a tight conversation

First off, I can’t say enough how amazing it is to be surrounded by such an incredible community of like minded people, I love reading all the amazing comments and emails coming in. It’s inspiring for me and I’m learning so much more about climbing and life in general by interacting with everyone. Sometimes throwing out ideas and opinions leaves us wide open for judgement and assault, but it’s a risk we take, if we say nothing at all, we don’t get any feedback and we don’t learn or grow, or at least not as fast. So, thanks for all the feedback, please keep it coming, both the good and the bad, because really…it’s all good.

For many of you who visit this site regularly, you’ll know that we talk a fair bit about training and training for climbing. It’s all about the fingers, the fingers, the fingers, and of course, blood flow, opposition training, back and shoulders, biceps, diet and core. Not to mention the enormous muscle of the mind, but what about the feet? We hardly ever talk about the feet or shoes and the role they play.

Last week, I was out climbing with some friends and was heading up a classic 5.11a, when along came Robyn Barley, a retired MD who spends much of his time, scrubbing, cleaning, bolting and trying to maintain a climbers paradise. He bellowed up to me, “Sonnie, is that you up there? You know – that line to the left is a project eh? A few fellows have done all the moves, but nobody could do both cruxes, and certainly never link them. You should give it the once over.”

On my way down, I did just that.

To cut to the chase, the climb is going to be brilliant, a pure slab of about (pronounced aboot) four bolts, 35 feet of praying before gaining a bomber finger crack and eventually the summit. Very little finger strength is required, (except for the mono crimp at the end) so it should weigh in around 5.12d or 13a -ish. It’s one of the hardest slabs I’ve been on and very cool. So, when deciding what footwear to choose, naturally, I pulled on my beautiful new Anasazi Lace Ups.

These beaming beauties of white, black and gold (used to be pink, but now have a better heel and fresh new look) have gotten me to the top of many a desperate climb, in fact, I owe them all of my hardest climbs to date, I am nothing without my lace-ups. Nothing I say.

Here’s a picture of me doing the second ascent of ‘THE BLEEDING’ 5.14a, Mill Creek, Utah. One of the best routes of the grade in the whole country. I always wondered why it took ten years for a repeat. Noah Bigwood was (and still) is ahead of the curve. Anyway, we all know there are more climbs and climbers out there who owe a great deal of gratitude for these ‘top of the line’ performance enhancers, certainly I’m not the only one. But on this climb, on this day, they did nothing. As tight as they were.

I push, I slip.

I edge, I pop.

I grind, I skid.

I smear, I smudge.

The same result ensued, me hanging on the rope like a wet noodle feeling as though I just wimped out from my first 5.6. I wanted down. I was defeated. I had no self confidence left and in a spat of emotion I even blamed it on the climb. “I hate this thing” I muttered and spat into the dirt for effect.

On my second “once over” I pulled on my dirty old Mocs. You know the ones, they’re stretched, rounded and chewed up a bit, you keep them at the bottom of your pack, “just in case” and sometimes they’ve got a piece of duct tape on the toe. Yah, you know. They’re PERFECT for climbing dozens of 5.9 cracks on the Apron. But 5.12+ ? Not likely.

But before I could analyze the situ, I was halfway up the wall and reaching for a stance.  I eventually fell, got back on and linked it to the top. ” What the f__k”.   My big toe felt tired but strong.  What was it about the mocs that made me get so far? I won’t lie, I felt as though I was coming off on every single move, every insecure rock over, every crystal and bullet hole.  But somehow I didn’t (not until I flubbed the seq anyway). I linked my way to the top and was ready for the sharp end, but night fell on us and I’d have to return another day. With my mocs in the TOP of my bag this time.

Now, 9 of 10 roses, I would want my Lace Ups for a hard redpoint, (especially when there is a ground fall potential, I.E. this route) but here, it’s the mocs that will carry me to the anchor. Has anyone else had this realization before?  I mean ON their hardest of hard slabs?

It seems that sloppy shoes will work better because they provide that little bit of extra contact. The lace ups provide us with unrivaled support, but the mocs give us subtle sensitivity. Which do you prefer? I discovered here that while steep climbing is the study of sport physiology, fitness and endurance, slab climbing is the study of science friction, geometry and often times, blind faith.

Thanks for reading, as always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this… Is the era for tight shoes coming to an end?  Or is our sport just getting so specialized we need a bigger quiver?

  • J V

    No, not shoes – you’re thinking more an onset of hard-slab routes era.

  • Grant

    I definetly agree that a so called sloppy shoe does the trick on alot of slab routes. Obviously that depends on the type of slab. Some slabs require extreme edging and crimping to eek our way up while the route you speek of seems more smeary. I’ve been amazed on the rare occasion when i pull out a old pair of down toed slipper(sthat arent downtoed anymore) and sent super balancy slabs. I always remember when i was living on the road and thought i was as strong as ever, going to j tree and getting spanked by some fat old guys. They couldnt crimp or pull for the life of them yet they “blindly” trusted there feet and could walk up any 12 slab. Oh yeah and just a note. A brand new pair of mocs right out of the box makes hard slightly overhanging climbing like Smith a cake walk. The feeling only lasts about 4 routes but damn feet that felt bad before all of a sudden feel big. Cheers Grant

  • Felix

    Hi Sonnie.

