Many alpine climbers are scared to do anything but walk and scramble in their big boots, feeling that their insensitivity, weight and size precludes them from anything beyond the most basic of rock moves. This of course isn’t the case, especially when you look back at what other climbers achieved sans rock boots.
Being able to boulder out rock steps, or climb swiftly on the moderate ground in your leathers or plastics saves a great deal of time, especially so if the climbing involves snow and ice (climbing snow in rock boots is both uncomfortable and dangerous).
Unlike climbing in rock boots big boots require a great deal more thought and judgement, and it’s vital that you build up your experience slowly, on crags closer to home.
The stiffer and more traditional the sole unit the more precise you need to be, scrutinising the footholds in order to determine the optimum foot position. Once you’re standing on the hold it’s often a bit like ice climbing, in that you need to make sure your foot stays in that position, with no wobbling or heal movement (rock climbing in big boots is great practice for mixed climbing). You generally aren’t using the stickiness of the sole, but simply its edging ability, which means that you need to make sure that the very edges of the sole are rigid enough so that it doesn’t deform and creep off. It’s for this reason that most good quality climbing sole units vary in density, having harder rubber at the toe, and softer stickier rubber in the middle.
As in winter climbing it’s also worth learning to use all parts of the boot to your advantage, meaning standing on your heels rather than your toes if you can so as to reduce strain on your calves and outside and inside edging.
Finally, you will also come to appreciate the qualities of a good rand, as they help when jamming your feet into cracks, helping them stick and stay secure – just be careful though as they do have a nasty habit of sticking!
The limitations of big boots are narrow hand jamming cracks, pure friction slabs, and anything that requires a fine touch. They do excel at face moves and featured sections of rock, and typical alpine ground from UIAA I to IV.
Most climbers should be able to easily climb 2 or 3 grades below their leading grade in rock boots, and harder with the odd bit of French free (such as when you encounter those hand jamming cracks).
Rock boots will always allow you to climb faster and with more security, but big boot skills are crucial for any alpine climber who wants to move swiftly from the glacier to the harder climber where rock boots have to be worn.