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Scarpa Phantom Lite
© Scarpa, Oct 2008
Of all the items of gear that people most hate buying boots has to be top of the list. The reasons are two fold- firstly you want a boot that does everything and secondly they aren't the cheapest thing to buy so you want to make sure you get it right. Throw in the fact that different manufacturers make their boots to fit different shaped feet and you can get into a real tangle of blisters and pain before you even get to the summit of whatever it is you are trying to climb.
Will Sim and Jon Griffith
© Jon Griffith
In the last few years boot manufacturers have been trying to offer all the warmth advantages of a plastic boots but with all the advantages of a comfortable light-weight non-plastic one. Essentially they are trying to offer the best of both worlds. I think the first one that caught my eye about 5 years ago was the Vasque Ice 9000 which was clever hybrid design boot that offered amazing warmth (I have never had cold feet in these) but with a more flexible feel to it. Brilliant as it was at the time things have moved on enormously and since then plastics have been superseded by a host of boots constructed of super flexible but heat insulating canvases. In my mind the field has been dominated by the offerings of Scarpa and La Sportiva who both offer some of the best boots in the world (again just my opinion here). At the end of the day what you really want is a super lightweight boot that is really comfortable for walk-ins but also warm enough so your toes don't freeze on winter belays....a tough challenge some might say!
For summer Alpine and winter Scottish use it really comes down to two choices, the La Sportiva Baturas and the Scarpa Phantom Lites. Both are very good boots but on test here are the Phantom Lites so I'll just deal with these for the moment. The Phantom range of boots comes in three different warmth categories: Lites, 4000, 8000. It is pretty self-explanatory really what each range covers.
Personally, I hate cold feet. So much so that I now just climb in my touring boots whatever the climb in the wintertime in the Alps. It's not just because I can ski in and ski out of a lot of climbs but to be honest I can stand for hours at a belay (not too uncommon) and whilst the rest of me is shivering and swearing under my breath at the leader ahead....my toes remain nice and toasty. Obviously in the summer it's a little different but I still tend to wear unnecessarily warm boots for the season so it was going to be interesting to put these to the test.
The first thing you'll notice about the Phantom Lites is the weight- or more to the point the lack of it. Weighing in at 2.1kg for a size 42 they are noticeably light when you pick them up. It seems that the new manufacturing ethos nowadays is that 'light is right' and whilst they aren't the lightest boot in the market Scarpa have certainly done well on this front. Another thing you will notice is that the boot itself is actually quite narrow and compact something I really appreciated when climbing this summer (more on that later).
Scarpa Phantom Lite Detail
© Scarpa, Oct 2008
The boot itself is a boot within an integrated gaiter- confusing? Well really it's a bit like having a boot with a Berghaus Yeti gaiter (remember those?) already built in. What this allows is for a very waterproof boot without it having to be plastic- all the normal weak points (i.e., the laces area) are covered up by a waterproof and breathable layer. Obviously the weak point on this system will be the zipper which closes the gaiter (see picture). However it has a clever plastic system which is self sealing over the top of the zipper- if you remember using a Stanley knife at school and going to town on those self-healing green mats then you'll know what I'm on about. Essentially the plastic is one of those magic plastics that just reseals together perfectly no matter how much abuse and sharp granite you can throw at it.
With the tried and tested Vibram sole, the Phantom Lite is a B3 boot meaning that it is in the stiffest category of boots. Essentially this means that it's for ice fall use and steep mixed. The disadvantage of a stiff boot is that it's less comfortable to walk in but it will save your calves from exploding when you get on the actual climb itself. However due to the construction of the boot I have to say that I don't find them at all uncomfortable to walk in. Ok a stiff sole means that it's not going to be very flexible but even walking around town on a rainy day (my old trainers just don't hack it any more) they are fine.
The boot's insulation is provided by a layer of Primaloft insulation which being synthetic keeps your feet warm even when wet. Boot warmth is such a subjective thing though that it's hard to give a good view on how warm these boots are. The rating on them goes down to minus 30 but I think I'd be walking around on stumps for the rest of my life if I found myself in those temps with these boots on. However I like to climb with a thin sock, others prefer the 3 socks method and as always it's just a case of how your body deals with the cold. I will say though that I only got cold toes once with these boots over the summer so they are definitely warm enough for Alpine summers. Personally I wouldn't wear them for alpine winters but know those who do (I climbed quite a bit with Gavin Pike last winter and whilst I was clunking my way up routes in ski boots he was stylishly cruising in his Phantom Lites). The outer waterproof layer (i.e., the gaiter) obviously helps retain heat too. I did find though that my boots were pretty damp after a day out- not due to them leaking but just from them retaining sweat. Now whilst this isn't a problem on single day climbs on multi-day trips it can be a bit of a pain as its impossible to dry them in your bivi bag as you cant remove the liners (obviously).
