Sunday, September 17, 2006

La Sportiva Exum River Canyoneering Shoe - Review

A review of the new canyoneering specific shoe from La Sportiva, the Exum River.

Canyoneering is still a relatively new sport, and has just recently started to really gain popularity. Technical canyons (canyons that generally require the use of ropes and rock climbing equipment) have been explored in the mountains of Europe for many years, and in the late 60’s and early 70’s climbers and adventurers did first documented descents of technical canyons in Zion National Park (Zion would probably be considered the birthplace of American Canyoneering). Accounts of descending some of the big nasty slot canyons of Zion pop up in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In some of these accounts we find rock climbers recognizing the need for specialized gear to make their trips easier. Many of the accounts list items not taken on standard climbing trips like wetsuits, triple garbage sacks for bagging gear that needs to stay dry, floating packs on inflatable mattresses, etc... As Canyoneering becomes more popular, more companies are starting to manufacture canyoneering specific gear that makes traveling down slot canyons much more efficient and enjoyable. One of the most important pieces of gear is a good shoe.

There are currently two major Canyoneering specific shoes on the U.S. market. There are many that can be used for Canyoneering, and some hardcore canyoneers prefer these non-specific shoes, but most end up using one of the two made for the sport sooner or later. The first shoe to come out is made by 5.10, called the Canyoneer. The new kid on the block is La Sportiva’s Exum River, the first shoe to give 5.10 some real competition.

Before I go over the pluses and minuses of La Sportiva’s shoe, lets go over what a good canyoneering shoe should have. First and foremost is the sole. Canyoneering many times involves swimming, wading, and climbing on all sorts of slippery surfaces, it is essential to have a shoe that will grip when wet. Canyoneering can many times involve climbing moves, especially stemming and chimneying, in some cases 20 to 80 feet off the deck for hours at a time, if you can’t trust your footing you can get into big trouble. Another key is how comfortable your shoes are when wet. They need to drain well and not shrink or dry up when constantly getting wet. Like any other shoe they need to be comfortable for the approach and exit (no one wants to carry two pairs of shoes) and be able to take a beating like no other shoe can (I can’t think of any sport harder on gear than canyonnering, it shreds anything and everything to pieces).

So with that intro, how does the Exum River stand up in the mostly dry slots of the Colorado Plateau (mainly Utah/Arizona)? My first impression was good, it is a low top (5.10’s is a mid top) shoe, which some prefer. It feels sturdy and seems to be tough enough to handle what the canyons dish out. It also has a strap that tightens over the top of the tongue, designed to keep it on when tackling strong current (not too useful in Utah, but might be useful in Europe), it also seems to help keep rocks out (which is a strong point of the 5.10 shoes design). I was a little leery of the straps; they looked like they could easily be shredded to bits after just a few trips.

The first canyon I tested them in was a beautiful little canyon high in the mountains with light water flow and all kinds of slip potential. I had scouted the canyon and been down portions of it in my 5.10 shoes and was anxious to see how the Exum Rivers would perform as we descended the entire canyon for the first time. The shoes were comfortable and handled the approach with ease, but upon dropping in to the light water flow, I noticed immediately that the sticky rubber soles, although far superior to your average shoe, didn’t seem as sticky as my 5.10’s.

The second canyon was a hidden gem in Zion, with plenty of pools, but no flowing water. Upon dropping into the canyon, just as I suspected would happen, one of the rubber straps snapped off. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the same thing happens to the other. Hopefully La Sportiva will either fix this or get rid of the strap altogether, I really don’t see much use for it personally.

The Exum Rivers drain water well and my feet always felt comfy when wet. When wearing thick neoprene socks (for the really cold water canyons) my feet felt cramped as the shoes seem to fit people with narrow feet better than my somewhat wide feet, overall though they performed well.

Other trips went off without problem, the Exum River’s were comfortable, drained water, and other than the rubber straps, are holding up well. People with narrow feet or that can’t get the 5.10’s to fit right will especially like these shoes. One big downside for people just breaking into the sport is the price tag, at $99 a pop it's hard to break down and pay when you know how hammered they are going to get once you start using them. However if you start in the sport using tennis shoes and then decide you enjoy it enough to buy specialized shoes, you will notice a world of difference just in the friction you get from the sticky rubber soles. They make enough of a difference that if you want to really get into the sport you'll justify paying for them.

Overall, this is a great canyoneering shoe, especially if you’ve tried the 5.10 shoes and haven’t been happy with them, or if you have narrow feet and are looking for an alternative. Personally I’m not convinced to give up my 5.10’s because of their superior stickiness and comfort for my feet (I did a four day, 30+ mile backpack/canyoneering trip with nothing but these shoes and my feet were more comfortable than my hiking shoes). But it is nice to have choices and La Sportiva’s done a fine job considering it’s their first canyoneering specific shoe. Hopefully a little competition will improve both the 5.10’s and these until we have the ultimate shoe for Canyoneering.

    Pro’s:

    • Fit narrow feet better than the 5.10’s
    • Comfortable and drain well.
    • Great traction from the sticky rubber soles.
    • Stylish.

    Con’s:

    • Usless (in my opinion, although "Eruopean style" canyoneers might find more use for them) rubber straps that broke on the second trip.
    • Shoelaces can come untied, but are easier to replace than the straps used on the 5.10 shoes
    • Not as sticky as 5.10’s stealth rubber, but still good.
    • Expensive considering how trashed they will get, but 5.10’s alternative is no better.

P.S. The Exum River would also make a great Kayaking or River Hiking shoe. It’s great for anything that involves wet or slippery conditions.

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