My go-to approach shoe for three years has been the La Sportiva Exum Ridge. Sturdy yet nimble, stealthy enough for talus-hopping but rugged enough to endure all the missteps that result in abrasion, the shoe has held tough for me through three summers in the Tetons without blowing out or debilating the tread. It’s a tough benchmark to beat.
The FiveTen Camp Four might be a dragon slayer. Over the last two months I’ve tested a pair in the mountains with approaches that varied from mud to dust, grass to moraine, snow to talus hopping, long solos to grueling descents. And I’ve got to say, I’m impressed.
The shoes are rather substantial looking. The back of the shoe features an external heel cage for added rear-foot support and stability. Co-molded Stealth C4/S1 high-friction rubber grace the sole; the midsoles feature compression-molded EVA (whatever that is), and the uppers are constructed of Nubuck leather. An internal shank protects the foot from the sharp talus inevitably encountered on mountain outings.
FiveTen advertises the shoe as a multi-purpose approach shoe that you could use to substitute for more traditional hiking shoes. I simply applied them to whatever adventures I encountered on a particular day. In the Wind River Range, I put them through an impromptu snow school, where the stiff shank proved up to the task of kicking steps, though they wetted through rather quickly. We then decided to jump on a Grade III at 2 p.m. and I clipped them to my harness with the clip loop on the heel. By the time the sun went down seven hours later I was heartened to find that they had mostly dried out. Not yet done with the climb, we hunkered down for an open bivy, and though the socks inside the shoes were still damp, we managed to make it through the twenty-degree temps that followed, wiggling our extremities throughout the night. I didn’t lose a digit.
The shoes are comfy enough for camp lounging and stylin’ enough for waltzing through the airport and greeting your folks at the other end without causing them to ask when you’ll be getting a real job. On Monhegen Island, one of Maine’s granite-rimmed, connifer-forested gems, I bouldered up salt-rimed cracks with surprising ease, then circumnavigated the island with the surefootedness of a rubber-soled mountain goat.
For me, the true test for approach shoes is the Grand Teton, which, at 13,770 feet, sits approximately 6,000 feet above the valley floor. The first few miles of trail are dirt punctuated by errant roots and jutting rocks, but by the time you hit the boulder field below the Meadows, it’s game on. Boulder-hopping requires deft footing, and the wrong step in the wrong place will put your ankle in a different place from the rest of your foot. Above the Meadows, the trail switchbacks steeply to the Petzoldt Caves, and from there up the footing is primarily talus, worn into a pattern of relative stability by countless alpinists up through the Moraine all the way to the Headwall. Above that the footing is uncertain at best, involving rock, talus and scree until you’re on the mountain proper, with varying degrees of consequence should you slip.
On a couple of consecutive Sundays (no rest for the wicked), I wore them for day solos up the mountain. The shoes have a funky extra lace at the toe, and at the foot of Wall Street, the narrowing, improbable entry to the start of the Upper Exum, I tightened from the toe on up, hoping for that glove-like feel I’d need for the step-across, a deft bit of movement over a thousand feet of air that Glen Exum soloed in football cleats in 1931. Despite the promise the laces appear to provide, I failed to snug them down as closely as I would have liked, and continued with them as tight as I could get. Throughout the course of the day I found myself feeling just the slightest bit awash in them. The shoes fit comfortably in most circumstances, but I just couldn’t get that wrap-around tight fit that would have made me feel perfectly secure.
That being said, they remained sticky throughout the climb, including on the water-slicked slab moves that seem inevitable on the Upper Exum. Smearing, edging, even jamming, I rose into the smoke-hazed sky above my beloved valley without any problems. Downsoloing the OS, one move in the Lower Chimney entailed a wet jam and undercut feet where you couldn’t see your footholds. My feet pedalled at the slippery footholds below, and for a moment I thought I might die, but it had less to do with the shoes than the precarious position and my relative timidity. The next week I soloed up the route, and again, though I couldn’t get the shoes quite tight enough to eliminate all second thoughts about them, they proved perfectly adequate for such scrambles.
The descent from the Grand is eight miles down, down, down, talus and dust and dirt and sharp gneiss boulders conspiring at every moment to trip you up. On my second outing I concentrated on speed, and leapt downward from rock to rock for three hours, never missing a step. Unlike my Sportivas, the Camp Fours lack the stiffness that limits their shock absortion, which means that over a long day of approach and descent my feet were simply not as battered as they might have been otherwise.
Guides in the Tetons often take precautionary measures with their shoes by seamsealing all exposed seams, an old mountain trick that will typically double or triple the life of a pair of shoes or gloves. Indeed, some of the irregular footsteps typical of mountain outings resulted in at least one blown seam on the outer side of my right shoe within the first week, and a few sharp rocks had cut slices into the leather of the uppers by the second. Some gaps around the the edges where the plastic and rubber of the midsoles integrate with the leather uppers are starting to appear, and gouges in the thick leather indicate the potential for damage such outings provide. But for now, the shoes are getting a serious thumbs-up in my book. I’ll update this report if they break down, but for now, they’re among the most comfortable, grippy shoes I’ve used. Five stars. Mountain Standard.
Pros: Durable, versatile, sticky, shock-absorbent; great for everything from impromptu bouldering sessions to grueling approaches
Cons: Difficult to get a super snug fit when you want them to perform like a rock shoe