Barefoot Climbing: Time to ditch the shoes?
Could you crush harder by climbing barefoot?
If you heard that in April 2020, Charles Albert sent V17 to match Nalle Hukkataival and Daniel Woods for the hardest boulder ascent ever, you might be pretty impressed. Then you realize he made the ascent of No Kpote Only barefoot, it makes you question everything you know.
Although both Ryohei Kameyama and Nico Pelorson have since repeated No Kpote Only and suggested a more suitable grade of V15/V16, watching Charles climb barefoot does make you think… Have we been doing it wrong?
I have become increasingly intrigued with this barefoot climbing business in recent months, and after seeing Charles crush No Kpote Only, my curiously piqued. It was time to do some digging.
After a quick bit of research, I became increasingly surprised at how many pro climbers have been known to ditch their shoes. I also discovered the the different techniques required to climb shoeless, and some of the pros and cons to climbing without shoes.
Here’s everything you need to know about barefoot rock climbing.
THE BREAK DOWN
- 1 The Barefoot Climbers
- 2 Should You Be Climbing Without Shoes?
- 3 Barefoot Climbing Technique
- 4 Barefoot Climbing Shoes
- 5 Ready to give it a shot?
The Barefoot Climbers
As long as people have been climbing, there has been barefoot ascents. While it might not be a common sight on the World Cup circuit, there are is a pretty substantial list of climbers that have proved it possible to climb hard without shoes.
Charles Albert is a 21-year-old French crusher who grew up on around on the boulders of Fontainebleau. Even before his ascent of No Kpote Only, Charles has been bagging impressive repeats of notoriously hard problems like La Valse Aux Adieux Prolongee (V15) and Le Pied à Coulisse (V15) barefoot.
As he explains in an interview with Planet Mountain, the origins of his barefoot bouldering began after his friends started challenging one another. Here’s a video of Charles climbing his proposed V17 boulder, No Kpote Only.
Although it first started as a novelty, inspired by a combination of convenience and simplistic beauty, Charles started to transition into the barefoot climbing sensation he is known as today.
Albert mentioned he noticed a huge difference when he started climbing without shoes. 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 a good thing since it makes 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.”
Bernd Arnold had been climbing barefoot long before Charles Albert was making headlines.
The German-born mountaineer built a reputation for bagging numerous tricky FAs in the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, 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 many other climbers on our list, who predominantly boulder barefoot, Bernd frequently made daring trad ascents without shoes.
There was plenty of iconic climbers emerging on the growing US climbing scene in the ‘80s. While names like John Bachar, Peter Croft, Ron Kauk and Lynn Hill are synonyms with this era of climbing, there were plenty of other men and women crushing hard.
Skip climbing barefoot on the Alien Roof, Yosemite
Photo by Steve Morris
Skip Guerin was one of those lesser-known names, who frequently climbed barefoot in Yosemite, Flagstaff, and Joshua Tree. While Skip’s reputation as a climber might have been slightly overshadowed by his love for a good party, he still has a daring list of barefoot ascents to his name. He bagged an early repeat of the iconic boulder problem Midnight Lighting, Alien Roof (5.12b) and put up Over Yourself, the hardest traverse on Flagstaff Mountain, all without shoes.
Vu Nguyen is one of the best climbers to come out of Vietnam. He is frequently seen by tourists attempting barefoot deep-water solo ascents in the Ha Long Bay area. Vu even has an ascent of Ha Long Bay’s hardest DWS line, Streak of Lighting (7C+), to his name.
What perhaps makes Vu’s ascents even more impressive is that his barefoot ascents are exclusively done on slippy limestone seawalls.
Yep, Chris Sharma, the former king of rock climbing, was known to boulder barefoot on occasion. Admittedly, he might not do it as frequently as the other climbers I have mentioned, but you don’t have to look very far to find evidence of Sharma climbing barefoot.
The best example of Sharma ditching the shoe is from his classic climbing documentary Rampage. In the documentary, Chris talks about the benefits of climbing barefoot. He states “if I could train my feet to work without shoes, I think it will make me a better climber. It’s the natural way” He also then goes on to say “Your skin is way stickier, I think, than climbing rubber, so I think it is the future of climbing”. You can also see Chris barefoot on some deep water solo attempts on his Instagram page.