    I can absolutely confirm, that “the worn out ones” can get you up a slab a tad easier _sometimes_. I use my Anasazi Velcros all the time when on crimpy not too steep routes. But since they have been resoled two times they got stiffer and stiffer and I now have a 5mm Onyx sole on it (original is something like 3.X). So basically this rigidity can stop you from being the smooth operator you intend to be when slapping a slab.

    Anyway, in your case (as you pointed out by the 9 of 10 rating), I would _never_ drop the lace ups – except for a new pair maybe 😉

    This summer I want to go to Switzerland and do some granit slab classics (with like 3 bolts on 150 ft of climbing) so afterwards I will let you know about the outcome – in case I will not scare myself to death 😉

  • A

    Hey there,

    Once again very relevant discussion i reckon. My experience of worn out shoes on slabs is limited to bouldering. But i did find that in Fontainebleau, my good old pair of Cobras (slippers, so when i say good old i mean proper worn/stretched out [and i can relate to that tape on the big toe thing too]) are much more efficient on the nasty slabs than any hardcore-edging-bad-ass-steep-climbing lace up/velcro shoe i have ever owned.
    Now dont get me wrong, my hardest slab is most certainly your warm-up-on-which-you-get-bored, but still, in case of slabs i break into those emergency bottom-of-the-bag shoes and they take me there. So i second you on that Sonnie, hurray for the dirty old mocs (plus i feel like i’m saving the environnement somehow ;).

    To Grant: again in Fontainebleau, but getting your ass kicked by old fat guys with no muscles left is another thing i can relate to, where is good technic gone in an age where anything non-overhanging is usually discarded as sissy climbing? (not by me though, yet i think i’ve been influenced by the likes of Urban Climber Mag, doesnt steep climbing make you look so cool?)

  • I can definitely relate to this. My beaten up, thread bare, rubber bare Anasazi Velcro’s are far superior on slabs than my stiff-as-a-board, straight out the box Evolv Optimus Primes. It’s all about the surface area I reckon, especially when you’re on marginal holds – you need to really feel whats under your feet.

    As a side note though, those Anasazi Lace-ups are beautiful. I would love a pair of those, but I don’t think they go up to my size sadly. I definitely have a bit of a climbing shoe obession…


  • it seems that the more globular the hold, the greater the advantage of softer shoes. for me, this has held true on lines of all angles, but especially on steeps. instead of just sitting atop a curved feature and pulling with friction, soft shoes allow your foot to conform to and kinda envelop the feature like your hand around a softball, which maximizes contact area and obviously creates a bit more postiveness on the far side of the feature. for crystaline rock, soft shoes seem to let each individual crystal bite into the sole rather than just focusing your power at the tip of your toe.

    in my personal experience, i’ve actually really liked using comfortably-fit downturned shoes on slabs when they are soft. for you, this could mean a pair of jet 7s… for me it’s been cobras and even well broken-in testarossas. see, the one drawback to super soft shoes on slabs is calf pump, which sounds ridiculous until it happens. the softness of the forefoot of one of these shoes will help for smearing, but the rand/rubber system that holds the downturn shape seems to give it a bit more backbone than a totally limp shoe like your moc, venom, or even a vision v. with super soft shoes without much downturn you definitely lose power to really extend off of the soft shoes… they tend to be best on foot holds positioned so that your leg remains a bit bent through a move… the downturned soft ones seem to let you push through a move to maximum extension much better without the dreaded foot pop right at the end.

    of course, this is just opinion talking, but since i have little power and bumbling technique, i’ve had to focus on the details and maximize ‘cheat’ tactics. i often carry three different pairs of shoes, even to backcountry death approach areas… and those pairs were carefully selected the night before based on their model and how much they are broken in. i hardly ever climb with the same two shoes on my feet anymore for anything but warmups.

    if you spend a while working the route, you should get a feel for what models of shoes work best for certain crux moves. perhaps you can sort out the special blend to give a bit more edge?

    on the flip side, when i pull out my quiver of shoes to try my day’s project, i usually still get burned off by a friend wearing some old blown out pair of discontinued hand-me-downs, so maybe you should just use the oldest, most funky smelling pair and dominate. over-analysis is just for desk jockeys, fool!

  • Ben

    Ironic you posted this, I’m also an Anasazi man, however my babies are the sweet baby blue Anasazi Slippers. I’ve climbed in them for years, and when they were discontinued this past year, a part of me died. I’m now on my last pair and when they go I’ll definitely shed a tear. However I did purchase a pair of Jet 7s and am enjoying them emensley especially on the steep, and am looking forward to the ever soft Projects that are soon to be released!

