Friday, June 14, 2013

Approach Shoe Comparison and Review: Scarpa Crux and La Sportiva Boulder X

Readers of my other blog, Bigfoot Mountain Guides, know that I have really big feet (size 15), that they are quite narrow, and that I'm really particular about footwear and climbing gear in general. As a climbing guide, footwear needs to be sized properly for both climbing and hiking. It's hard to find footwear that bridge the gap between the two. Most shoes climb well, or they hike well. Very high end approach shoes seem to be built mainly for climbing.

I've worn most approach shoes that are made up to size 14, and there are only a few that are truly utilitarian. Two recent offerings from the big italian climbing footwear makers stand out - Scarpa's Crux and La Sportiva's Boulder X. At the cliff, from the look of things, these two appear to be the most popular approach shoes, and for good reason. They're both well-constructed, nice looking and reasonably priced at roughly $99.


On paper, these shoes seem nearly identical. However, after wearing each shoe to the cliff I've noticed substantial differences. I feel these differences deserve some explanation, and I think making this information available will allow others to make an informed decision about which shoe to buy. Additionally, reviews without comparisons to other similar products always seem less useful. Without further ado, here we go.

Construction

One of the interesting changes in approach shoes at this pricepoint ($100) is the transition from proprietary dot-tread climbing shoe rubber outsoles to molded Vibram rubber outsoles with a more hiker-friendly tread pattern. Both the Crux, and the Boulder X have Vibram soles, whereas their predecessors had stickier, thinner, dot-tread like soles. The Vibram sole is thicker and less sticky, meaning that both of these shoes don't climb as well as past iterations of the same shoe. For the Crux this was the Quest and the Espresso. For the Boulder X this was the Cirque Pro, and the classic Boulder. For what it's worth I'd prefer to have a durable upper with really sticky, thin resole-able soles. I'm guessing these companies are catering to the crowd that uses these shoes more for the approach and less for climbing afterward.

Overall, the Crux and the Boulder X are designed with similar fabric, similar foam, and similar soles. The seem nearly identical to the untrained eye. After wearing each shoe for a while though, the "feel" of each becomes noticeable.
The Boulder X above and the Crux below. The difference in
width between these shoes is obvious from this perspective

The Crux's feel softer everywhere. The suede leather upper is softer, The foam underfoot is also softer, and the rubber rand is less substantial. The Boulder X, on the other hand, feels rigid, boxy, and stiff. The foam is firm, giving the shoe a hiking boot like feel. The one piece suede upper, thick padded tongue, rigid rand, and Mythos-style lacing system give the Boulder X's a "glued to your foot" feeling.

Ultimately,  this means your foot stays put, like a climbing shoe, in the Boulder X. They don't breathe well, and the toes can feel a bit crammed in the typically narrow Sportiva toe box. The Crux, on the other hand, with it's softer feel, acts like a running shoe or sandal. They're roomy in the toe box with wiggle room for the toes and plenty of space down the length of the shoe.

Fit

I wear a size 48 in both the Crux and the Boulder X. I have the green Superfeet in both shoes. At Rock and Snow I also tried a pair of Crux's in size 47. I don't think I could fit into a pair of Boulder X's in size 47. This alone clearly illustrates the difference in fit between the shoes. The Crux's are roomy. I can slip into them, I can wiggle my toes, and I can wear them all day without worrying about a little foot pain. If I don't lace them tightly they feel too loose. They have the typical, wide straight fit common to most Scarpa footwear. Again, the Crux's fit like a broken in running shoe - they are soft and roomy.

Width at the heels is greater in the Crux too. Crux on right

The Boulder X is narrow. I'm in my second pair of them, and they take a long time to break in. For a few weeks when they're new they almost feel too tight. I want to take them off by the end of the day. They make my feet hot. I almost don't need to lace these shoes, yet I can walk around in them and they remain on my feet. The Boulder X's fit like a climbing shoe.

