La Sportiva Boulder X Review

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:

Lacing: The laces go down almost to the toes for a tight fit, just like lace-up climbing shoes. Also, the laces run around the back of the shoe at the ankle, so when you tighten the laces, the collar of the shoe tightens for a snug, supportive fit. This feature takes a while to break in, in my experience. Also, the laces are nicely protected by leather covers so they won’t wear down if you stuff the shoe in a lot of cracks. (One note about the laces though. Like most outdoor shoe models these days, the Boulder X has round laces. These are nice looking, but I find they come loose a lot. Be sure to double knot yer bizness before heading out.)

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.

Toe edge: When ya look at the tread of the shoe, there’s a large piece of uninterrupted rubber just under the big toe that extends to the pinky toe, which is great for edging. This is something that normal hiking shoes just don’t offer.

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.

Final thoughts

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!

-Matt Paden

Full disclosure: The shoes in this post were provided by La Sportiva for the purpose of this review.


Do Tall Climbers Have the Advantage?

This photo reminds me of the story of David and Goliath (photo from Ukclimbing.com).

Chatting with one of my taller climber buddies recently, we both hit on a shared nerve: short climbers complaining about, or using as an excuse, their lack of height and reach. Admittedly, some rocks favor a taller person with more reach. However, what doesn't often get noticed or said is that other rocks favor a shorter person, with less reach. And what never gets acknowledged is the shorter person's most important advantage: lower weight.

Take a look at the photo above. It's from this year's Arco Rockmaster, in Arco, Italy, an annual gathering of thebest competition climbers in the world.

See the guy on the right? That's Ramon Julian Puigblanque. You'll notice right off that Ramon Julian is short, really short. The difference is so striking in the photo it's enough to make you laugh. Ramon Julian clocks in at a whopping 5 feet, 2.5 inches tall.

Yet his dominance of the competitive circuit this year is enough to conjure images of David versus Goliath. He has absolutely dominated world competition climbing in 2010, and pretty much done the same outside as well. On the sport cliffs of Spain, for example, he's climbed and on-sighted a fat pile of routes from 5.13b to 5.15a.

Ramon Julian's two closest competitors, Paxti Usobiaga and Adam Ondra, are six inches to nearly one foot taller than he is. So how does he do it? How can he be so damn good, and yet so damn short? My answer? Weight, and secondarily, technique. Ramon Julian is exceptionally light, and he simply makes up for any lack of reach with perfect technique and total comfort in moving dynamically between holds, all of which leverages his low weight ideally against the challenge of climbing, reachy or not.

A recent live broadcast of the European Championships highlighted Ramon's skills really well. As the commentator himself confirmed, the route setting favored a climber with longer reach. Watching Ramon negotiate the route's sequences, it was obvious he was maintaining extra tension and stretching to his maximum between holds. Yet he somehow controlled the route, shaking and resting in the steep final roof, only narrowly missing the finishing jug. Paxti surprisingly only made it perhaps a third of the way up the route, stymied by the technical bottom half. And though Adam Ondra made it a good bit further, he still failed to come close to Ramon's highpoint, pumping out in the roof a number of moves from the top. Ramon's dominance was self-evident.

Next time you're stretching desperately to that just-out-of-reach hold, think of little Lynn Hill freeclimbing the Nose, and of 5' 2" Ramon crushing his 6' tall competitors. Theses inspiring climbers are using what they've got, shaking their money-makers, and getting to the top.

Zachary Lesch-Huie


Deep Water Soloing Climbing Comp

This may be the most promising climbing competition format ever. It's kind of like competitive sport climbing meets--I hate to say it--American Gladiators. Oh well, it looks like quite the successful spectacle. Hosted in downtown Barcelona, apparently thousands of people watched the event.




ASU Core Premiere Promo #2

From the mind of filmmaker Matt de Camara:



Local Spotlight, Misty Mountain Threadworks, Part 1

Midterms are finally over, thank gawd, and fall break has begun. Aside from hopefully catching up on sleep, cleaning, and climbing, I've finally got some time to also catch up on the posts I've been putting to the side while studying for Neuroanatomy (ugh--if you ever need to know where your hypothalamus or inferior peduncle is, I'm yer guy). Anyway, I went out to Misty Mountain Threadwork's factory about 2 weeks ago and got a tour of the place from Mike Grimm and heard about how the company got started. So finally, better late than never, here's the post on my visit!

-Matt P.

