Hiking volcanic terrains can trigger internal monologues that can go on and on, particularly when starting in the early hours of the night. The journey may not answer all of the questions, but it can entertain you for 8 to 10 hours and may lead to some interesting discussions with your climbing partner. The conclusion of determining if SOM shoes are approach shoes will be up to you too!
On our recent vacation, Olie and I went to Washington and Oregon States, and we climbed volcanoes. Our plan was to climb Mount Rainier, and that was the one thing for which we took the time to prepare. Weather conditions were one of the factors, and we also knew that late season (early October) may not be ideal on the mountain. On our way there, we learned that rain was in the forecast and we had to make other plans until the weather turned in our favor. Looking at the map, Mount Hood caught our attention and the weather looked good enough to complete a successful climb there. During our trip, we also climbed Mount Adams, St Helens, and we explored Crater Lake.
Crater Lake National Park
When the question arose
The approach to each of the mountains was on volcanic ground - very sandy and/or rocky until we reached ice and snow. At that point we needed to switch from hiking shoes to boots and crampons. I am a fanatic of SOM Footwear, and the last thing I wanted to do was switch to my bigger boots; although necessary in the mountains to better protect against rocks, they are never as comfortable as my SOMs. For this trip, I wisely chose to wear my HiLites to minimise grainy sand getting into my shoes. I am still new to mid-top shoes but I liked them in the snow last year and thought they would perform as well in sandy terrains.
On our way up to Mt Hood, I was very pleased with my SOMs. It has been a long time since we climbed technical terrains and I was proud of my SOMs’ performance. The terrain was getting steep and we were on a scree slope, which is basically stepping on sliding, grainy sand topped with small rocks, along with a number of bigger rocks that often become unstable when the ground moves around them. Olie had already switched to his boots and he was wondering when I was going to switch to mine, being a bit worried that a big rock could roll on my lightly-protected feet. I finally put my boots on, but a question was turning in my head: Could my SOMs be considered approach shoes? On our way down, when we switched back into our comfortable SOMs, we discussed the question: neither of us knew the answer. By the time we returned to internet access, we had forgotten the question and were already moving on to our next adventure.
With every new mountain, the same question re-surfaced and inspired us to learn more about “approach shoes”: what they are, and how society - or the shoe industry - defines them. Don’t get me wrong, but I like to question what is defined by the shoe industry. I can disagree quite a bit with what many industries force consumers to believe. I wish more people would argue that trusting our own body and, in this case, our own two feet, is still a very valuable asset. Putting our trust entirely in what we are told about our shoes may not be the best solution in the long term.
What is an “approach shoe”?
After doing some research, we learned that “approach shoes” is an expression started by rock climbers. Their challenge is in navigating rocky and often steep approaches while wearing heavy backpacks full of climbing gear necessary for their activity. The adherence of the sole was a big factor for them when yomping over difficult terrain. The market responded with a hybrid: a shoe that provides some protection, as found in hiking shoes, but with a sticky rubber sole similar to rock climbing shoes. The combination resulted in a very rigid shoe that has no flexibility in the sole but offers adherence, as well as protection from rocks that could bruise unprotected feet.
Mt Rainier seen from Mt St-Helens
To answer our original question, according to the climbers and to the shoe industry response: no, SOM Footwear would not be considered an approach shoe because it doesn’t offer a sticky sole (yet) and the upper is not protective enough (yet). We presently use a lightweight material that doesn't protect feet well enough from that kind of terrain. Even here, on the rocky trails of Colorado, where you can encounter piles of rocks and scree slopes, it requires extra attention by the SOM wearer. Not to mention the rocks here are much heavier than the young lava rocks encountered in the Cascade range. Presently, SOM Footwear only offers one kind of sole which, while it provides surprisingly good adherence to the rocks, is not exactly the same as a sticky sole. It sounds like a lot to improve, but you will be surprised by Olie (the shoemaker)'s capabilities. ;-)
Our sport model Trailhead already has a handy clippable loop. Fun fact: early on, Olie added a little loop to the heel as part of the design, suggested by climbers who loved the lightness of their SOMs and wanted the ability to clip them with a carabiner to a harness; a feature that makes them perfect descent shoes, since the climbers don’t like the weight of their heavier “approach” shoes.
Switching from SOM shoes to hiking boots at Mt Rainier
In light of what I learned, I definitely better understand the “approach shoes” expression and the point of view of these rock climbers, but I am a bit disappointed nonetheless. My SOMs performed so well during our trip, I am convinced that they may be considered “approach shoes.” The flexibility of the sole allowed my feet to climb steep slopes more comfortably and more easily than the hiking-climbing boots we had to switch to. At no time was I bruised by the rocky terrain, but I am also well-trained on Colorado rocky trails and always pay extra attention to my steps.
Approach shoes lack flexibility all round, and the adherence you gain with the sticky sole is diminished by the fact it doesn’t let your feet function naturally. Not surprisingly, they don’t offer roomy toe-boxes, which puts more stress on feet that are craving to spread during strenuous activity. And they are not American made shoes!
Until SOM Footwear can provide a protective but flexible upper on their models I made the decision to continue to use my SOMs as approach shoes to as high an altitude as I can. And they will still be my route descent shoes for the sake of my toes, and the pleasure to feel my feet negotiate the difficult terrain. Their light weight and great response outweighs what the “real” ’approach shoes’ offer. This is an important decision you need to make when you go mountaineering: be aware of your capabilities and choose wisely for yourself!
Written by Nathalie Bouchard, CFO and co-founder of SOM Footwear.
Approach shoes are hybrid footwear that have some characteristics in common with hiking boots, and others with rock-climbing shoes. Like a climbing shoe, it generally has a specialized sticky rubber sole which maintains traction on steeper grades of rock. On more extreme terrain, or when carrying heavier loads, it supports neither task as well as more specialised footwear would. Approach shoes typically also lack effective insulation in the soles, limiting their effectiveness for hiking over hot surfaces or in cold conditions.