The “holy grail” of approach shoe design allows for optimum comfort, traction, and load stability on the approach, while still being technical and sticky enough to climb a moderate route once you get to the rock. Usually, if a shoe is built with a lot of comfort and load stability in mind, you lose out on climbabilty. On the flipside, a thin, sensitive approach shoe might climb well, but it may be uncomfortable and unsupportive for hefting heavy loads. In short, it’s hard to find the right balance that blends all the essential elements of a great approach shoe while not losing too much of any one component. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Enter the new La Sportiva Boulder X.
The Boulder X, La Sportiva’s latest approach shoe, builds upon the lessons learned from its older brother, the Cirque Pro. While the Cirque was a very capable climber, it lacked the cushioning and more aggressive tread offered up by the Boulder X (i.e., it leaned more towards being a climbing shoe than a supportive hiker). I never invested in the Cirques since I felt that the thin dot tread would wear down too quickly if used during every day life, like walking around town. And that’s where the Boulder X has come into its own in my book. While it’s a great approach shoe, and a fairly sensitive climber, it also has enough cushioning and tread to make it a shoe you want to throw on to take the dog for a walk, too. And for a climber on a budget like me, this is essential: I need an approach shoe that can still do it all—from climbing to walking to class on campus to day hiking. Like my boxer-briefs that I wear to the movies and also the crag (and everywhere else…most days), I expect to get crossover mileage from my shoes, too.
Until I got the Boulder Xs about a month ago, I figured the best “do everything” shoe was a pair of trail runners that I already used for jogging. They were (almost) rugged enough and comfortable enough to stand up to some abuse on rocky trails leading to the crag, but I could also wear them around town just fine. It had been so long since I owned a decent pair of approach shoes I forgot one essential ingredient in the approach shoe recipe—traction, especially on the rock (duh). I had gotten so used to running shoes that I forgot how nice it is to have sticky rubber. And the Boulder Xs are certainly sticky, using a solid Vibram tread. Stupid as it sounds, I actually had to re-learn how to walk on certain terrain in the Boulder Xs. No longer did I need to put all of my weight over the ball of my foot to keep my shoes from slipping on steep slopes or rocks. No longer did I need to slide on my butt to scoot down wet slabs. No longer did I need to totter on the edge of boulders as I hopped along a rock-strewn trail. In short, the Boulder Xs gave me confidence on the approach that had been sorely lacking in my trail running shoes. I’ve actually been wondering why I waited so long to get approach shoes again—they really do make that much of a difference when you’re doing even mild to moderate approaches. Another area where they’ve got the running shoes beat is durability; I destroyed my running shoes by using them for approach. The Boulder Xs are made of leather and climbing rubber, and designed to withstand the abnormal abuse us climbers throw at a pair of shoes. And besides all that, they are damn comfy to boot. I find myself wanting to wear them to class everyday lately now that they’re broken in.
But what about their climbing ability, you ask? I have not had the chance to take them on multi-pitch lines yet, but I can say I would feel confident wearing them on many local trad routes. I’ve bouldered V1s in them now, and if you take into account that grade equals around 5.10, you can see that the shoes are capable enough for easier lines. I would feel comfortable climbing long 5.7 routes in them, but stronger climbers may feel more confident in them on harder lines. Keep in mind, as I said, these shoes are walking that balance between hikers and climbers. That said, I was surprised by how well they edge and smear for having a pretty supportive and aggressive hiking tread. And their small profile toe allows them to edge on holds that I didn’t expect to stick. I think one of the best applications for these shoes is for doing long days in the mountains where you’re carrying a light pack and peak bagging. On those days, you want a pair of comfortable, lightweight shoes that can perform equally on the rock and the trail between the peaks. So if you’re heading to the Tetons or Sierras anytime soon, the Boulder Xs would be a good choice. But seeing as how I don’t live anywhere near peak baggin’ options, I’m still gonna be wearing mine out to the boulders, the crag, easy multi-pitching, and any time I’m headed out for a hike. These are very versatile shoes for boulders and traddies alike, and they’re a great all-around choice that will allow you to hike and climb and not feel like you’ve sacrificed too much to one end of the approach shoe spectrum.
Some of my Favorite Features:
These shoes are chock full of well-planned and well-engineered features that make them such nice shoes. Here are some of the best things about ‘em:
Rubber everywhere: The rand, sides, and heel of the Boulder Xs are covered in rubber for extra protection (for the shoe) and grip. I’d say there is probably some toe-to-heel slingshot stabilizing action gained from the full rubber treatment, too. But I ain’t no engineer, so that’s just a guess.
Debris collar: Where your ankle touches the shoe, there’s a nice padded liner that is comfortable and keeps junk from getting down in the shoe.
Small profile: This one’s dorky, but I’m gonna say it anyway. I’ve got pretty big feet for my frame and the low-profile cut of the Boulder Xs make my feet look nice and small for a change. This low profile also makes them a good choice for aid climbing.
Some things to consider when buying:
- Like many Sportiva shoes, the Boulder Xs are very narrow. They will stretch some, but if you’ve got a wide foot, try ‘em on for awhile and see how they feel. People with narrow feet, however, will love the fit. I’ve got a narrow foot and they feel like a pair of gloves.
- Buy them a bit on the tight side. I initially thought my pair was too tight, but once they broke in I was happy I got a tight fit that allows the big toe to get more power over the front of the shoe. Also, it fits more like a climbing shoe this way. But if you plan on using them mostly for hiking, and not for much climbing, get ‘em in your normal size.
- This is just a heads up: The shoes will leave smudges on your tile or linoleum floors. This is the tradeoff for having all that sticky rubber goodness. And since these are made to be outdoor shoes (that some of us choose to wear inside) it’s worth the tradeoff to me. I’d rather have sticky shoes that I have to take off when I get in the front door than weak climbing shoes that don’t smudge my floor.
If you’re like me you read gear reviews to confirm a decision you’ve most likely already made—you just want affirmation that you’re making a good choice. If that’s the case and you’re just about to order these shoes, I say go ahead and do it. For me, they offer the perfect blend of comfort, climbability, and good approach prowess. The Boulder Xs are a capable do-everything shoe that I can also feel good about wearing for activities other than climbing. Now if only Sportiva could start making boxer briefs with as much comfort and crossover prowess as the Boulder Xs, then I’d be in climbing hog heaven.
Hey Senor, these shoes are Buddy-dog approved!
Full disclosure: The shoes in this post were provided by La Sportiva for the purpose of this review.