The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado is one of those rare places where you have to go down–way, way down–before you can go up. The canyon is deeper than it is wide: more than 1,800 feet deep and 1,100 feet wide at its narrowest point, which translates to some pretty steep walls. Great for rock climbing! It also adds an impetus to rack as lightly as possible, because there is only one way back to the car, and whatever you bring must be lugged up the climb. That’s why I avoid carrying a pair of clunky hiking shoes down there whenever I can, but this raises a conundrum.
If only I’d had a pair of La Sportiva TX2 approach shoes sooner!
In past forays, I would grudgingly step into an old, stretched-out pair of climbing shoes before locking the car door in the dusty parking lot. The old shoes seemed like less of a burden than traditional approach shoes because they were lighter and lower-profile when dangling from my harness with a water bottle and large cams. The drawback to this method, however, is that going down into the Black is hazardous in and of itself. A typical approach involves steep down climbing through gullies of loose scree and tunneling through gardens of poison ivy, all while treading carefully at the brink of dangerous drop-offs. My old climbing shoes gave me good friction on the slabs, but since they lacked the tread of normal hiking shoes they quickly became a liability when things got sandy or vegetated–sometimes it was like walking on marbles across a sheet of ice at the edge of a yawning abyss.
The La Sportiva TX2 approach shoes are part of a Sportiva shoe line that includes the TX3 and TX4. The TX series combines the attributes of hiking, trail running and climbing shoes to create designs that are as versatile as possible while keeping the weight minimal. The TX2s are the lightest of the series, at 9.8 ounces, while the other two models provide increasing levels of support and durability, weighing 12.5 and 13 ounces, respectively. (A pair of Sportiva Miura climbing shoes weighs 8.43 ounces.) The TX2s are ideal for cragging or fast-and-light outings in warmer conditions–note the well-ventilated mesh body, which I will discuss later–while the other models are likely better suited for big walls or alpine missions where more time will be spent on snowy terrain or carrying heavier loads. I got my pair of TX2s in mid-November, so I ended up testing them in some sloppy winter conditions anyway, and I’m pleased so far.
As I mentioned earlier, the TX2s have a mesh body that the company describes as a “non-slip mesh lining” and a “zone-knit polyester mesh upper,” with “upper” referring to what I’ll refer to here as the “body.” The tongue is a softer, less-breathable material that is padded and sewn in place along the instep side of the shoe, which I like. With most other shoes, after I’ve worn them for a while, the tongue often slips to the outside, making it harder to keep a snug fit. This won’t be an issue with the TX2s.
The rest of the body is a “mesh” that is softer and more ventilated than the tongue. To demonstrate, when I put my mouth on the outside wall of the shoe and blow through the material, I can feel the forced air with my hand on the inside. I can’t feel the forced air going through the tongue when I try to blow through it. To me, this translates as a balance of comfort, support and ventilation, with the padded tongue allowing me to cinch down the thin, round laces without creating pressure points. The padded tongue also adds protection from rocks and snow I might accidentally kick while striding along rough terrain. Meanwhile the rest of the mesh body allows moisture to escape and dry quickly (as long as you’re not wearing cotton socks). Even in the sloppy conditions I mentioned, my feet stayed reasonably dry despite jamming them into dripping cracks; water certainly came into the shoes, but they didn’t hold the water in, as happens with my leather shoes when snowmelt trickles in around the ankles.
The main aspect that struck me about this mesh upper is its durability. Besides the usual approach trails, I’ve now worn the TX2s for a couple days of rope-solo aid climbing in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado. One day was mostly dry and cold, somewhere in the range of 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and the more recent day was a bit warmer, perhaps 35 to 40 degrees, and wet from slushy snow. Both days involved a couple hundred feet of climbing, from standing in aiders to jamming cracks and free climbing up to 5.9. Most shoes show obvious signs of wear-and-tear after thrashing around in toothy cracks (in this case it was gneiss). I fully expected to see little frayed holes, or at least rough spots in the black-and-gold weave after that abuse. Additionally I’ve often seen the sole start to separate along the outside edge after being torqued in sinker foot jams, but everything on the TX2s remains intact so far. Not only that, the mesh body continues to hold its shape in spite of how thin it feels. I suspect the main reason for this triumph is that the polyester knit upper is “seamless” (except for a single, well-protected seam up the back of the heel). In other words, it’s made from one continuous piece of material. Fewer seams means there are fewer places for the shoe to unravel or lose its shape.
While the shoe holds it shape well, it is soft enough to compress when packed away. An elastic C2 “ComboCord” in-situ around each heel handily allows the pair to be firmly strapped together. That’s great for those days in the Black when the shoes will be hanging from a harness. Now instead of two shoes flopping around, there will be only one compact unit to deal with.
It goes without saying that the shoes are made with sticky rubber–in this case the Vibram Mega-Grip Traverse-Lite outsole. There is a smooth, flat section along the toe specifically designed for climbing (it’s even stamped “climbing zone”). The rest of the outsole has a round-lug pattern akin to the well-known sticky dot rubber that has appeared on various approach shoes in the past. There is also a “flared fifth-metatarsal area” that “enhances stability and torsional rigidity,” according to Sportiva.com. I noticed this before I read about it. On the outside edge of the shoe, the mid- and outsole flare out about an extra quarter-inch, adjacent to the base of my baby toe. It’s subtle but apparently effective. I’ve sprained my ankles more than once when my foot rolled to the outside, right about the spot on the shoe where the TX2 has this widened base, which does indeed seem to give me a little extra something to brace against when carrying a heavy pack down a slippery path.
The midsole is made with “Traverse-Lite injection MEMlex.” Most people, myself included, don’t care much about that specifically. What does matter is that the TX2 midsole is very similar to a trail running shoe, built for cushion as well as stiffness for torsional rigidity and protection from any sharp, hard things you might step on (because who wants to feel every rock on the trail poking through your sole?). But climbers do like to have some sensitivity. The better you’re able to feel how your big toe grips an edge, the more confidence you have for the next move. This is especially important when a cliff requires unroped scrambling (free soloing) to reach the base. The TX2 has excellent flexion in the toes and becomes noticeably stiffer in the ball of the foot. I was surprised at how natural it felt to climb some thin 5.9 edges with them.
The main caveat about this particular model is that they don’t provide much in the way of general support. If you have flat feet, using special footbeds probably won’t be enough to keep your foot from hurting at the end of the day. My right foot is still sensitive to this soft, minimalistic type of shoe after I broke my ankle more than a year ago. I’ve been using the TX2s with Superfeet footbeds but the arch of my foot is noticeably tired after wearing these shoes for a day, compared to my heavier, leather approach shoes that have stiffer sidewalls. The TX2 is ideal for those light-and-fast days when you need maximum performance with as little bulk as possible–such as a climbing mission in the Black Canyon.
That brings up the issue of price. At $130, the TX2 costs almost the same as a high-end climbing shoe, and is almost as specialized in terms of its ideal uses. For people like me, though, it can be well worth it. I’m already warm and fuzzy thinking about how much safer I’ll feel going down the Cruise Gully when I head back into the Black this spring!
Derek Franz is the digital editor for Alpinist. He’s been climbing since age 12, more than 22 years.
Well-ventilated (dry quickly)
Lack foot support for hiking long miles
Expensive for how specialized they are