I used to have a foot fetish… until I joined a climbing gym. There’s an old saying, “climbing is not a spectator sport,” but when belaying my partner at the new Momentum in Mill Creek, I can’t help but spectate at all the distracting, gnarled, swollen feet of my fellow climbers. Everyone who’s not on route has their shoes off, creating an odorous and blackened-toe-nail spectacle. The fact that shoes are removed after every climb is unspoken testimony that no rock climbing slipper on this planet is comfortable. It’s clear proof that as active people, we share a community-wide agony of de outdoorsy feet.
I didn’t sign my Momentum membership card to stare at a freak-show of feet, but instead to get my overworked beer muscles in shape by ascending fake cliffs among dozens of kids who mill about the place with hipster moustaches and funny belay glasses that make them look like they’re creepily staring at you when in fact they are watching their climbing partner above. But instead of paying attention to my own climbing partner as he struggles to clip into a quickdraw right before taking a major whipper, I’m busy looking down at unsightly toes.
My own feet hurt severely. I’ve been wearing a decade-old pair of rock climbing shoes for just a few minutes, and already my toes are smashed and mangled like tater tots inside Napoleon Dynamite’s pocket. To be fair, these shoes have been sitting in my closet collecting dust for a few years, so the leather is hard, stiff, and disturbingly crusty. The rubber soles are peeling off, the lace holes threaten to give way, and the stench wafts enough of a heady bouquet that I wonder if today will be the last time anyone will ever want to hang out with me.
When it’s my turn to climb, I limp to the wall, clench my teeth, place my aching dogs on a manmade foothold, and attempt to “send the gnar” on a 5.6 top-rope. But instead of focusing on the hand holds above, my mind is down below. All I can think about are the vices clamped to my hooves, and how the feet of us outdoorsy types take a serious beating.
I suppose I always assumed brutalizing the tootsies were just part of the game – if you wanted to play, you had to sacrifice those perfectly straight toes and clear nails for a future of crooked, boney digits and purple toenails that fall off after every ski season. We recreationally-minded guys and gals rain all hell upon our poor, five-digit appendages every time we hit the trail, crag or ski hill. Yet despite the bodily mutilations we inflict upon ourselves, we keep joyfully going back for more.
Ski boots are the bane of my feet’s existence, especially when backcountry skiing. After touring hundreds of miles every season in hard plastic, my ankles are rubbed raw, and my arches thank me with middle-of-the-night cramp sessions that are so heinous, I frighten the neighbor’s children with howling screams. Summer is supposed to be a time to give my dogs a hiatus, but rock climbing and trail running conspire to attack my feet with unrelenting ferocity. So now here I am, halfway up a climb, with that all-too-familiar pain in my lower extremities.
Does a comfortable outdoor shoe even exist? We put tons of miles on our feet, yet outdoor-specific footwear is never cozy. Here we are in the 21st century, an era of magical, science-fiction technology like smartphones, digital printers creating human organs, and Gangnam Style singing toothbrushes (As Seen on TV.) But ski companies have yet to figure out how to make a comfortable ski boot. Seriously, is that too much to ask?
Hiking boots, fly fishing waders, SPD cleats, roller blades, and trail runners aren’t much better. Who among us hasn’t had a backpacking trip ruined by blisters caused from airtight leather coffins? Who hasn’t returned home from a long run on singletrack to discover a blood-soaked sock? And who hasn’t spent several pitches on a trad climb while simultaneously entertaining thoughts of taking up surfing, beach volleyball, or any other barefoot required sport as a means of escaping our podiatric torture devices?
The bottom line is, if you’re dedicated to a life outdoors, say goodbye to good-looking feet. Be prepared for an eternity of ‘effed up stubby toes and a loss of all dignity every time you go out in public wearing flip flops.
But who the hell am I to complain? The very fact that my feet hurt is because they have taken me on decades-worth of outdoor adventures. If I didn’t suffer climbing shoes, I wouldn’t have stood atop the Grand Teton or Castleton Tower. If my toes had wiggled away in fear from trail runs, I wouldn’t have ticked a marathon off my bucket list. And if I had never crammed my feet into tight-as-hell ski boots, then I would be missing out on the single greatest joy of my life. So yea, I brutalize my feet in myriad ways, and it’s flippin’ worth it.
So go ahead, stand barefoot when belaying at the climbing gym. Show off those toenails hanging by a thread of skin. Shoot your mouth off about how that silver-dollar sized blister came at the expense of a 100-mile epic traverse. Your feet have recorded every damn, tremendous deed you’ve ever accomplished or even attempted, and you should be proud of them.
Back on the wall, I make a bold move to the next hold on my 5.6 climb. My beer muscles quiver, and my feet hurt worse with every shift of weight from one artificial ledge to the next. But that’s ok, because I know the shoes are what got me here as I dance on the edge of oblivion 10 massive feet above the padded floor. I won’t complain about my outdoorsy kicks any longer (except for my ski boots.) So if you happen to see me at the climbing gym, don’t worry. My foot fetish fled the scene as soon as I laid eyes on your nasty piggies. I promise I won’t stare.