Just below the final summit seracs on the Gervasutti Couloir
© Jon Griffith
How they performed
The shape and sole of the boot really made for a good alpine rock climbing boot. I enjoyed using them on some of the easier rock climbs this summer and found them very responsive and precise even on tiny granite crystals. The grip and precision really showed through and I was impressed with my first outing on rock with them (Grands Montets ridge of the Verte).
As for ice and mixed climbing- well since I only received these over the summer I haven't used them too much on ice and mixed. My last climb in them though was the Perroux gully which is a varied mixed route up to M5 with some longer sections of ice (4). Not a desperately hard route but the boots felt great. They did lack the support that I have grown to love of a ski boot but on the mixed they were a dream. On the final ice pitch one of my picks decided to work its way loose meaning that I spent ages just getting up it, having to retighten the pick every few meters- I was getting worried that at this pace my calves were going to explode but was pleasantly surprised that they kept it together until the end (just!). It's also worth mentioning that the soles are asymmetric meaning that they will compliment the more technical crampons very well (e.g., the Rambos).
GSB Crampon Compatibility
It's also worth mentioning that the Phantom Lites incorporate the new Grivel GSB compatibility. GSB crampons are the new attachment system which just slot into the front of your boots and do without the faff of straps. It's meant to make for a more secure system and I can well believe it but I have yet to try it. This is what Grivel have to say about it though:
"The next generation of binding. The GSb™ (Grivel Scarpa binding) is a safer, easier and faster system to attach to the boot. It's safer because with the GSb™ ,there is nothing protruding to catch on rocks or in cracks resulting in the front bale detaching. It's easier because unlike traditional models, the GSb™ hook grip doesn't depend on the shape, or above all the wear of the boots' sole. It's faster than any other system – very useful if you have to continually put them on and off. It's more compact: limiting the space needed to stow away crampons."
Grivel G14 GSB
The overriding question though, as always, is who are these boots ideal for. Well in a nutshell they are ideal for climbers like me. In the summer I don't climb hard rock and prefer to stick to the long alpine classic routes and traverses- ie climbs that take me up high on terrain that never gets any harder than Alpine grade V rock. As an all round boot in these conditions they were fantastic. I like a rugged and sturdy boot too and I was impressed by how well the outside fabric has lasted- usually canvas boots get ripped apart by the Chamonix granite but they have yet to get a rip in the fabric. As for the ice and mixed they were as good as you can get from a non-plastic boot and whilst I wouldn't wear them for temperature reasons in the winter out here I can imagine that back in Scotland they would be ideal. With an RRP of £300 it's a heavy investment but then boots just cost alot of money and you get what you pay for- if you fit into the above category then I cant recommend these boots enough.
Phantom Lite GSB
ABOUT JON GRIFFITH:www.alpineexposures.com
Jon Griffith is an alpinist and photographer based in Chamonix, France.
Jon Griffith, UKClimbing.com gear tester and Editor Jack Geldard.
© Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com, Jul 2008
UKClimbing.com Articles by Jon Griffith
My first climbing days were back in Bristol where the Avon gorge provided countless trad limestone routes that were great fun to get into climbing. Having no climber friends I ended up 'teaching' myself how to lead climb and thankfully I managed to get through the first few months without falling which was great since most of my gear kept falling out anyway. That summer I bivied across the high route of the Pyrenees and come that winter I decided that I wanted to head out to the Alps and see what that was like. No surprises then that I ended up in Chamonix and was initiated into ice climbing down at the Crémerie.
From then on I took advantage of the huge university holidays and tried to spend a maximum amount of time out in the Alps. I spent my first few years out in Zermatt (thanks to my climbing partner at the time Brian Birtle who put me up countless times) getting more into the mixed and alpine element rather than just rock climbing Chamonix style stuff. I finished my 'time' out in Zermatt on a high point with the Lyskamm North Face and decided I was ready to move on and try Chamonix style rock routes. I finished university last summer and moved out to Chamonix where I am currently working in photography and film work.
It's hard to pick one specific type of climbing that I prefer over the others but I think my heart still lies with big mixed alpine routes that potentially involve a couple of nights bivying. I am still getting used to the whole Chamonix 'get back in time for the last lift' style- I still include bivying as a part of any decent mountaineering experience. I am also still getting used to crack climbing- it hurts.... a lot.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Jon Griffith, Alpine Exposures: