“Because it's there.”
- George Mallory, First Ascent, Mt Everest, 29 May 1953
Mountaineering is the sport of climbing mountains. This particular sport involves a massive confluence of skill, equipment, training, and patience, all woven into the marvelous odyssey that is a summit attempt. One of the crucial items in your inventory, perhaps one of the most important, is your mountaineering boots!
I became a mountaineer quite organically. From the rock scrambles along the White Mountains of New Hampshire to heavier, more intense summits in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, I watched my boots evolve as my skill grew and my need for more protection with it. By the time I was ice climbing in the far-flung stretches of isolated Bolivia I was wearing full double-plastic mountaineering boots. I actually climbed the soles off my first pair of plastic mountaineering boots in two seasons, or less than six months!
Seldom seen view from the Tupungatito Glacier of Alto San Juan (Argentina/Chile Border)
Photo Credit – Joey Shonka
I am a gear fanatic and always do my research before purchasing anything new. In this article you are going to benefit from years of research into mountaineering boots. I am going to break this down into four main categories; Classic Leather Mountaineering Boots; the GTX, or single layer boot; the Double Plastic or Double Layer Boot; and finally, the Triple Boot, for when you are ready to push to 8000m.s.m and beyond! I will be sure to include options for any budget and by the end of this article you are going to be “in the know” when it comes to mountaineering boots!
NOTE: There are many options for budget mountaineering boots, but to give you an example of the price difference between a pair of these boots and one of my Top Picks for winter hiking, my economy pick for Double Plastic Boots (Scarpa Plastic Mountaineering Boots, called Invernos) runs upwards of $300USD.
Before we get into my Top Picks, let’s talk about some general requirements for what to look for in a mountaineering boot!
THE NUTS AND BOLTS; WHAT YOU NEED IN A MOUNTAINEERING BOOT
Mountaineering can be though of as the next step up from hiking. When you are ready to push yourself further, incorporate a higher skill set and more technical equipment, this is the sport you need to pursue! Let’s talk about what makes a great mountaineering boot:
1. QUALITY: The brutal reality is that mountaineering is a sport where if something goes wrong, people die. That is something each and every one of us accepts when we head for a summit bid. A mountaineering boot must be of the highest quality, built to exceed tolerances and last for years, of the finest materials available.
2. RIGID: When climbing a mountain you will be going UP! If your boot flexes while you are trying to toe in to a slope or section of vert, you are finished before you have even begun! With mixed rock/ice climbing, the edge of your boot needs to be rigid enough to support your weight while gripping holds on a rock wall or when your cramp-on is set in ice and your weight rests on the toe box of your boot.
3. INSULATED: At high altitudes, you are going to need heavy insulation. However, this is also a situation in which everything outside of your sleeping bag will freeze solid each night! You can’t wait for your boots to thaw on the morning of a summit bit, so many boots utilize an outer plastic or synthetic shell with an inner insulated boot to toss in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night.
4. COMPATIBLE: You need special welts or ridges on your boot to be fully compatible with cramp-ons and technical snowshoes. A mountaineering boot need to be cramp-on compatible, beyond the point of a normal hiking boot.
5. COMFORTABLE: For hours or days on the ice or in the mountains, your boots need to fit well or you will have issues! Discomfort can take away from your enjoyment of the summit. For some great information on properly sizing your footwear, check out one of my other articles here for more information.
I was climbing in Peru back in 2016 and had spent more than 3 months above 5500 m.s.m (18,044’) in the isolated regions of the Cordillera Apolobamba. It was a tough area, a place where life was cheap. On the border of Peru and Bolivia (where the best climbing was) there also happened to be a massive illegal gold trade. Illegal gold mining paid the bills in this isolated, raw area of the world, and this was the sort of place people disappeared regularly with no investigation into where they had gone. Thankfully we spent our time in such places as were difficult to reach, so our contact with other people was minimal! I remember trading with a rancher when we ran short of chow, an old duffel bag I carried for a pound and a half of flour and a quarter of dried Alpaca meat, which my climbing partner and I chopped up for our “Po-Boy” stews. As I was checking our fishing lines at a low camp I looked down and noticed my toenails had begun to grow in brown waves.
