Andersen: From boots to ballet shoes
My 22-year-old son, Tait, climbed Capitol Peak last week in three hours — from the trailhead. “Climbed” is an antiquated expression since he ran to the summit at a blistering pace (no moleskin — it’s too heavy) wearing shoes that are lighter than my wool socks.
The week before, he said he would “Ring the Bells,” summiting both Maroon peaks in one day. He drove to Maroon Lake in our Westy camper, parked discreetly after dark, left the parking area at first light and called me at home at 8:30 a.m.
“It’s me,” he announced from North Maroon Peak. “There are half a dozen mountain goats standing only 5 feet away.” The goats were ogling Tait as a rare species of human mountain goat who has yet to sprout horns or hooves but can nearly match their agility.
Tait’s shoes weigh just a few ounces and barely reach his ankles. They look incredibly flimsy, but he says they give him all the support he needs. When he’s rock climbing, they allow his toes to grip the smallest ledges, giving him “feel.” This is important when you’re sprinting up ragged ridges that most of us would be clinging to with all fours — if we went there at all.
Mountain footwear has changed dramatically since I first began climbing peaks decades ago. When I was Tait’s age, everyone wore heavy leather boots from Europe with thick Vibram soles. Each boot weighed about 2 pounds, and you could only flex the soul with a hydraulic vice.
Each step was plodding. The pace was slow. Blisters were guaranteed. The only benefits were protection from a crushing rock and the cool alpine appearance that flattered even a tenderfoot flatlander. Someone could arrive fresh from Omaha wearing a pair of these Frankenstein boots and be regarded as an experienced alpinist. Add knickers, a feathered alpine cap and a yodel, and you were right up there with Reinhold Messner.
Today, the leather shackles are being cast aside for air-light ballet shoes that offer the speed of Mercury and the look of Bruce Jenner (before Caitlyn). With super-light shoes, skimpy shorts and flimsy jerseys, today’s mountain runner is as close to naked as you can get.
For water, they purify bottles on demand with high-tech ultraviolet rays. For food, they suck down packets of weird energy gel that resembles the toe jam my leather boots used to produce in gross quantities.
Two weeks ago, Tait and I were backpacking over a high pass in the Oh-Be-Joyful Wilderness near Crested Butte. Two mountain runners emerged from a cloud bank and jogged up to us. One was an old friend, a Crested Butteician who knew we were there and decided to surprise us with a visit.
As we admired their minimalist gear, he and his friend loped off down the steep, rocky path and vanished into the vapors below. Our plodding pace was snail-like by comparison.
But then speed has never been my goal in the mountains, and it never will be. I’m too old for trail running, and I still believe in boots. But this may change.
A few weeks ago, Tait ordered a pair of shoes that were not up to his sole-searching requirements, so he passed them down to me. I tried them on, liked the fit, stepped outside on our backyard forest trail in the Seven Castles and could hardly hold myself back from sprinting to the nearest ridge.
After prancing around a bit in these ultralights, I wore them to the grocery store, where I padded happily up and down the aisles with the grace of a gazelle and the speed of a cheetah. I had a “feel” for the linoleum and gripped the floor with perfect traction as I pushed the cart.
I will never climb Capitol Peak in three hours, but I may become the fastest shopper the midvalley has ever seen. Just look for me. I’ll be the guy in brand-new running apparel dashing from cereals to sausages, from bananas to barbecue sauce, deftly cutting in front of you at the checkout line.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org when he’s not out speed shopping.