It’s pretty wild to think that only 40 years ago, 7a/5.12 was a grade that only the biggest crushers of the day could stake a claim to. Today, it seems that every man, woman, and crag dog is clipping the chains of something gnarly. Yes, 7a/5.12 is still a pretty solid achievement but is also a fairly attainable one for any modern-day climber who applies themselves.
So what changed? What has accelerated the rate of climbing progression in the last few decades? The most obvious answer is probably the evolution of climbing training and equipment. After all, this is the secret of how so many gym bros have attained levels of strength that would make even Superman jealous. Or maybe is because the abundance of indoor climbing facilities has made regular climbing accessible to the masses.
There are probably countless factors, both big and small, that have enabled us all to push our climbing ability. But the one that fascinates me the most is how the evolution of our gear, specifically climbing shoes, has helped push the boundaries of the vertical world.
The climbing shoes we all know and love today certainly didn’t happen by accident. Our footwear has been finely tuned across a century of innovation and fine-tuning. In honor of all those clever shoe geeks who have helped craft the lean, mean-sending machines, let’s take a look back at the history of climbing shoes. I have cherry-picked some of the most important models that have helped shape the future of shoe climbing shoes.
The Climbing Shoe Timeline
1930 – PA Boot
The First Rock Climbing Shoe
Our story starts in France in the 1930s with a young French climber by the name of Pierre Alain. Pierre was one of the first climbers to recognize the bouldering potential of Fontainebleau, but he didn’t just have a great eye for spicy boulders, he also understood the limited capability of his bulky mountain boots.
With the lack of a better alternative, Pierre began to climb in his gym sneakers, often sticking extra rubber to the sides and top of his shoes. While this solution offered slightly better performance than his clunky alpinism boots, it still left him underwhelmed with the precision or durability they offered.
By 1947 Alain’s obsession with his shoes had grown. He teamed up with a local shoemaker and create the first shoe specifically designed for rock climbing. The smoothed-sole climbing shoe, dubbed the PA boot, became an instant hit and the duo began to start selling their shoes to a handful local of climbing enthusiasts. And just like that, the first rock climbing shoe was born.
1950 – The Super Gratton EB
The First Climbing Shoe Brand
By 1950, Alain’s business was bought over by Edmond Bourdonneau, a local shoemaker who recognized the potential of the PA boot. Bourdonneau began to reinvent the climbing boot, which is now renamed the EB. For the first time in history, climbing shoes featured a branded patch on the side of the boot with the name “Super Gratton”, with Gratton being a French slang word for small edge.
The EB became the universal shoe choice for rock climbing in Europe. While a handful of retailers across the continent stocked the shop, including the UK-based shoemaker Ellis Brigham, distribution of the shoe was unreliable and many climbers were still confined to using sneakers and tennis shoes.
1979 – Boreal Fire
The First Climbing-Specific Rubber
The next milestone in shoe design came from a Spanish manufacturing company called Calzados Boreal S.L. The company was formed by a man by the name of Jesus Garcia Lopez in the town of Villena, Spain, an area renowned for its rich history of designing and manufacturing footwear.
Throughout the 70s, for the first time in climbing history, Boreal pursued a program of research and testing climbing shoe technology. Their goal was simple: develop superior-quality climbing shoes. One of their key objectives was to develop a climbing rubber compound, that not only offered superior friction, but a finely-tuned balance between durability, viscosity, and abrasion resistance.
By 1979, the team had finished developing their final prototype, a shoe that became known as the Boreal Fire. The following year, the Gallegos brothers took their new shoes to Yosemite and opened Mediterraneo the first non-American route on El Captain.
News spread quickly of the new ascent and following their return to Camp 4, the awaiting climbers were eager to learn of the brother’s new shoes. Some even wanted to try them for themselves, including John Bachar, who took them for a burn on Midnight Lighting and was instantly impressed with the revolutionary sticky rubber.
By the spring of 1983, Bachar had teamed up with Boreal and imported 265 pairs of the Boreal Fire to the Yosemite Mountain Shop, and within the first two hours, they had completely sold out.
The word was out. The Fire was the new standard for climbing shoes.
1985 – Boreal Ninja
The First Slip Lasted Shoe
While a handful of new shoemakers looked to enter the climbing market, Boreal’s dedication to shoe research and testing firmly secured the Spanish shoemakers at the forefront of climbing innovation.
They created an array of well-received shoes throughout the 80s, but perhaps one of the from Boreal was the Ninja. As well as being one of the first slip-on shoes (a title that is disputed between the Boreal Ninja and the La Sportiva Ballerina) the Ninja introduced climbing manufacturers to slip lasting, a huge turning point in the way climbing shoes were manufactured.
Prior to the Ninja, every climbing shoe was made using a construction method called board lasting. Board lasting involved sewing the material uppers to a stiff board that the rubber outsole was then glued on top of. This made the shoes stiff, unyielding, and poorly fitting.
Slip lasting offered a completely new approach to construction. With the Ninja, the material uppers were sewn together into something that closely resembled a sock. This material sock was then slipped onto a shoe mold, tightened, and finished with rubber rands and an outsole. This seemingly simple process was a huge breakthrough. Slip lasting allowed climbing shoes to instantly be more sensitive, adaptable, and offer a better fit.
The Ninja, as well as a string of other subsequent models, were so advanced that many of the climbers that wore them reported jumping an entire grade thanks to the unrivaled performance. Their impressive list of athletes who regularly used Boreal shoes included John Bachar, Lynn Hill, Wolfgang Güllich, Jerry Moffat, and Ben Moon.
