In winter the choice of footwear is of prime importance to both climbers and walkers. Never before has there been such a huge range of boots to choose from - plastic boots, leather boots; boots made from breathable fabrics, single boots and double boots.
Boots with stiff soles, fully stiffened soles, comfort flex soles, plain old bendy boots - the list is almost endless. As with most things in the mountains there is rarely an ideal - more normally there is a compromise.
When you go to buy a new pair of boots keep 4 things in mind:
- What do I want to use them for?
- How often will I use them?
- How much do I want to pay?
- Can I afford to compromise?
I believe that there are three broad categories of ‘winter’ conditions:
Hillwalking where the odd patch of snow will be encountered (typically the Lakeland Fells in a lean winter)
Winter mountaineering, where you will be on snow for the greater part of the day (this would include the higher peaks in Scotland and alpine mountaineering involving glaciers etc)
Snow and ice climbing - ground of grade II and above.
It is always tempting when buying boots for categories 1&2 to compromise - to try to find a nice light, comfortable pair of boots which will be ideal in summer but will take a crampon in winter on the very occasional time that you encounter hard snow or ice. Whilst many manufacturers and retailers are happy to recommend such boots there are a few very important draw backs to this compromise.
When you walk on snow or ice without crampons you must use the edges of your boot soles to kick steps. This is one of the fundamental skills of the winter hillwalker and mountaineer. You may only kick three or four steps to cross a patch of old nevy before returning to snow free ground or you may be kicking a long line of steps up an easy angled snow slope to reach a col. In either case you are dependent on the stiffness of your boot to make this possible.
If the boot sole is bendy it is almost impossible to kick an effective step. Similarly if the boot soles are stiff but the uppers are very flexible it is very difficult to stay balanced in the steps without any support from the boot.
Now you may say “So, what’s the problem? Its easy - you stop and put on your crampons”. If you always stop and put on your crampons then indeed it is not a problem. However, most of us don’t - we don’t want to take the time (and the cold hands) required to put on crampons for 10m of snow. This is where the problem lies - bendy boots may be ok when used with crampons but they are hopeless on snow and ice without crampons
I would always recommend stiff soled boots with uppers which give lots of support to anyone contemplating winter or Alpine walking. Not only do they make life much easier when moving on snow without crampons but when the time comes to put your crampons on the extra support allows you to be much more comfortable and effective.
To test the stiffness of your boots try flexing them in your hands; if they are easy to bend and twist they will offer little support. If they only bend very slightly try putting the boots on and rocking onto your tip-toes. Boots which are stiff enough for kicking steps should only flex slightly under your weight. Remember, as the boots break-in they will flex more, and bigger sizes will flex more than smaller sizes. Your boots will only get softer with more use - they are at their stiffest when new.
For graded climbing in Scotland and the Alps there is really no substitute for fully stiffened leather or plastic boots. When deciding on the type of boot required you need to consider how much climbing you will do and at what grade.
Do you intend to climb harder routes in the future or are you operating at the upper level of your aspirations? In general terms plastic boots are more comfortable than leather boots - especially when they are new. However as they break in (mould to fit your feet, or sometimes the other way around!) good leather boots become surprisingly comfortable. Plastic boots have the advantage of being warmer than leather, but they are heavier, bulkier and less precise. For winter climbing up to about grade II/III, general mountaineering and the easier Alpine routes I prefer leather boots. For steep ice and more difficult winter or Alpine routes and where low temperature are likely my first choice would be plastic.
Whichever boots you decide to buy remember you get what you pay for. Always spend as much as you can afford on your boots they will last you a long time and will either enhance your time in the winter mountains - or make your life a misery!
Whichever type of boots you decide on you will need to match them to an appropriate pair of crampons. For general all-round use (winter ice, buttresses and Alpine) I use a 12 point articulated crampon. These provide an excellent climbing platform when fastened to fully stiffened boots and are also tolerant of boots with a slight degree of flex. For fully stiffened boots I choose clip on bindings and for boots with some flex I prefer traditional strap-on fastenings as these are less likely to work loose.
For the hardest climbs rigid, clip-on crampons give excellent performance - but at a price! Rigid crampons should never be used on anything but the stiffest boots. When combined with boots with even a small amount of flex stresses will build up within the crampons eventually leading to fractures of the crampon frame.
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