This was from a combination of issues; first, my boots were about a half a size too small and the toes were being crammed into the toe-box while descending; second, at high altitude, your toenails don’t grow as quickly or as neatly! However, I made the resolution never to carry improperly sized boots on an expedition of this level again.
OK, we have our basis for choosing boots, let’s get into some TOP PICKS!
My first Top Pick will be for Leather Mountaineering Boots. I myself have known and loved MANY leather mountaineering boots; when properly cared for, they will last longer than more modern synthetic boots.
Something I see misclassified quite often is a sturdy pair of leather hiking boots with Norwegian welting being referred to as mountaineering boots. Of course, I have used boots such as this for many adventures, but for the purposes of this article I am going to cover technical mountaineering boots. The Norwegian welt can take a cramp-on of certain design but the sole is far too flexible to be considered a true mountaineering boot in this particular situation. As the boot sole flexes, the cramp-on will free itself (disastrous) and while climbing rock the boot is very difficult to edge.
The Best Mountaineering Boot
TOP PICK FOR LEATHER MOUNTAINEERING BOOT – THE SCARPA FUEGO MOUNTAINEERING BOOT
“Scarpa” is Italian for “shoe” and the Fuego certainly embodies this in a number of ways. I like the Fuego because although it is a true leather mountaineering boot, it also embodies a GTX style for modern mountaineering. Scarpa will pop up on my list again and with good reason; this company has consistently produced some of the finest climbing and mountaineering footwear in the world!
- Classic mountaineering design
- Great boot for the Rockies or Sierras (Wildlife Firefighters TOP PICK as well!)
- Excellent toe welt for secure cramp-on hold
- Vibram® sole great for edging!
- Run narrow, not great for wide feet
- Single layer is not good for winter mountaineering or high altitudes
GTX OR SINGLE LAYER MOUNTAINEERING BOOTS
The GTX is a great option for lower altitude (sub 5000 m.sm.) mixed rock and ice climbing. These boots are built to move fast and far, and the lightweight, comfortable design means you can keep going long past your target base camps! While I would not suggest using a single layer mountaineering boot for something in the Panirs or Andes, where extremely high altitudes could be obtained, for everything else these are great options!
TOP PICK FOR BEST GTX MOUNTAINEERING BOOT – THE LA SPORTIVA NEPAL EVO GTX MOUNTAINEERING BOOT
La Sportiva is another name in mountaineering boots you will see on my list again. These boots are perhaps some of the finest boots on the planet! The quality of the Nepal Evo will impress you as soon as you open the box; this boot, if properly cared for, will last for years and years!
- 3D ankle flex is amazing in a sturdy mountaineering boot!
- SBR® Mid-sole air cushion
- Great first technical mountaineering boot – does everything well!
- Incredible traction
- Add a pair of tough gaiters for hours of kicking steps
- Add a pair of tough gaiters for hours of kicking steps
- Run small – size up at least ½ for proper fit
- Will freeze during cold nights – tuck them under your sleeping bag’s foot box to keep them thawed.
The double boot or double plastic mountaineering boot is my personal favorite for a range of activities. When I first began exploring the mountains on foot, I dreamed of having invincible footwear to tromp and tread wherever my heart desired. The double boot comes closest to this dream!
TOP PICK #1 FOR DOUBLE MOUNTAINEERING BOOT – THE SCARPA INVERNO
Until triple boots (or super gaiter boots) came into production, this was a boot one might see anywhere from an Everest summit attempt to bagging Denali in Alaska. This is not only my number one pick for best double mountaineering boot, but also my top pick for double plastic mountaineering boot. The Scarpa Inverno is unstoppable!
With the newer, synthetic versions of the double boot on the market today, I have noticed a trend away from this old-school plastic design. I could not be a bigger fan of this boot! When in high altitude situations there is no way to keep your tent or gear from falling below or close to below freezing; the inner boots of the Inverno not only make great lightweight camp shoes for gathering ice or snow to cook and hydrate, but the plastic simply does not freeze. Some of the synthetic blend uppers I have used, if stored wet, will become blocks of ice the next morning. This can be disastrous for a early AM summit bid! Nothing sucks your body warmth out like frozen boots!
Check out the Scarpa Invernos below in action during a 90 day expedition during which time I summited the highest peaks in the Americas!
- Flexible Pebax® is actually more comfortable than you think!
- Rocker sole for comfortable approaches
- Inner boot rated for high altitude (I sleep with mine in my bag and wake up with toasty feet!)
- Practically indestructible – I walk the soles down before the boot shell begins to wear!
- Heavy – can take some adjustement to use
- Not as comfy as a GTX or single layer boot
TOP PICK #2 FOR DOUBLE MOUNTAINEERING BOOT – THE LA SPORTIVA SPANTIK
If I am going to make a step up from my Invernos, the Spantik is my choice when it comes to double boots. These boots cost around twice as much as the Invernos, which is why I am putting them at #2. However, the cost is justified in these incredible boots. No matter where you decide to take these boots, they will out-perform your expectations every time!
- Double boot built for the toughest conditions on Earth!
- Outer boot constructed of PU-Tech transparent, PU-coated, embossed Benecke CeraCom® PUR leatherette.
- Inner boot is water repellent
- AMAZING fast-lace system great for gloved hands
- Highest-quality boot I am reviewing in this article!
- $$$ - These boots are an investment!
- Inner boot is not a great camp shoe – but these boots are generally used in areas where if you leave the tent, you are in your boots and cramp-ons!
The triple boot, or super gaiter boot, is the beast of the mountains. These are the boots you will find in the Himalayas or at the summit of Aconcagua. I am choosing to highlight the two industry standards in this article – in these extreme conditions this is not a market you want to shop for a budget deal!
The difference between the double and triple boot is that in the triple a gaiter has been incorporated into the design to remove all doubt that your foot will remain dry and debris-free during your summit bid!
One side note for all you budget mountaineers; if heading to Nepal or Pakistan for some climbing, remember that most people trying for a high summit there are using a guide service and perhaps only tackling this one summit in their lives. SO they sell their gear to the locals for CHEAP after their bid! I have a buddy who picked up my #1 Pick at ½ the cost, with about 14 days of actual use on the boots!
TOP PICKS #1 FOR TRIPLE MOUNTAINEERING BOOT – THE LA SPORTIVA OLYMPUS MONS EVO
This boot is the dream boot for almost every high-altitude mountaineer out there. The construction, the design – this is a boot for Everest, for Antarctica, for the most extreme summits in the world! I have nothing but great things to say about this amazing boot!
- Breathable Kevlar® gaiter is incorporated into the boot
- Outer boot is constructed of Cordura® upper lined with dual-density PE micro-cellular thermal insulating closed cell foam and thermo-reflective aluminium facing
- Fully synthetic polypropylene
- This boot is going to get you there and back with all your toes!
- This boot is a great option, but is overkill for low-altitude summits or summer climbing.
TOP PICKS #2 FOR TRIPLE MOUNTAINEERING BOOT – THE MILLET EVEREST
Again, this is a boot for those 8000+ m.s.m adventures. The Millet Everest is industry standard in the Himalayas and beyond. This boot is specially constructed for the toughest mountaineering expeditions in the world!
- Decades of design has created the most spectacular mountaineering boot available!
- Larger sizes for big feet (I am a fan of this!)
- Outer boot + shell + innerboot, isothermal to -60°C
- Outsole Vibram® MARMOLADA LIGHT
- Fiberglass and carbon fiber midsole keeps it rigid and LIGHT!
- Like with my #1 pick, be sure you need something of this level before purchasing! These boots are an investment!
So you now have absorbed the essence of more than a decade of mountaineering, researching mountaineering boots, and talking about gear, I know you will make the right decision. As for me, I think John Muir said it best:
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Happy Trails and wind-free summits, my friends!