For those of you sensitive types, this is NOT a gear review. These shoes are brand new, which means doing any kind of review would be pointless. This is a story about approach shoes and how I came to know and use them. But for this we need to go back to Austin in 1990. I was studying photojournalism while slowly losing my mind because the photojournalism program at University of Texas at Austin was so behind the times. Prior to coming to UT, I had already spent time working at another college newspaper and I had also worked for actual newspapers as a daily assignment photographer. Landing at UT, I found myself eager to progress but lost in a program that was out of date, focused on things that didn’t matter to the modern photojournalism world and staffed with faculty that wasn’t interested in anyone who thought differently. (We did have one great faculty member named Julie.)
I don’t remember how this happened exactly, but I must have complained enough that the school made a few concessions. I was allowed as an undergraduate to take a graduate level documentary class. Small, hyper-focused and way more intense than anything in the standard photojournalism sequence. On the first day of class, I was assigned another student as my focus for the entire semester, and they in turn were assigned to me. That’s it. This one student was my story. Suddenly, we were married.
I was assigned a guy named Rick who was a writer not a photographer. Rick was older than me and way more together. He was intelligent and a stellar talent when it came to putting words together. Rick was also an astute observer, noting the smallest details of me and my behavior. After exchanging our first assignments I was stunned and somewhat shocked by the level and detail of his observations of my movement and mannerisms. I instantly felt inadequate forcing me to double down on pondering what the Hell I was actually doing.
When he explained this to me my first thought was “Oh no, I’m afraid of heights.” I also didn’t know anything about climbing. Nothing, nada. I, of course, knew the basic idea but wasn’t hip to the level of difficulty or the difference between things like sport climbing, big wall, soloing, or anything else. We made plans to connect at the crag which was located along a green belt area in the center of town. As I walked along the riverbed I came to the area where Rick and his friends were climbing. I looked up in wonder as a guy named Jeff navigated a roof crack. He let go with this feet and hung by two fingertips then spun and reconnected this feet. He made it look so easy I thought “Probably not as difficult as it looks.” Turns out Jeff was a writer and editor and went on to be one of the first people to discover and climb El Potrero Chico in Mexico. He was an elite climber. I was an idiot.
I realized immediately that shooting from the ground wasn’t going to work. I needed to rappel down and photograph from above as the climbers worked upwards. The problem was I didn’t know how to do any of this. But thankfully Rick and his crew were kind enough to assist. They were also kind enough to let me attempt to climb. They loaned me climbing shoes, a harness and a chalk bag then pointed to a climb called “Crystal Blue Persuasion,”a 5.10B. (This part is foggy and the name and rating could be off.) I couldn’t make the first move. I couldn’t get off the ground. I had no technique, didn’t trust the footholds and did nothing more than try to pull myself up by using my arms. Within minutes my knees were bleeding and my arms were jelly. Epic fail.
I continued to photograph Rick, on and off, and even made a trip to West Texas as the crew competed at a climbing contest. I had never seen more dedicated athletes. There was Rick, a guy named Tony, Jeff and Jeff’s wife or girlfriend and they were so committed to climbing they made my dedicated photography friends look like dabblers. Jeff’s girlfriend/wife later taught me footwork at this odd bouldering spot in Barton Springs. And on a completely and utterly crazy coincidental happening, I later worked for her brother who was briefly the CFO at Blurb. (I was telling part of this story to him and he said “That’s my sister.”)
Rick and his friends bled climbing. They were as fit as anyone I had ever seen, and were hyper strict when it came to their diet. Excess weight was unacceptable and hindered performance. I felt like an anthropologist finding a lost tribe. (I had minors in Spanish and Anthropology.) I was such a tool at this time, probably still am, but looking back I feel bad for them having to put up with me. Through this group I was introduced to approach shoes.
At this time, getting approach shoes wasn’t easy. I found a pair that fit, 5.10 brand if I remember correctly, then bought three or four pairs of the same shoe. I wore these shoes for the next ten years. I remember looking down at the last pair as they went from usable to “Oh no, they are dead.” Then, just as quickly as I had learned about this niche style of shoe, I promptly forgot about them. I’ve tried a hundred different types of shoes since then but recently ran into a local friend who is a full-time, licensed guide for all of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. And he was wearing approach shoes. It was like finding an old friend.
These shoes are odd. Typically, super stiff, laces extending down toward the toes much further than a trail runner, and built with tacky climbing rubber as the undercarriage. You can hike in them, scramble, or even hook kick your siblings in the head in them. (I do as often as possible.) Did I mention I don’t climb? I don’t. I was going to the climbing gym prior to the wet market disease of choice, but I’m not a climber. Climbing is hip now. I am not. However, I wanted to share my history with approach shoes because maybe some of you rowdy types might want to have a go. If you are interested, there are many flavors of approach shoes. Which are the best? No idea. I had points at REI and they had these, so that was the extent of my research. I’ll let you know in a few years how they worked out. Onward, upward.