    Back to the point of Irony, two weekends ago I was out with some friends at Horse Pens 40 (my local crag) and if you’ve ever been to HP40, you know that 95% of all feet are big smears on great sandstone. I was taking a rest day but got psyched to try this traverse that most likely had never been done, due to the lack of “classicness” to the climb. I didn’t have any shoes so I threw my buddies old Mocs on and sent the rig in 2 goes! Long story short I’ve never felt something smear so wonderfully, I’ve been looking for a used pair to buy ever since!

  • Dru

    Even a brand new right out of the box pair of Moccasyms, or any other flexible slippers will climb slab better than the Anasazis, which are stiff edging shoes that basically won’t smear worth a damn in my experience unless you beat them with a hammer to break down the midsole…

  • Sonnie

    Great comments, I love the stories. I think there is a big difference between analyzing and over-analyzing, grin, but either way, it’s all got something to do with anal. That’s weird. Dru, you’re absolutely right, but sometimes a good supportive edge with ankle support can get us through a move that a smear can’t, so it’s interesting to know when and where they’re effective, I’m still learning myself. Maybe there should be a separate slab scale, S1 – S3 depending on what shoes we sport, ha ha ha. Ben, just get yourself a new pair through Five Ten and work them in to fit your foot, may take 2-6 months, but before you know it, you’ll be running laps on that traverse with a blindfold, and you’ll be a moc fan for life. I promise. Felix, good luck in Swiss land, bring back some pictures of those granite slabs and some blond yodeling women and I’ll post them here, oh and some choc too. I’m sure each route has a good story behind them. Cheers.

  • Adam

    I’ve definitely reached for my Mocs on more than 1 slab route, but man, those Lace Ups SHINE on a hard, steep redpoint!

  • Suzanne

    Talking of injuries and noises that loudly go Crack! or Pop!
    How long before you climb after an MCL tear? Gave myself one skiing race style down Cypress last week avoiding colliding with someone who shot across my path ahead.. Physio is working well, but how long have people taken to heal before going climbing again?

  • Emma

    Absolutely, Sonnie. Old shoes are the best shoes. Unfortunately, mine really don’t have any rubber on the toes, so I’m gonna get them resoled. I’ve been saying that for months, and I still wear them. Comfort blanket i think.

    Hope you’re well

  • Gianluca

    Myself I’ve always considered myself a slab amateur, and I love the shoe puzzle 🙂

    I’ve been always towards softer or mid/stiffness shoes (eg testarossas, katanas, new scarpa’s, the new velcro miuras…), to me the difference is between the supertight number (edgier) and a half size more (smearier).

    my impression has always been that the smearier shoe is “easier” and definiterly a better choice if you don’t want to spend too much time working a route or boulder problem. If I am trying an onsight, I go for the smeariest shoe of my quiver most of the times.

    But, at the same time, expecially this autumn when trying some short slab boulders around 7a/7b in bleau, I came to the conclusion that the stiffer/tighter/more precise shoe still does 99% of the times a better job at my limit. Once the shoe is there and it is already holding my weight, I can push harder and reach that inch further away before the sole slips off.
    For me, this makes the difference between touching a small crimp and coming off, and crimping it, holding my breath and stepping on the next foothold.

    Many many tries, many falls, many shoe changes, and the sends all came with the tight pair…

    The big drawback is that the initial foot placement is much more demanding and crucial. turning or twisting my foot a few grades makes a huge difference, whereas the smeariest shoe has definitely a much broader “sweetspot”.

    so…the conclusion can be that you can do much harder slabs than that, if only you are willing to put a huge amount of time and worn out rubber in them? 😀

  • Yeah Sonnie! Ode to the mocs! Finally!

    Sorry, I haven’t checked the blog for a bit, and I didn’t really read the others comments, but after I read this post I had to give props. People always say, it’s not the board, it’s the surfer. Or, a bad craftsman blames his tools. Obviously there is some truth to that because Chris Sharma could probably climb Realization in an old pair of EBs, and Kelly Slater could probably surf macking pipe on a wooden plank (balsa wood, of course), but at the same time, good tools can make the job a lot easier.

    You can climb ANYTHING in a pair of mocs! When they are brand new, they edge like a mother effer, and you can climb long techy faces, and after they break in(which takes about 3 sessions) you can climb short, smearacle slabs and monkey paw your way up anything! Case in point: I’ve done the two hardest slabs I’ve ever done in Mocs. Kumba in camp 4, and the begging of Dream Catcher to the rail. Well, I think the Dream Catcher slab was a little easier in a brand new pair of galileos, and I didn’t have any other non-downturned shoes when I went to kumba, but still! All three times I’ve done Iron Resolution in J-tree, which is very overhung, I used the trusty mocs. Anyway, mocs rule, nuff said!

  • roundhead

    i belayed tom gilje for god knows how many hours as he bolted “the bleeding” from the ground up. his ethic was a driving force in the development of mill creek canyon. noah bigwood is indeed a fine climber, but “the bleeding” is not his route. kudos for repeating it.