Choosing a boot for 4000+ metre peaks can be a tricky business. Sure, if I was made of money or sponsored, and had a huge boot room, then I wouldn’t have to think too hard. But the reality is I don’t have anything suitable at the moment: I want a boot that will keep me warm all the way up Toubkal next month, which will be suitable for Scottish winters and Alpine summers, without being over the top and excessively heavy. The pre-requisites are that they must be compatible with my crampons, must provide adequate insulation and must be a good fit. The rest of this post is the general process which I use when selecting my boots.
There is a huge choice to go at: before considering brands, there is the decision of what construction material to choose. Plastic boots like the Scarpa Omega are much lighter than their predecessors at approximately 2.1kg, but you need to make sure you get a good fit, because unlike leather boots, they won’t stretch with your foot. Because they are made of plastic, they are very stiff, which is good if you are planning on spending time front pointing.
If you go with leather boots, you may find yourself considering a pair of La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX. They weigh the same as the Scarpa Omegas, but the silicone-impregnated leather will have a bit more give. Slightly lighter and constructed with synthetic waterproof materials is the La Sportiva Trango Prime, weighing in at approximately 1.7kg a pair. These are some of the lightest boots that I have been looking at, but I do have my concerns about the trade-off with insulation.
If you want a built-in gaiter, you may consider the Scarpa Phantom Guide. I have heard different opinions about built-in gaiters: an advocate said that in wet snow the gaiters make life easier. Conversely I have been told that in deep snow you will still need conventional gaiters that rise above the boot. The conventional gaiter will also catch the trouser legs, reducing the chance of you tripping on flapping trouser legs with your crampons. Plus, should you slice a conventional gaiter with a crampon, you can just buy a new one instead of forking out for a new pair of boots. Talking about crampons, make sure any existing crampons will fit your new boots.
Ultimately, my plan is to take the socks that I plan on wearing and heading to a reputable store near me where I can spend at least fifteen minutes with each pair of boots. I once made the mistake of buying boots after borrowing store socks- they were significantly thinner than the socks I wanted to use and as a result I have a pair of narrow boots that I have hardly used! Manufacturers have different lasts (the shape and fit of the boot) across different products, so if one boot by one manufacturer is too narrow, another model by the same manufacturer that uses a different last may provide a better fit. The boot should not be cramped- there should be enough space for the socks to provide the insulation properties that they were designed for, without being so loose that your whole foot moves about in the boot. If you are planning on doing any ice climbing with the boots you should make sure you don’t have much heel lift in the boot. This can be alleviated by inserting a whole new foot bed or just a specialised heel lift insert, designed to close the gap between your heel and boot when you are front pointing. If you want to get very technical with ice climbing, choose a more snug fit. I try to keep somewhere between half an inch and an inch between my big toe and the end of the inside of the boot. For 4000m peaks it is unlikely that you will experience significant swelling in your feet (perhipheral oedema) but if you are thinking about going higher, bear this in mind.
As far as brands and stores go, just make sure you are buying the genuine article: caught in a snowstorm 3000 metres up is not the place to discover that the boots you purchased online from a dodgy website are not as insulated or waterproof at they claim. There are too many reputable brands to list. The only relatively newcomer is The North Face, which I am starting to hear good reviews about. However, they do not yet have as wide a range as the longer running dedicated footwear specialist companies. If you go to a good store and speak to someone with who knows about boots, they will be able to give you current and generally impartial advice: I’ve had staff in a store recommending boots that their company do not stock, and I value that honesty.
If you are happy with the boot in store, check the returns policy then take them home and wear them around the house, try them with a weighted pack, try them on inclines and declines. Identify hotspots, sort them out and if you are still happy with the boots, take them outdoors, knowing that once they are used outdoors they are generally non-returnable unless there is a fault. (I should mention that last year when I bought my Millet Everests from the good folk at Adventure Peak in Ambleside they recommended I go for a walk in the nearby hills with my new boots and to bring them back if they weren’t a good fit- excellent service!)
I hope this guide helps someone make the right choice.