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Steve Long compares the suitability of three popular pairs of boots for Alpine walks and scrambles: the Scarpa Cristallo, La Sportiva Trango Alp and Boreal Triglav.
It's hard to be objective about the comfort of any footwear, because there are so many factors involved, starting with the shape and size of one's feet and progressing through more subtle differences such as centre of gravity and even agility. Doubtless some people would feel perfectly comfortable completing some of the routes that I trialled these boots on wearing trekking shoes (and I can think of one person in particular who operates quite happily in short wellies for pretty well any mountain activity! - not recommended though). I would suggest that the following wish list would be desirable for most mere mortals though:
In order to help people choose the appropriate match of boot and crampon for mountaineering activities, comparison charts are now available, using B0-B3 for boot characteristics and C1 to C3 for crampons. (For further information see this excellent UKC Gear article Crampons - Everything You Need To Know.
The Scarpa Cristallo, La Sportiva Trango Alp and Boreal Triglav are all in the B1 to B2 boot categories, have fairly stiff soles and good ankle support. These types of boots will take strap-on crampons and in the case of the B2 boots there is a projecting heel bail in order to accept C2 crampons with a heel clip. Personally I'm a fan of this style of crampon fitting (i.e. a strap at the front and a clip at the back and have found it perfectly adequate on steep ice and hard mixed climbing, so this can be a pretty versatile combination).
For comfortable walking with the occasional scramble I tried a pair of B1 boots: the Scarpa Cristallo. The other two pairs both fit within the B2 category: the Trango Alp and the Boreal Triglav.
All three boots claim to be UK size 9 but they vary considerably in both length and shape. The European sizes are even more confusing because they range from 42 (Cristallo) through 43 (Trango Alp) to 43.25 (Triglav). When held sole to sole, these sizings make sense: the Triglavs are indeed the longest. But, because of the heel padding and narrow profile, these boots felt the smallest for my feet. The only pair that felt comfortable for me with a thick pair of walking socks were the Trango Alps; the others were tested with very thin socks; in future I would definitely go up a size for either of these. In case you're wondering I have fairly wide feet and my big toes project 5cms beyond the little ones.
"Don't select boots through the internet, it will only end in tears! Try on several types and give them as good an airing as possible."
This leads me to reiterate a point that you'll have heard before, but ignore it at your peril! Don't select boots through the internet, it will only end in tears! Try on several types and give them as good an airing as possible. If they feel snug in the shop they will feel too tight once you've walked a few kilometres, so take some padded hiking socks along and make sure the boots fit properly. And sure, you could try them on and then leave the hapless assistants to stew while you nip round the corner and order them through a Smart phone, but you won't get the follow-up service and the shops need your custom!
Scarpa Cristallo (B1) RRP £220
More info: on the Scarpa website: Scarpa.co.uk/Cristallo
The Cristallo is claimed to replace a succession of lightweight suede boots that were known variously as the el Cap, the Mescalito, and latterly the Pro Ascent. I loved my old el Caps, which proved perfect for big walls with mixed aid and free climbing, but the soles have now virtually worn away after many days of hard work, including a week's guiding in Yosemite several years ago. So I was looking forward to trying the successor...
It has to be said that the Cristallo bears very little visual resemblance to its ancestors, coming a couple of cms higher up the ankle and with a 'beefier' toe area that loses some of the precision that I enjoyed in the el Cap. However it has been significantly improved for walking and of the three models it would be my first choice as a working boot for hiking. And if you can afford to purchase boots for specialised functions, these work well as a tight fit with thin socks for technical climbing – yes a 'big wall' boot – comfortable in etriers but precise on rock.
The Gore-tex lining and bellows tongue were effective at keeping the rain out when I tested the boots in typical UK weather conditions – in Spain! These boots are really comfortable for walking and performed well on a variety of scrambling terrain up to Alpine Grade III. I also gave these boots an outing on a technical via feratta that requires toe holds rather than extensive metalware, and they performed excellently.
The ankle protection is also very effective, giving good protection to the ankle bones but allowing a natural stride and plenty of flex. With strap-on crampons this boot is also perfectly adequate for glacial crossings and approaches. However, this boot comes into its own for scrambling, where the stiff sole and high ankle support give good purchase on small holds and plenty of protection when jammed into cracks. The lacing arrangement gives a clean profile at the toes, using suede loops rather than metal hooks, and the rubber randing gives generous toe coverage with minimal joints. As with all three of the boots that I tried the laces have a half-way “lock-off” clip, allowing the user to leave either the toes (or more likely) the ankle strapped looser than the other end.
The sole is a standard Vibram unit with 'Climbing zone' plain rubber around the big toe area. This is the same unit as fitted to the Boreal Triglav, albeit built on a broader last, which suits my foot shape better. The padded sole unit is deeper than the original el Cap so loses a little “feel” for rock climbing but compensates for this on the walk-in.
"These boots are really comfortable for walking and performed well on a variety of scrambling terrain up to Alpine Grade III."
Despite the more bulbous toe profile I have to admit that these are a worthy successor to my el Caps and the modern materials give a water-proof finish with negligible overall gain in weight despite the extra height. Indeed for my foot sizing there is a significant weight saving of 100 grammes per foot (about 15%) over either of the B2 models trialled. The 'Fox-auburn' tones of the el Cap have been replaced with a melange of unpretentious modest grey tones in suede and nylon (I've noticed that product shots for the boots seem to feature decidedly yellow suede on the anchor - this is more subtle on my pair, and I prefer it that way.
No points for originality in the name though: at least two other brands use the same product title, so make sure you specify Scarpa if you want to try out this model.