Performance

In the end, this is all that counts. If a shoe doesn't do what you need it to do and do it well, it's not worth having. I've worn both shoes for work and play for at least a few weeks now. I wear them to the cliff, and I like to guide and climb easier routes in my approach shoes too. If possible, it's nice to guide everything easier than 5.6-5.7 in them. So, in a way, I suppose my criteria are: all day "wearability", good performance on moderate climbing, adequate support, and reasonable durability.

The Boulder X, on the right, is a narrower shoe, placing
more of your weight over the big toe. This helps make
this shoe a better "climbing" approach shoe

The performance of these shoes is what separates the wheat from the chaff. There are pretty noticeable differences between the two shoes - one is a reasonably good performer, the other, uninspiring. Below are my observations and opinions. Be forewarned - I have strong opinions (and I detest the mediocrity that's so pervasive everywhere today) when it comes to certain gear items, and approach shoes are one of those items.

The Crux's works fine for trail approaches, and with a lightweight pack they seem fine. I can climb easy stuff on a toprope with them too. For serious climbing, or schlepping heavier loads they just don't work though. I've already rolled my ankle once in them (on a flat, soft trail), and the shoe edge rolls when you try to stand on small edges with them. While smearing, or walking on slabby rock my foot slides to the outside edge of the shoe. It feels like my foot is going to slide off the shoe. This has been disappointing, and leaves me feeling like the Crux (which I think is the nicer looking shoe) has a really limited range of uses. With softer padding you can feel everything underfoot also. If the shoe climbed well this would be a good quality, but in such a mushy uninspiring climber this bad. In general, I feel like Scarpa dropped the ball with these shoes.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm on my second pair of Boulder X's, which have been available a bit longer than the Crux. They are the most durable approach shoes I've owned, and the leather upper is burly. The full-wrap toe rand keeps your toes in place (good, but sweaty on warm days) and keeps the toe box from stretching much. A few years ago I hiked into the Absaroka Range in Montana with a pair of the Boulder X's. I was loaded with four days of food, camping equipment and climbing gear. The 18-mile round trip was fine. My toes felt a bit cramped in the shoe, but I experienced no blisters, had no serious soreness and never rolled my ankles. They hike well, and feel more like a boot than a sneaker. When it comes to climbing, the Boulder X's are a step down from their predecessor, the Cirque Pro. Additional foam underfoot and a Vibram sole detract from this shoe's climbing performance. Despite these changes, the shoe is stiff and reasonably sticky. It edges well provided the edges aren't too small, and it smears well enough, but not as well as a pair of Five Ten Guide Tennies (they have the stickiest rubber I've ever seen but are very soft). I like climbing in the Boulder X's. I'll lead most Gunks 5.7's in them as long as the crux doesn't involve too much technical footwork. Still, as climbers they don't compare favorably to the old Cirque Pros or the Scarpa Gecko Guide's. I could comfortably lead many Gunks 5.9's wearing either of those shoes.

Conclusions

Which shoe you choose is going to be based partly upon fit and mostly upon what you're planning to do while wearing the shoes. If you have a wide foot, the Boulder X may not fit at all. I suspect though, the even if your foot fills out the entire Crux, they will still feel mushy and have a collapsing edge while climbing. I will continue to wear my Crux's for toprope group days and around town, but I won't be buying another pair of them. My Boulder X's, despite feeling less comfortable for casual use, will get used heavily this summer for guiding at the crag and in the mountains. I'll be taking them with me to the Bugaboos and putting a strap-on crampon on them for crossing the small glaciers there. I don't like wearing them longer than I have to, but I feel safer using them for climbing. I'd like to resole a pair with sticky rubber too, to see if they work really well for climbing afterward. 

It should be pretty clear at this point that I prefer the Boulder X to the Crux. It seems like most people will agree. Still, the best way to get an idea which one you should buy is by doing your homework. Read reviews online and visit your local climbing shop to try stuff on before making any decisions for yourself.