In a time when even once-small outdoor gear manufacturers are going the route of overseas production and large company mergers, it's nice to know that there's still a local company, helmed by committed climbers, creating climbing gear made right here in the state. For anyone who doesn't know, Misty Mountain Threadworks makes all kinds of sewn goods for climbing--harnesses, crash pads, chalk bags, chalk pots, runners, gear slings--the list goes on. And they've been doing it here in the high country for almost 30 years. The company has gone through some changes in ownership and location during that time, but it's always remained committed to making great climbing gear. In this first part of a two-part series, I'll do a short tour of the factory and share the history of the company. In the next post, we'll see how a Misty harness gets made, which is actually pretty cool, especially if you're as much of a gear dork as I am. Think about it: harnesses save our butts all the time, but we rarely think twice about what goes into making them.

The Factory

Driving out to Misty is an experience in and of itself, and it gives some insight into how the owners are committed to working in an environment suited to outdoorsy-types. You turn off a winding paved road onto a dirt road, which then crosses a suspect-looking bridge that leans a bit to one side. (Look for the sign here that says “Trucks Use Ford Please”—as in, please drive over the river if you’ve got a heavy truck.) Once over the bridge (which I drove over), you continue down the dirt road along the riverside until you get to the Misty production facility—a wood-sided 3-story factory set back in the woods. If you’re a climber, or someone who loves the outdoors, this is exactly the kind of office you’d want to commute to—it’s a far cry from and industrial factory in a sterile office park. Going up to the front door, I was greeted by two dogs lounging on the porch in the sun. I was then met at the door by Goose Kearse, part owner of Misty, who warmly welcomed me in as his dog hopped in his lap.

The Misty Factory, just outside of Boone and down a beautiful dirt road in the woods.

The bridge on the way to the Misty factory.

A quick run down of the factory goes like this: Just inside the front door is the stockroom where all the shipping and receiving takes place, and where Goose handles a lot of the day-to-day business stuff. This is a fun room if you’re a gear junkie. Tons of packaged harnesses, chalk bags, slings, and more adorn the bins and walls here. For a climber, it’s a bit like the Christmas morning you’ve never had but always wanted. Also on this floor is Mike Grimm’s (the other co-owner) testing room, where he uses some heavy-duty machines to break all kinds of webbing, test new harness designs, stitching patterns, and things of that ilk. In my mind, this room is kind of like a cross between a mad scientist’s lab and a place where the kid in each of us can enjoy breaking things all to hell—only here it’s with a really specific purpose and done very methodically.

Finished sewn products, ready to be shipped out from the ground floor of the factory.

Goose Kearse working at his computer, surrounded by bins of Misty stuff being sent out.

Another pic of the stockroom, where Goose works, and which is just inside the front door of the factory.

Going up a short flight of stairs brings you to the cutting room where all of the fabrics are stored on huge rolls (with lots of new colors added to this year’s lineup). Here, lots of dies, along with some hand-cutting, are used to create the shapes of harnesses and packs that will be sewn together upstairs in the sewing room. I won’t spend too much time on this room as it’ll be covered more in the next post on making a harness.

Co-owner Mike Grimm and employee Erich Purpur in the cutting room. All the fabric on rolls behind them are new color options for harnesses, packs, and pads. You could order a pink/cammo pad if that's your bag.

On the third floor are two large sewing rooms where everything from the cutting room comes together. There are all kinds of industrial strength sewing machines here, run by some very experienced local sewers. On the day I visited, three women were working on sewing harnesses. One of them, Anita, has been working at Misty for 12 years. In this room, the different sewing machines have specific uses, from sewing the heavy-duty stitching needed on runners and harness donuts to the finer stitching needed on harness details. The third floor is also where a lot of the harness buckles, crash pad buckles, and other non-fabric materials that go into climbing gear are stored.

One of the two 3rd floor sewing rooms.

The second sewing room on the 3rd floor. 

Ladies of Misty Mountain: Anita (right) and her daughter, Hannah. Anita has been sewing at Misty for 12 years.

Bins of harness parts in the sewing room waiting to be sewn together.

A box full of Misty labels.

One thing I liked a lot about the Misty factory is that it feels like it is run by people who care about climbing. (Even the “new” Misty logo was designed by a local climber, Jim Horton, of Triple Crown fame.) All of the walls are covered with old and new posters of climbers from all over the world. If you want to see some classic 90s climbing outfits, the posters at Misty will fit the bill. There are also some pretty killer hand-drawn topos of local bouldering areas made by Joey Henson on the walls. I could stand and look at those things for a half hour alone. In short, Misty is a place where climbing itself seems important, and not just a product being pushed out to the marketplace.

 One of Joey Henson's super detailed hand drawn topos. There are 3 of them on the wall at Misty. (This one was made before Howard's Knob was closed to climbers.)

The old Misty Mountain logo, which was hand drawn by one of Woody's friends.

The History

Misty got its start in the early 80s. It’s hard to believe sometimes that just 30 years ago, climbing harnesses were not easily available commercially. This just blows my mind when I think about other sports that have also been around for many decades, like tennis. Sure, racquet technology has changed since the old days, but you didn’t have to make your own raquet in the 70s! It’s a reminder that although the history of climbing seems long, this current age of hard sending, cragging, and bouldering, all with super-engineered products, is still relatively young. Mike Grimm can tell you about climbing in Western NC before chalk was even being used—and this was the 80s! All that aside, there was an opportunity for someone to start making and selling harnesses. Enter Woody Keen, who at the time was working for Outward Bound (OB) at Table Rock. Back then, OB didn’t have real harnesses, so Woody invented the now famous Fudge harness (which is a simple harness made of webbing and buckles that fits almost anyone) and began selling them to OB. Woody worked out of his house in a neighborhood called Misty Mountain—and thus the name for the company was born.

A newer version of the classic Misty Fudge Harness. 

Some of the early recreational climbing harnesses made by Misty. Note the lack of a donut or leg loops (which could be attached, though). Mike Grimm says it was the style to climb at some areas in WNC with no leg loops.

An early label on a harness.

In high school, Woody had worked at an outdoor store in Charlotte called Allanby’s that sewed its own packs, and he learned how to sew outdoor gear there. After leaving Allanby’s, he bought his own sewing machine and kept making gear. Later, as his harness business began to grow beyond just the fudge harness and into more recreational harnesses as well, Woody left Outward Bound and moved Misty to a space behind the old Footsloggers store, which is now the Town Tavern. According to Mike Grimm, you can still see some climbing holds the Misty guys attached to the wall behind the building. After awhile, Misty moved to a business park located near the new Wal-Mart.

In 1986 Woody Keen sold half his business to a friend , Burton Moomaw, who had been working at Misty for about a year. (Quick side note: I learned how to trad climb from Burton when he was a guide at Table Rock in the 90s. He now owns an acupuncture place in downtown Boone.) Later, Burton sold his half of Misty to Mark "Goose" Kearse, who was an old high school friend of Woody's.

Mike Grimm sewing a harness in '86. That's Burton Moomaw in the background. Mike's got some other great pics from the 80s in a slideshow at fullmantlepress.com

Mike Grimm started working for the company in 1986 and continued to work there on and off for a decade. By the mid-90s, sport climbing was taking the climbing world by storm, and Woody Keen, a staunch traditionalist, was getting burned out on what climbing was becoming and started to lose interest in the sport. So in 1996, he sold his half of Misty to Mike Grimm, who is still co-owner today with Goose. Misty moved into the current factory in 1990, renting the space from Watauga Laminates, who made some of the first whitewater playboats in the 80s. Eventually, Mike and Goose bought the building in 1996.

For years, Misty's main core business has been harnesses, and it still is today. But when bouldering began blowing up in the mid-90s, Misty made some of the best pads on the market with the Highlander and later the super-sized Magnum. Remember that bridge from earlier in the post? Since the trucks delivering all that boulder pad foam to Misty couldn’t get across the bridge, the Misty crew would have to meet them at the river and transport all of that foam back to the factory themselves. That’s being committed to the product! These days, Mike has also started experimenting with climbing packs, so the Misty product line continues to refine and evolve.

The Misty Traverse climbing pack.

So that’s the quick tour of the factory and history of Misty. If you meet Mike at the crag, he can tell you tons more stories about his years in the business and the climbing community, like the first time he ever used chalk in the 80s. But my personal favorite story so far: the employee who gave his 2-weeks notice the first day on the job (and yes, it was a climber). Next up, Local Spotlight on Misty, part II: How a Harness is Made.

A final quick side note: Misty just launched a new website last week, so check it out here.


Kornylak Beta Film: HP40

Andrew Kornylak just busted out the next Triple Crown Beta Series video. As usual, the quality of this Kornylak film is outstanding. The problems shown look really good too. I've never been on the second problem shown, Short Long V7, but the steep moves look like wicked fun. The first problem featured, Honky Tonkin V4, is among my favorites at Horse Pens. It's a blunt arete, with ideal movement and rock quality. It's a problem you shouldn't miss (though you could say that about so many problems at HP40).



Promo #1 for CORE showing in Boone