For increased ankle support and more challenging cramponing you are likely to be looking for a B2 category boot, which can take more technical crampons. In fact for mild conditions a B2/C2 combination is perfectly adequate for anything up to and including Grade VI winter climbing. On the other hand you would get dangerously cold feet on Mont Blanc in summer temperatures. So this can be seen as a versatile mountaineering boot category for temperatures down to a few degrees below freezing.
La Sportiva Trango Alp GTX (B2) RRP £250
More info on the La Sportiva Website: La Sportiva/TrangoAlp
La Sportiva have managed to create some market confusion by giving a whole range of boots the same name (rather appropriate in the case of Trango the mountain, which is actually the Nameless Tower). The Alp model is designed specifically for lightweight Alpine use and will take either C1 or C2 crampons, having a projecting rear plate for a clip-on heel piece. Surprisingly though they are no stiffer than the Cristallos, and for my foot shape I found that the flex is concentrated above the base of my toes, leading to some discomfort at first through pressure, though fortunately this eased after a couple of outings. However, the flex point is now clearly visible about level with the bottom lace eye. I've read rumours of boot returns and suspect if anywhere is going to leak it will be this crease point. So far though I've had no problems myself with leakage despite some fairly wet outings. This pair (size 43) were actually the best fit for my foot shape of the three models trialled.
"This model had some nice design features lacked by the other models trialled"
These boots are a smart steel grey with a distinct yellow band of tough plastic for the TPU (that's thermoplastic urethane in case – like me – you were wondering) heel plate. The toe area is less roomy than the other models trialled, which is a positive feature - being more suitable for delicate footwork and small pockets. This model had some nice design features lacked by the other models trialled; in particular the half-way lock for the laces is really effective, basically a rotating ring that locks tight when you pull the laces inwards, and releases when you pull them outwards. As with the Cristallos the heel has a nice shock absorbing insert that you can see deforming slightly even when squeezed by hand. I'm sure these will reduce the impact on knees and hips, damage to which is an occupational hazard for committed mountaineers. This model also had the most aggressive tread and ditches the “Climber zone” in favour of teeth all around the front – personally I would prefer to keep this feature as it definitely helps with precise placement on small holds. But there's no doubt that for walking uphill in wet conditions the extra tread will be appreciated.
Boreal Triglav (B2) RRP £210
In order to try out a stiffer boot (since The Trangos are definitely at the bendy end of the B2 spectrum, I tried out a pair of Triglav boots which are basically a fabric version of the popular but heavier Nelion model. Unlike the other two models there is very little suede visible on these boots; just a thin strip just peeking out above the substantial rubber rand, which extends further up the heel than the other two models tested. Like the other boots the Triglav has water-proof breathable membrane, though in this case it is made from Boreal Dry-line, which it is claimed is more effective at working under a thick outer casing. The main material on show is a blue diamond-textured nylon (Teramida) and a large area of black padding around the ankles – neither of these materials is sympathetic to the fingers when handling the boot but thankfully is irrelevant to its main function i.e. housing the foot. This boot has a distinctive flash of scarlet around the heel provided by a more substantial TPU insert.
""the bend is spread more uniformly along the length rather than at the toe joint, and I found this more comfortable than the Trango"
The lacing arrangement is subtly different, with a tape loop situated above the mid-way lock that connects to a strip of reinforcing material that extends towards the heel. This is a hint towards a major selling point of these boots which is that every effort has been made to reduce heel lift, including the previously mentioned ankle cuff, and also increased padding in the area below the ankle bone. The instep is also more drastically shaped with a raised 'bubble' in the removable footbed that gives a distinctively asymmetric – indeed foot-shaped cavity to seat the foot very precisely. These boots have a degree of flex but I would say that the bend is spread more uniformly along the length rather than at the toe joint; I found this more comfortable than the Trango in this respect.
Unfortunately, despite claiming the largest sizing at 43.25 these boots felt the smallest for my foot size which means that the precise foot capsule is undermined by requiring an even larger sole meaning that a pair of Triglavs fitting my feet are some 2cms longer than comfortably fitting Trangos, which is far too clumsy for my liking. So not a boot for the wider foot, unfortunately.
I was surprised at the variety in size, stiffness and width of boots despite the attempts to categorise them with a standardised system. However, some clear characteristics emerge and indeed confirm my opinion that if you can afford it and have the storage space the best solution for all mountaineering equipment is to collect different items for different functions. For scrambling and via feratta, the Cristallo suit my needs ideally. For longer outings and technical cramponing a B2 boot is a better option, so the Trango Alps will receive further testing now to see if they continue to shed water effectively and also to see if the crease above the toes becomes more or less of a problem for me. If the Triglav fits your foot-shape though I suspect that it is the better boot, thanks to the stiffer sole and comfortable inner shape which I'm sure will help protect the heels and cushion the feet.
About Steve Long
Steve Long (51) is an International Mountain Guide currently working as part-time Technical Officer at Mountain Leader Training UK and also serving as the president of the UIAA's Training Standards Working Group. He is a founding member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors, and worked at Plas y Brenin as a senior instructor for 12 years. He is the author of the popular instructional DVD Self-Rescue for Climbers and also the definitive text for mountain leaders: Hillwalking, as well as various over projects such as the current Tremadog guidebook.
Steve is a keen and active climber, equally at home on rock or ice; and has visited every continent for mountaineering activities. Climbing highlights include one of the few British ascents of Cerro Torre, several routes on the Troll Wall, canyoning and big walling in Borneo (Low's Gully), a winter ascent of the Dru's French Direct and various other big walls; the most recent being the Fish route on the Marmolada. Steve also regularly works with climbing federations from other countries to help them set up their own leader and instructor training schemes: current projects include Nepal, Ladakh, Israel, Turkey and Portugal.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Steve Long: