Mountaineering Boots – A Revolution in Progress

A few decades ago frost-bitten toes were considered an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of mountaineering. If you climbed enough you were bound to have a couple go numb or worse. This is no longer the case. A revolution in mountaineering boots has produced footwear that can stay dry even after days of trudging through snow and that can keep your feet warm even in the icy cold of high-altitude peaks. And the revolution is still continuing. New materials and insulation are leading to boots that are lighter, warmer and safer than ever.

A brief history of mountain footwear would have to go all the way back to 3,300 BC and Otzi, the iceman whose body was found in a glacier between Austria and Italy. Otzi’s shoes were waterproof and insulated to allow him to walk across the snow. In more recent years leather boots came to dominate mountaineering. These were often made of double layers to help insulate toes and the leather would have been impregnated and treated to help keep water out. But even the best leather mountaineering boots will wet through after a few days on the snow. And wet boots means cold feet and the risk of frostbite.

The more recent innovations have been in plastic double mountaineering boots. One of the most famous of these was the Scarpa Vega (in America it is known as the Scarpa Inferno). This boot is made of thick waterproof plastic on the outside and it has a thick foam inner boot for insulation. The Scarpa Vega was revolutionary for its time and for years dominated the field. This Scarpa boot has probably been to the summit of more high peaks than any other boot in history. Yet even this has been surpassed and Scarpa now recommends this boot for low 8000m peaks with over-gaiters and suggests it only be used to temperatures of -30 C (with special high altitude inner booties). But this is a clumsy and uncomfortable boot to wear and is not loved much.

The boots that have surpassed it include the Scarpa Omega which is much more nimble and offers almost the same degree of insulation. Even warmer boots include Scarpa’s Phantom 8000, which is light and warm and rated down to minus 40 C. Another is made by the rival firm La Sportiva. Its Olympus Mons Evo boot is also super warm and light. These advances in mountaineering boots mean that the risk of losing a toe or two while on high mountains is significantly reduced.