This Czech mega-crusher is another climbing legend that needs no introduction.
Now, I’m not saying that Ondra is a frequent barefoot climber, but it’s clear he doesn’t mind going shoeless on occasion. The first time I heard of Ondra climbing barefoot was in this story the New York Times ran during the Tokyo Olympics. In the article, they mention that whilst he was learning to climb as a young child, his parents bolted holds to his bedroom walls and ceiling. To minimize damage, he had to climb barefoot so he wouldn’t mark the walls.
So the man that many refer to as the world’s best climber honed his craft barefoot? That’s pretty cool.
After a bit of digging, I also came across The Crowded Planet’s article on the Champion’s Challenge event in Arco, Italy. Here’s a picture they took of Ondra climbing at this event barefoot. It’s worth pointing out that this is a pretty tame route by Ondra’s standards and he is on a top rope.
Should You Be Climbing Without Shoes?
The climbers I mentioned above are all living proof you can climb hard without shoes. So should you do it? As with everything, climbing barefoot comes with both its benefits and drawbacks.
The Benefits of Climbing Barefoot
Develop superior toe dexterity
Prehensile limbs have the ability to grasp or hold objects, like our hands, for example. Monkeys, apes, and felines have prehensile feet, which is one reason why these animals are exceptionally good climbers. Climbing shoe manufacturers recognize the importance of this, which is why La Sportiva extensively researched gorilla prehensile skills for their latest performance shoe, the Theory.
Although we might never be able to have the same ability to use our lower limbs as those other mammals do, we all have the capacity to significantly improve our toe dexterity.
In fact, the muscular anatomy of our feet is very similar to our hands, with the obvious exception of the lack of opposable digits. In theory then, you should be able to move your toes individually, similar to the control you have with your fingers.
So why can’t most of us do this? The simple reason is that after a lifetime of incarceration inside of shoes, our toes have simply lost the coordination need to exercise this level of control.
If you watch Albert, or any good barefoot climber for that matter, you will notice how impressive their footwork is. These climbers have clearly developed superior toe dexterity have the ability to use their feet as their hands, and crimp their toes around edges and holds. With a bit of practice, you too could crimp those small edges with your toes, just as you do with your fingers.
Build stronger toes
Soft climbing shoes have become a popular choice for both bouldering and sport climbing specialist in recent years. These shoes have less under-foot support than their stiffer counterparts, and because of this, they allow for greater sensitivity and naturally strengthen toe power.
While this is certainly true, these benefits are increased tenfold without the use of shoes altogether.
Climbing shoes can damage your feet
Climber’s feet are being impacted by their specialized shoes in numerous terrifying ways.
While there still seems to be some doubt over the underlining cause of bunions, it is commonly thought that some people are more susceptible to this common foot problem due to hereditary faulty foot structures. One thing all foot-specialist can agree on though is that tight shoes that have a pointed toe are a big no-no. Shoes like this are notorious for aggravating bunion-prone feet.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what climbing shoes do. For our specialist shoes to work effectively, they need to be fitted tightly and shoes to work It is probably. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that 53% of climbers have bunions on both feet, and 20% on one foot.
Perhaps even more worrying, a study of 104 climbers found that 81% of them suffered from acute or chronic pain in their feet during or after a climbing session. The researchers suggested this was a result of wearing small shoes. Yikes.
You can save money
As Charles Albert was quick to point out, it’s certainly cheaper ditching the climbing shoes.
After looking at the price of over 130 models, we discovered that the average price for climbing shoes in 2021 was around the $120 mark.
If you are climbing on a frequent basis, then you might be burning through a pair of shoes every six months. As for serious climbers, like Ondra, he goes through a whopping 12 pairs of shoes every year.
If he was footing the bill (which I highly doubt he is) then Ondra would be spending almost $1500 on climbing shoes every season!
The Drawbacks of Climbing Barefoot
Climbing shoes provide rigidity and friction
Our super-specialized shoes are designed to make you climb harder.
