Salewa may not be the biggest name in the UK footwear market, but the three mountain boots in its Pro range (launched 2012) hold their own beside comparable models from more established brands. There's the traditional-looking all-leather MS Pro Guide; the MS Pro Gaiter with - you guessed it - an integral zipped gaiter; and the MS Vertical Pro, a kind of halfway house between the other two. Each comes in men's and women's models, and two width fittings. For a do-it-all winter climbing and alpine boot Dan Bailey looks at the Vertical Pro. He likes the build quality and performance, but what he thinks really sets the Pro range apart is Salewa's Flex System, an innovative gizmo in the sole that allows the boot to switch between flexible walking mode and the full rigidity you need on a climb. It's groundbreaking, he says. Just don't lose the allen key.
I've had these boots on test since the tail end of winter 2013-14, and while the hoped-for late season bumper Scottish ice failed to materialise, they had a few outings on punter-grade mixed routes and some classic mountaineering days before the early thaw set in. In the summer I took them to the Andes, so they've now seen a fair range of conditions, from soggy Scottish bogs to the dry cold of altitude; glacier plods to steep snowed-up rock. Probably the one thing I haven't yet done in them is long stints of front pointing on perfect ice. That's a shame, because from what I've seen so far they'd be great for that. Here's hoping...
Since you won't walk far or climb well if you're crippled, any boot is only as good as its fit. This is of course particular to each wearer. At the risk of stating the obvious then, how well it fits you personally is the one concern that overrides anything else you’ll read in this – or any – boot review.
This is the first Salewa winter boot that I’ve tested, and quite by chance the Vertical Pro is a superb match for my reasonably high volume, broad-at-the-toed feet.
It’s worth noting that the Vertical Pro comes in both men's and women's models, each with a choice of two different lasts. The medium fit (women's ‘narrow’) is good for climbing performance, while the wide last (women's ‘medium’) gives 4mm more room for extra thick socks, and to help the circulation in your toes if you’re heading somewhere high and cold. I don't think many winter boots offer a choice of width. Medium is a good fit on me, so I imagine the wide last really is quite broad.
Though the last tapers towards the big toe, the sort of asymmetrical shape you’d expect from a climbing boot, this banana effect is not as bent as on some boots I’ve failed to get on with previously, and further back towards the little toe there’s plenty of width. There’s a lot of volume, or depth, in the toe box too. This gives some wiggle room to the toes – always welcome if you’re stuck on a long cold belay. When stomping downhill at the end of a long day, I’ve had none of the dreaded toe strike, either.
A good snug form-hugging fit around the midfoot helps in this regard, holding the foot gently but firmly in place so that it doesn’t slide around when walking.
At the rear is Salewa's ‘3-F System EVO’, an external supportive band that integrates with the lacing. While I’m not sure it really needs to be called a ‘system’ as such, it certainly seems to work. Along with a pronounced heel cup and strategic internal padding, the arrangement locks the heel securely in position without either pressing too tightly on the Achilles or compromising freedom of movement. When plodding uphill or front pointing on steep ground it virtually eliminates heel lift. Cursed with dodgy weak ankles I’ve found the amount of support very reassuring when walking on the rough, and yet the ankle flex is superb. Even at my clumsy level of climbing performance it’s noticeable what a difference this can make to precise footwork. Having compared ankle freedom with the Mammut Mamook GTX, the climbing boot I’ve used most in recent seasons, and a boot with decent 'dexterity', I’d say the Pro Vertical has the edge.
With ten lace eyelets there’s plenty of scope for fine-tuning the fit, with options to lock off the laces both down near the toe and above the instep (Salewa call it the 3D system – they’ve a name for everything). The metal components are European-sourced and seem good quality.
Mixing Perwanger suede and synthetic materials, wrapped all around with a high protective rubber rand, the uppers have the well built, durable feel you'd expect from a European-made mountain boot. After several Scottish winter days and a couple of weeks of Andean mountaineering the uppers on my test pair still look pretty fresh. The supportive high cuff has a cut out at the rear to help ankle flex. It’s topped off with a couple of inches of stretchy sewn-in gaiter collar, which secures with an elasticated drawcord to provide a tight seal around the neck of the boot. To test this I went without gaiters on a wild day on the Buachaille – sloppy conditions low down, knee deep snow and torrents of spindrift on the route – and I still had dry socks back at the car. I reckon the collar has proved its worth, and I'm unlikely to resort to additional gaiters often this coming season.
With a Gore-Tex waterproof/breathable 'Insulated Comfort Footwear' lining, backed by an additional aluminium layer, the Vertical Pro is a warm boot for its weight. Crunching up glaciers in the icy pre-dawn chill; topping out at around 6000m; hanging around for what seems like hours in the warmer yet somehow more piercing cold of a damp and windy Scottish belay – the insulation has had a fair run for its money, and I’ve yet to suffer nippy toes. There are limits to their warmth of course, but if you’re an afficianado of winter alpinism, or the upper end of the altitude scale, then you’ll already know enough to appreciate that.
Here’s where things get really unusual. The unyielding rigidity of a traditional B3 mountain boot may be vital on steep ground, but it inevitably gives a clumpy walking action. Though we’ve had to accept this tradeoff, most of us will have cursed our stiff soled boots at some point during a long walk-in. Well we need curse no longer. Salewa’s clever Flex System (there they go again) neatly solves the problem by introducing an optional spring to your step. Using an allen key, a little metal wheel in the sole can be turned to switch the boot from the full rigidity of Climb mode to the partial flex of Walk mode.
When switched to Walk the Vertical Pros have the feel of a sturdy B1 winter hillwalker’s boot, with enough give for a noticeably more comfortable and natural walking action. After a long day on your feet this really makes a difference. And of course in Climb mode they still provide a stiff platform as reassuring as any other B3 mountain boot.
While ski touring boots have for years had the ability to switch from downhill rigidity to a creaking and reluctant flex, the pivot point is in the upper. Salewa’s innovation is a different thing altogether, with all the workings hidden away inside the sole. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in there, but it’s something to do with nylon and fibreglass: the exploded boot diagram that Salewa sent us for the review gives you some idea. However it works, I love it. If, like me, you do most of your climbing at the end of a long walk, then the Flex System is a lot more than a gimmick. What’s more it somehow manages not to carry too much of a weight penalty. At 1255g per boot on my kitchen scales (size 47) the Vertical Pro is roughly comparable to classic boots such as the Sportiva Nepal Extreme. Yes, the latest ultralight models like the Scarpa Rebel Ultra do undercut it a fair bit, but I feel the Vertical Pros' weight is at least partly offset by their superior walking comfort. Whatever next? Rubber soles that spring into crampons at the touch of a button?
When I first saw the Flex System adjustment wheel I wondered how it might fare with water ingress or dirt. Well so far so good, despite moraine dust, slush and highland peat bogs. One thing I do worry about though is losing that allen key. It would be just like me to roll up at the bottom of the best route of the season, only to discover that I’d no way to stiffen my sinews. As a result I carry two separate keys in different pockets; and OK, that's a teensy bit of excess weight if you're counting every gram.
Underfoot it’s a superb Vibram Salewa Pro outsole, exclusive to Salewa, with huge deep lugs that provide tons of traction when you’re going crampon-free on soft soggy snow, mud or wet grass. The ledge at the heel is built up especially chunky for downhill security. Though you’re raised quite high off the ground the feel is not cumbersome, and scrambling is fine. However the rubber compound seems quite soft, and after a few trips up and down gravelly moraines the formerly crisp toe edges are noticeably worn.
Matching boots and crampons can be a hit and miss affair, and with its high volume toe box and asymmetric sole the Pro Vertical is no exception. I couldn't begin to try out every crampon available, so do test this for yourself before buying.
Until you've had a chance to do that, here is a little to be going on: Though the toe depth is a stretch for the front plastic bale on my most regular Scottish climbing crampon, the Grivel G14 (an old model with a Newmatic semi step-in binding), the combination just manages to work, giving a secure fit with plenty of front point showing. I've got a good close fit with a new pair of Petzl Sarkens (Leverlock bindings) too. But what about with less technical crampons? On CAMP Ice Riders the front bale is less able to accommodate the toe, with the result that the crampon does not strap on quite as snugly as I'd prefer. In addition, the bar is a little less bent than the shape of the boot sole. It may be an imperfect pairing, but for general mountaineering I've managed to make it do - as you do. However with an ancient pair of Grivel G12s from the cobwebbed back of my gear stash it is impossible to get a safe fit at the toe. Perhaps it'd work better with more recent versions of this crampon? Anecdotally, anyone still using the old DMM Terminator will enjoy a perfect fit. Meanwhile at the new Keswick ice wall, where it's possible to hire the Vertical Pro as part of the kit, they tell me they're matching them with Petzl Darts, Dartwins and Irvis crampons (in the smaller sizes).
How do they perform?
Towards the end of a long day on your feet things tend to spread a bit, and here the generous width and volume in the Vertical Pro helps. Then of course there's that unique flex, which really comes into its own on base camp walk-ins, non-technical glacier plods and long rough Scottish crag approaches. Of the several makes and models of mountain boot that I've worn over the years the Vertical Pro is kindest on the feet.
Switching over to climbing mode, I struggle to find fault. Underfoot it's as stiff as you need; at the ankle there's tons of flex for precise footwork; and though they're heavier than some boots I still feel that the weight is within acceptable limits. Perhaps those who operate in the higher grades would be more worried about this; but as that's definitely not me, I can't say.
Well built, dextrous and warm for its weight, the Vertical Pro's climbing performance compares favourably with better known boots. But it is the way it walks that really sets this boot apart. I think Salewa's Flex System is genuinely ground breaking, a challenge that other manufacturers may feel they have to step up to. Now if they can just shed a little weight...
What Salewa say
The lightest PRO boot for winter mountaineering and glaciers.
A perfect combination of the unique Vibram® Salewa Pro outsole with an even lighter and warmer upper for extreme ascents where total ankle freedom of movement and perfect grip are especially important.
- Upper: Perwanger Suede, Gaiter Collar, Protective rand
- Lining: GORE-TEX® Insulated Comfort (Duratherm XL), Aluminium Layer
- Insole: Nylon + Fiberglass / Flex System
- Outsole: Vibram® - SALEWA PRO
- 3F System EVO for ankle flex
- Weight: 990g
- Sizes: 6-12 inc half sizes and Medium or Wide fitting lasts
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