As we discussed in the GearTrends Summer Outdoor magazine, rock shoes are a hot topic of conversation in the climbing world these days. Unfortunately, the discussion is less about features and performance and more about the soap opera atmosphere and discounting.
Here's a brief rundown on next year's offerings from the major brands, as well as a few upstarts that caught our editors' eyes. Besides these, there are at least four other lines trying to make an inroad into the U.S. market. Our man in the aisles is sure glad that he no longer has to test all the rock shoes for an annual review -- there are just too many!
Boreal -- Front and center in the climbing aisles was the new incarnation of Boreal in the form of the Ralph Libonati Company. After the demise of its original U.S. distributor, which had focused almost entirely on rock shoes, the brand is emphasizing its extensive line of hiking and mountaineering boots. Which is not to say that rock shoes are being ignored, indeed a couple of new models will surely intrigue longtime fans. The Stingma and Shadow further refine the Integrated Rand System that Boreal pioneered several years ago and the ever-popular Laser received an upgrade. If the Libonati folks can overcome the obstacles of rebuilding dealer confidence, Internet market intrusions and the stigma of less-than-sticky rubber, Boreal can still be a force to be reckoned with.
SW Partners -- Not content to stay idle, Steve West and John Bachar -- the duo behind the previous Boreal distributor -- were back at the show testing the waters for a new line of rock shoes. Although they did not have a booth, a large black sample bag contained the fruits of Bachar's design efforts. While it is premature to discuss specifics, the new shoes indeed appear to offer innovative features and quality constructionâ€¦we'll have to wait and see if this bird flies.
Mad Rock -- Marking its second year in business and already claiming to be "the world's newly largest climbing shoe manufacturer," Mad Rock was hopping. Although X-static, the antimicrobial silver treatment, has been used in underwear and other products for several seasons, its true benefit (beyond marketing buzz) has been dubious at best. However, using X-static in the lining of rock shoes -- whose stench could be used as a weapon of mass destruction -- falls into the long-overdue, no-brainer category. Though only available in the three newest models, this is an idea that should spread. The rubber-ribbed mesh material used in the uppers of the new Loco could also prove a great innovation that fixes deficiencies in its sweaty Hookers -- if it holds up. Equally intriguing is the Fanatic, a stylish approach shoe that appears to have true climbing functionality (unlike some pretenders). Perhaps the most unusual new product is called The Finger, basically sticky rubber condoms for fingertips that will be the source of endless climbing jokes; available in two sizes, but of course all men will buy large.
La Sportiva -- Marking this family-owned company's 75th anniversary gave the afternoon parties an extra air of frivolity; a handsome commemorative book was a sought-after giveaway. Although reluctant to discuss where its three new price-point rock shoes originate ("not China but somewhere in Asia"), the Italian brand continues to make its high-end products at home. The new Venom slipper will certainly not give up an edge to competitors; this looks to be a winner. And the Rock Jock is poised to be the trad shoe of choice when comfort is a factor.
Five Ten -- Still a dominating force, these U.S.-made shoes are the standard against which others are judged. Although the Zlipper has gone away, the new Anasazi Slipper will please the many fans of the Anasazi Velcro and Lace-up who want more performance than a Moccasym without the price of the V10, all of which remain in the line. Taking the concept even further, the women's Prima is a slipper that barely seems to encase the foot yet claims to enhance performance. The new Escalante is a spin-off of the popular Ascent that is designed for better crack climbing. Three new models of high-end hiking shoes also make a debut -- the Velcroed Fontainebleau is striking -- and the Access trail running shoe will be available with XCR for wet conditions.
Scarpa -- Staying above the price wars and focusing on quality and performance has long been the mantra for this Black Diamond distributed brand. However, the pricing of several existing models will drop considerably next season (between $18 and $40 on shoes that retailed in the $115 to $143 range). For next season, it's added a lady's version of the Eclipse though the price goes up by $9; this is its second women's rock shoe. All new is the high-end Vision that is supposed to offer superb performance without the toe-crunching camber usually found in this category.
Montrail -- At long last, the much-anticipated new rock shoe line made its appearance. While fairly conventional in design and the least flashy line around, the innovative use of materials and attention to detail should intrigue many climbers. Of course, the well-recognized name, good support and higher margins should intrigue retailers. Don't be surprised if the Zealot or Smoothy wins an editor's choice or two next year; even though everyone in the industry knows these awards carry little weight or credibility, consumers still believe they mean something. No less important was the rounding out of the alpine climbing boot line with two new lighter models -- the Lotus GTX is particularly striking -- and a general mountaineering crampon, all of which use Montrail's innovative ICE design. Another factor that may give the Montrail shoes and boots an edge in specialty shops is a very aggressive employee purchase program (over 25 percent off wholesale), which certainly makes a difference on the sales floor.
Red Chili -- While Red Chili has been making good rock shoes for years now, it's the company's recent ad campaign generating all the attention. Proving once again that sex sells, or at least creates controversy, the four-part "Move" ads -- slinky seductress seduces stud to steal shoes -- are humorous to some and offensive to others (read: they work). Oh yeah, and the new shoes are nice too; the X-cube replaces the Dos Equis as a performance Velcro slipper and the new Tornado is better described as a hybrid rock/approach shoe since it doesn't fall neatly into either category.
Mammut -- While better known for ropes and performance clothing, this brand remains a contender with a solid line of nicely built shoes. Four of the current models will be replaced by an equal number that are all based on the same last; two of these are targeted at women.
Evolv -- Less than a year old and making its first OR appearance, this SoCal company has a surprisingly well-fleshed line of rock shoes. With eight models of men's, two models of women's (that don't look like a repackaged men's model), and two models of approach shoes, all of which are made in the United States, it's an ambitious start. Needless to say, it's entering into a tough battle with the odds stacked against it. But Evolv's commitment to service, which includes a delam guarantee and customized shoes, may win some shops over.