat. With flat and stiff shoes, for example: the TC pro, it’s comfortable to wedge deeper into the cracks. The stiffness also allows for a good toe jam. On the other hand, a stiff and downturn shoes like the Katana Laces is great for small footholds and vertical climbs.
In the end, if you’re a beginner you can settle between 1 to 2 sizes smaller and spare yourself the pain that comes with going 3 to 4 sizes smaller to your normal street wear. As a fair warning, different brands approach shoe sizing differently so this is more a rule of thumb rather than a precise instruction!
All that said, here’s a list of good beginner/intermediate shoes you could choose from.
Simond Rock + (available at Decathlon)
Mad Rock Drifter (available at Adventure 18)
Decathlon Simond Edge (available at Decathlon)
Picture Credits: Abhijeet Singh
Climber: Lekha Rathinam