The Boreal Fire was released in 1979 and is widely considered the first 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. Plenty of other climbers also reported massive improvements in their ability too, with some even able to climb an entire grade harder thanks to these revolutionary new shoes. Since then, technology has advanced our climbing kicks into the lightweight, sending machines that we wear today.
If you decide to ditch your shoes, be prepared to give up the effectiveness of a few crucial techniques like heel hooks, toe hooks, scumming, and jamming. One of the main reasons Ryohei and Nico downgraded Charles Alberts V17 boulder was because they both found different beta using a heel hook, something Albert couldn’t do without shoes.
It goes without saying the skin on your feet will toughen and develop calluses, just like your fingers. Nevertheless, even Albert mentioned that he wears shoes on the sharper rock.
Your local gym probably won’t like it
Although climbing barefoot outside is becoming increasingly popular, the same can’t be said for indoor walls. In fact, many climbing gyms simply won’t let you climb without shoes.
What have gyms got against barefoot climbing? Their strict shoe policies are most likely implemented to protect your feet against the rough walls and resin holds, as well as prevention against any unwanted hygiene-related issues.
If you have ever slipped off a slabby boulder, you can probably attest as to why shoes can help you save some skin. We all know how easily these rough walls can strip the skin from our hands, and our feet aren’t exempt from this either.
As for hygiene, the most common issue that springs to mind are fungal infections, with athlete’s foot being one of the most frequently cited.
While it is true those who already have already developed athlete’s foot shouldn’t be climbing barefoot in the gym, the same can’t be said for those that don’t have the condition. Even if you have come into contact with the same surfaces as someone who has this fungal infection, there’s certainly no guarantee it will be transmitted. In fact, fungi like athlete’s foot require moist, dark environments to grow, like the inside of our shoes. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, this is why athlete’s foot is non-existent in those who adopt a barefoot lifestyle.
Providing you allow your feet proper ventilation after your barefoot gym session (ideally by also leaving the gym barefoot) then you will denying the fungus the conditions it needs to grow.
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 ensure to take care. 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. Climbing shoes try to incorporate some shock-absorbing properties into their design, helping bear the brunt from a boulder fall or a wild whipper.
Barefoot Climbing Technique
If you want to try your hand, or rather your feet, at barefoot climbing then there are some things you are going to need to know first. In fact, you are probably going to have to re-think your entire technique if you are going to climb as well as Charles Albert or Skip Guerin.
For starters, you will have limited use of the outside edge, heel hook, toe press or foot jam like you would whilst wearing shoes. Your footwork is going to revolve around edging on your big toe, crimping edges with all your toes in unison, and grasping features between your 1st and second toe.
These new techniques feel pretty alien at first, but after a few weeks of climbing without shoes, I guarantee you will start to feel the increased strength you have in your toes. Even if you don’t want to exclusively climb shoeless, this increased food strength with pay dividends when you slip your shoes back on.
Here’s a short video of Mani the Monkey discussing barefoot climbing training.
Barefoot Climbing Shoes
If aren’t quite ready to try barefoot climbing, or your gym requires you to wear shoes, then the second-best thing is to use soft pair of climbing shoes.
Some people might recommend trying out Vibram Five Fingers for climbing but I’m not so sure.
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. With these Vibram shoes, most models use a thick lug sole (those deep rubber indentations) so your ability to feel the rock will certainly be impaired. You will still not have the ability to pull off moves like hooking or jamming in these either.
The best alternative to rock climbing barefoot is a soft pair of shoes that will provide you with plenty of sensitivity while providing you the winning qualities of the sticky rubber. Here are my favorite soft shoes.
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.
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.
Ready to give it a shot?
Us climbers are all about keeping it natural and creating the purest experiences possible. This is why there are so many people with passionate opinions about bolting traditional lines, or the reason why bouldering and deep water soloing are skyrocketing in popularity.
So, if you are one of those guys or gals that are really looking for the purest forms of climbing, surely climbing barefoot is your next logical move?
Who knows, ditching your shoes might be just what you need to climb harder.
If you want to find out more about barefooting, then I suggest you check out the Society of Barefoot Living, they have a brilliant collection of resources on the matter and a great community of passionate barefooters!