I went to an art show the other weekend and had the pleasure of looking over some interesting art; however, I had a shocking realization as I walked the halls. With exception of that tiny piece of cardboard with a white square painted on it selling for $3000, I couldn’t distinguish between the “good stuff” (which clearly included the cardboard), and the “other” stuff which ordinary people like myself purchase. Was the cardboard made of gold, because I made stuff like that in Kindergarten and my mom threw it right out.
My point is that I did not (and never will really) understand the subtleties/differences in the world of Art. This got me thinking about Altitude-sports.com and the items we sell to you. What if people shopped on our site or entered our stores looking at items that made no sense to them? I was flabbergasted- I thought about some seriously complicated and/or confusing items: water purifiers that use ‘brine’, $1000 altimeters, cooking utensils (that was a joke). Unfortunately, attention spans are shorter than Tyrion Lannister, so I will choose one ambiguous product that really bugs me: approach shoes.
Are they just shoes with a buzz word in front of them or do they serve an actual purpose? Most importantly, what are they approaching? Initially I tried in vain to approach things, hoping I would find the answer to my question: Ice cream? Nope. Nirvana? Nope. A mid-life crisis? Nope. I was starting to feel down. I did what I always do when I’m feeling down and went for a walk in the woods, more specifically Montagne Verte north of Mont-Tremblant. And that’s when it hit me- they are made for approaching rock.
But why would I need a shoe to walk to a mountain which I will subsequently hike up, couldn’t I just use the same pair of shoes/boots? Good question. Approach shoes were actually made specifically for rock climbers- when they “rock climb” (ie: meaning vertical ascents) the mountain they slide-on their climbing shoes (which are often tiny, uncomfortable pain-palaces), but arriving at the base of a climb can often be miles into the bush or high up on a cliff. Thus a hybrid shoe capable of light hiking AND attacking scary, rocky approaches was created to minimize the time in real climbing shoes. To maximize utility these shoes have evolved with special features and construction techniques.
I have seen climbers ascend some hairy rock climbing routes in approach shoes, routes which could not be climbed in ordinary running shoes or light hikers. Why? It’s all in the construction. Have a serious look at the Salomon X-Over approach shoe before going on- how is it different from your hiking shoe?
First thing you might notice are the laces: they go way down to the toes. This isn’t an odd Baroque fashion statement but an ingenious way to be able to lock the entirety of the foot in the shoe. With the ability to strap the lower section of the foot tightly you can use more of the shoe (more specifically the toe region) to your advantage. This helps in areas such as jamming, and edging the shoe on small rock holds.
You will find that nice yellow Vibram logo under most approach shoes. You may know that this company solely makes rubber soles (pun 100% intended), but what may not know is that they make many different rubber compounds. For approach shoes in general they will use a much more grippy rubber that sticks better to wet and dry rock compared to a Vibram sole used to hike which will be designed more for longevity of life and less for its stickiness. Another difference will be the appearance of the sole: approach shoes will tend to have thinner lugs and may not necessarily be “aggressive” and sport huge lugs for mud. The thin lugs (sometimes in the shape of circles like octopus suction cups) is not made to handle mud, but for performing while smearing on steep rock. Essentially the more rubber touching the rock, the better for performance and grip.
Another tangible difference can be seen around the toes of approach shoes with the rubber toe rand. This rand protects the toebox of the shoe thus adding durability, but also adds another layer of grip to the shoe. Again a feature hikers may not utilize, but if you are climbing a vertical (and sometimes horrifyingly parallel) crack for instance you will wedge your foot in sideways and twist it to gain purchase. The rubber toe rand will be your saving grace.
My mom always said it’s what inside that counts- for once she is right. What you cannot see is the construction within the forefoot of the approach shoe. A good pair of approach shoes will have extra stiffness in this part of the shoe to help with edging and straight on toe holds. Try planting your running shoe on the edge of the street curb and you will notice an immediate bowing or lateral bending of the sole. This is due to a lack of stiffness, a feature not needed in running or walking shoes (sidewalks are flat). An approach shoe will keep its shape underfoot because of a stiff forefoot thus allowing you to maximize small rock features as you ascend the mountain/route.
That about sums up the approach shoe, but what does it mean to you? This shoe was invented for climbers, so should you ignore them if you aren’t climbing inclined? No. These shoes, with their stiff forefoot and superb grip make them ideal as dayhikers and general outdoor shoes. Anyone doing hour long walks in the park with their dog(s) to weekend adventures with a light load will enjoy the benefits of the approach shoe- especially in rocky or wet terrain! If you are looking for running shoes or something with a thin flexible sole then perhaps look elsewhere. Here at Altitude-Sports.com we have several options in the category: The North Face makes the Verto Approach as well as the Scend (a less serious model), Salomon makes the X-Over (a hybrid running/approach), Mammut the Redburn GTX, Aku the Rock Light and Scarpa makes the Crux. To help everyone wrap their brains around these shoes I have volunteered to do a review about my new Scarpa Crux. Get out there and try some of these bad boys and I bet you will fall in love with them.