Barefoot Climbing: Time to ditch the shoes?
Could you crush harder without your climbing kicks?
If you heard that an amateur climber sent V17 to match Nalle Hukkataival and Daniel Woods for the hardest boulder ascent ever, you would be pretty impressed. Then you realize Charles Albert made the ascent of No Kpote Only barefoot, it makes you question everything you know about climbing.
Although both Ryohei Kameyama and Nico Pelorson have since bagged the second and third ascents of No Kpote Only, and suggested a more suitable grade of V15 or V16, watching Charles climb does make you think… Have we be doing it wrong this whole time?
The Barefoot Climbers
Before we get down to the brass tax of the climbing without shoes debate, lets have a look at some of the athletes that have been known to rock climb barefoot.
Charles Albert is a 21-year-old French crusher who grew up messing around on the boulders of Font. Even before his ascent of No Kpote Only, Charles has been sending impressive repeats of notoriously hard problems in Font like La Valse Aux Adieux Prolongee (V15) and Le Pied à Coulisse (V15).
As he explains in an interview with Planet Mountain, the origins of his barefoot bouldering began after he and his friends started creating challenges for each other. You can see a video of Charles climbing V9 blindfolded. Show off.
Inspired by a combination of convenience and simplistic beauty, Charles started to transition into the barefoot climbing sensation he has become famous for.
Charles mentioned he noticed a huge difference when he started climbing without. As he stated in one interview “Climbing barefoot is cheaper, more natural, more instinctive – but also more complicated. For instance, it trashes your skin, but I see that as cool since it makes the climbing more interesting. It reminds you that your body has a limit. The same is true with cold temperatures: my feet get numb, this can be a real problem.”
Barefoot climbing has been around long before Charles Albert was making headlines.
Bernd Arnold is somewhat of a climbing legend in Europe. The German born mountaineer built a reputation for bagging numerous tricky FAs in the ’70s and ’80s. He is credited for putting up over 900 routes in Saxon Switzerland, an area that was part of the Eastern-bloc at the time.
Unlike the other barefoot climbers on our list, who are known for barefoot bouldering, Bernd made daring trad and multi-pitch ascents without shoes.
Vu Nguyen is one of the best climbers to come out of Vietnam. He is frequently blowing the minds of travellers in the Ha Long Bay area with his barefoot deep-water solo escapade. He’s even made an ascent of the iconic deep water solo Streak of Lighting (7C+)
What perhaps makes Vu’s ascents more impressive is that his barefoot ascents are predominantly done on the Limsteones seawalls around Ha Long Bay, which would be significantly more slippy than the sandstone or granite crags of in Europe.
Yep, you read that right. Chris Sharma, the former king of rock climbing, was known to boulder barefoot on occasion. Admittedly he wasn’t climbing without shoes as regularly as the others on our list but it’s not hard to find evidence of Sharma ditching the shoes.
The best example of Sharma climbing barefoot is from classic climbing documentary Rampage. In the documentary, Chris talks about the benefits of climbing barefoot saying “If I could train my feet to work without shoes, I think it will make me a better climber. Its the natural way” He also then goes on to say “Your skin ins way stickier, I think, than climbing rubber, so I think it is the future of climbing”.
Should You Be Climbing Without Shoes?
Charles, Bernd, Vu and Sharma are living proof you can climb hard without shoes but should you do it?Our advice would be probably not.
As Charles pointed out it’s certainly cheaper to climb barefoot, there’s no arguing that. These climbers also have the ability to use their feet like their hands, and crimp their toes around edges and holds.
Nevertheless, here are a few reasons why we think you shouldn’t get rid of your climbing shoes just yet.
Shoes will make you climb harder
The entire purpose of our super-specialized shoes are to make you climb harder. The Boreal Fire was released in 1979 and is widely considered the first towards the modern climbing shoe. When the Fire, and other models like it, first hit the market, climbers were amazing at how much their climbing ability improved.