1986 – Five Tennie
The First Approach Shoe
Across the pond, American climbing was in the golden years of its own rock revolution. Yosemite and Camp 4 had emerged as the epicenter for the climbing movement. And while vertical adventures were increasing in popularity, climbing footwear was restricted to the models that had made it over from Europe.
It wasn’t until a man by the name of Charles Cole that this all changed. Chole was a climbing enthusiast who had spent his 20s dirt bagging across the USA and had stacked up an impressive resume of FAs, particularly in Yosemite and Joshua Tree. But after his father suffered a stroke, he knew it was time to leave his dirt-bagging days behind and help provide for this family. He decided he would create a new climbing rubber compound.
Armed with only a few books from the Cal Tech library, Charles set about learning all he could about rubber. Eventually, after serval months of tinkering with formulas with a local rubber manufacturer, Charles discovered the formula for the stickest shoe rubber on record.
The following year, the distribution of 1000 pairs of new shoes began in Taiwan. Instead of opting for an ankle boot design like the Boreal Fire, Coles’s shoes took inspiration from a Polish tennis shoe many of the American climbers wore at the time. He named his new shoe the Five Tinnie, which is now recognized as the first approach shoe ever made.
While the poor build quality quickly led to the Tennies falling apart, climbers were hooked on the Coles super-sticky rubber and would peel it off their Tennies and onto their other shoes.
1991 – Five Ten UFO
The First Downturned Shoe
The popularity of Five Ten’s rubber proved to be a huge hit. In 1987, after much research and experimentation, Coles released an improved version, dubbed Stealth Rubber.
As popular as Stealth rubber was used, it was just one of the many innovations Five Ten brought to the table. Throughout the 90s, Five Ten went on to introduce an impressive range of shoe innovations. Perhaps one shoe which best demonstrates Five Ten’s contribution to the shoe revolution is the UFO.
It was the first downturned (or down-toed, as Cole described it) climbing shoe, allowing climbers to grab pockets on more overhung climbing terrain. The creation of this downturned shape had a profound impact on shoe development, one that can be seen on virtually every modern performance shoe.
But this wasn’t the only new technology the UFO brought to the table. It was also the first velcro climbing shoe, the first slingshot heel rand, split tongue, and dual pull tabs. And just less than a year later, they also introduced the first asymmetrical last shape for the release of their new performance slipper, the Five Ten Moccasym.
1997 – Five Ten Diamond
The First Women’s Climbing Shoe
Climbing shoes had come a long way in the two decades since the Boreal Fire. But there was still one glaring development missing. Until now, every shoe that had been created was developed with male climbers in mind, no shoes had been developed specially for women. Despite popular belief, male and female feet are very different, so if the ladies were going to crush to the best of their ability, then they too needed a shoe.
Once again, Cole and his shoe design team stepped up to the challenge. In 1997, Five Ten unveiled the first female-specific climbing shoe, the Five Ten Diamond, a girl’s best friend. The new shoe featured a narrower heel cup, higher arch support, and a narrower instep volume, all with the intention of creating the best possible fit for women.
2007 – La Sportiva Solution
The Era Of Modern Shoes
In the late 90s and early 2000s, new manufacturers entered the climbing shoe market including Red Chili (1998), Mad Rock (2002), and Evolv (2003). During these years, manufacturers churned out countless shoe models, all leap-frogging the advancement of shoe innovation.
While a handful of noteworthy shoes were created during this time, if there was one shoe that set the benchmark for the modern climbing shoes that we use today, it was the La Sportiva Solution. This shoe represented the monumental leap climbing shoes had taken to become honed sending tools from the early days of the EB boot or Boreal Fire.
The solution was the first shoe to introduce the P3 Rand, as well as one of the first split-sole shoes, and an aggressively downturned toe box. These features allowed climbers to exercise a remarkable amount of precision and power through their feet, especially on overhung terrain. Its 3D molded heel cup, also the first of its kind, allowed climbers to crank heel hooks with confidence.
The Solution was such an advanced design, that over 15 years later, it is still recognized as one of the best climbing shoes available. It is undoubtedly one of the most important shoes ever created and used by Adam Ondra for clipping the chains of the first 9c sport route and Nalle Hukkataival’s V17 boulder problem.
2013 – Red Chili Session
The First Rental Shoes
As climbing gyms begin to pop up across the globe, climbing begins to transition from a mountain-dwelling lifestyle activity to a mainstream sport practiced on artificial walls. This transition led to the creation of a new type of climbing footwear; the rental shoe.
Red Chili created the Session in 2013, the first rental climbing shoe created.
The session follows a basic construction with a thick 4.5mm outsole and a double toe rand, making it cheap for gyms to buy and durable enough to withstand sloppy beginner footwork. The Session also has sizes marked on the outside of the shoe.
2020 – La Sportiva 4.99
The First Speed Climbing Shoe
The world was first introduced to competition climbing on artificial walls at the 1987 Rock Masters in Arco di Trento, Italy. In the decades since then, the public appetite for competition climbing skyrockets, and in 2021 sport climbing is included in the Tokyo Olympics for the first time, a real testament to how popular the sport has become.
In order to support the athletes that have qualified for the Games, La Sportiva announces the release of three competition-specific shoes; Solution Comp, Theory, and Cobra 4.99, each specialized to a single climbing discipline.
The Cobra 4.99 in particular marks an important milestone in the story of climbing history, being the first shoe created with a specific focus on speed climbing. It’s one of the lightest shoes ever built thanks to its minimal heel, the half outsole, and lightweight microfiber uppers.