Free solo legend John Bachar was so impressed after trying out pair on Midnight Lighting that he became the US distributor for the company. Climbers also reported massive improvements in their ability, with some even able to climb an entire grade harder thanks to the Fire, Ninja and other early shoe models.
Since then, shoe technology has advanced into the lightweight, sending machines we are used to wearing.
If you decide to ditch your shoes, be prepared to give up the effectiveness of a few crucial techniques like heel and toe hooks, scumming and jamming.
It goes without saying the skin on your feet will toughen up, just like it does on your fingers. Nevertheless even Charles mentioned that he wears shoes on the sharper rock.
It’s not hygienic
If you think climbing without socks is unhygienic, then the thought of not using shoes is really going to disgust you.
In honesty, thinking about jumping on a problem after watching someone drag their dirty trotters over the holds isn’t an appealing thought to me either. Fortunately, most gyms won’t let you climb without shoes.
That said, even if you do find a gym that lets you climb without shoes, you still probably want to think twice about it. Foot fungus and other common dermatological conditions are more than capable of spreading to other parts of your body. For example, if you are touching holds that someone with Athletes Foot has touched, there’s a good chance you could get it too.
Not to gross you out, but this can spread to your hands and cause a fungus infection called Tinea Manuum. Eeeeww.
Combine this with the fact that a study has shown that 34% of Europeans have a fungal foot infection, this alone is enough to put you off ever taking your shoes off anywhere, ever again.
You could hurt yourself
The most basic function of any shoe is to provide your foot with protection, and the same goes for climbing shoes.
At the risk of sounding like your mom, if you are rock climbing barefoot, then you need to be very careful. On the most serious side of the scale, your foot has two main arteries (Posterior and Anterior Tibial artery and plenty of important tendons that could easily be severed on a fall gone wrong.
Aside from a major injury, there’s also plenty of minor injuries you could cause to your feet along the way. Standing on glass or peeling and scarping your nails are realistic dangers, as well as picking up plenty of minor scrapes and cuts is almost a given certainty.
Barefoot Climbing Shoes
I am sure you are still going to give barefoot rock climbing a try, and honestly, I don’t blame you. After you realize how damn hard (and sore) it is to effectively use your feet, I am sure you will be welcoming back to your favorite pair of climbing shoes very soon.
The second best thing to climbing barefoot is treating yourself to a super-soft pair of climbing shoes. I have seen other websites recommending Vibram Five Fingers but if the major benefit of climbing barefoot is to feel the rock, then it doesn’t make any sense to wear a big chunky pair of Five Fingers, especially if you are wanting to crush hard.
With these Vibram shoe, most models use a thick lug sole (you know, those deep rubber indentations) so your ability to feel the rock will certainly be impaired, as will the ability to pull off moves like hooking or jamming. Have you ever seen Adam Ondra, Alex Honnold or any other pro use these shoes? The answer is NO!
The best alternative to rock climbing barefoot is a soft pair of shoes that will provide you with plenty of sensitivity and control while giving you the winning qualities of the sticky rubber.
Here’s our favorite soft shoes our team uses regularly.
SOFT CLIMBING SHOE
The Drago is one of the most popular soft climbing shoes you can get your hands on. This shoe was created by the legendary Heinz Mariacher and his team of climbing shoe boffins as the “pinnacle of rock shoe construction”
While this shoe has helped sent world-class sport and boulder routes like La Barriere (9b) its aggressive shape, sicky rubber and large toe rand make this the perfect shoe for crushing it on plastic, as well as the real deal.
FOR THE GYM
La Sportiva Futura
When you combine a thin layer of Vibram Xs Grip 2 with La Sportiva’s revolutionary No Edge Technology, you get all the benefits of climbing barefoot and so much more.
The Futura is one of the softest shoes in the La Sportiva line. Not only is it a favorite of ours, but plenty of pro athletes are a fan of this shoe too. Adam Ondra and Stefano Ghisolfi are two big names that heavily use this shoe to bag big ascents.