Foot Light and Fancy Free
I carry too much stuff in the backcountry. As a photographer, it's an occupational hazard. I'm wedded to my cameras, lenses and tripod and crossing glaciers mandates toting ropes and gear; add a full set of camping gear and the weight mounts to crushing levels. I wanted relief.
Ray Jardine's Pacific Crest Trail manual gave me the answer: go light, ridiculously light. Jardine's philosophy echoes Henry David Thoreau's dictum, "You are rich in proportion to the things you do not need."
I resolved to test the lightest footwear possible, but not too light. Running shoes had many problems, some important, some not. They would soak through on rainy days, but my feet usually get wet from leaks or sweat anyway so finding a shoe that would dry quickly was important. Flimsy midsoles let sharp stones poke and bruise the sole while providing insufficient support for preventing turned ankles. I needed something more robust.
The puzzling popularity of 100 mile mountain runs led to the creation of hybrid shoes, running shoes with some of the attributes of hiking boots injected with the latest technology. After reviewing worthy contenders, I settled on the Vitesse by Montrail.
The Vitesse is a hiking boot stripped down to its platonic essence instead of a built-up running shoe. A plastic midsole cups the heel and provides a platform that adds torsional rigidity so the foot won't easily roll. A forefoot protection plate wards off sharp stones underfoot. A reinforced toe box guards against stubbing. Montrail also employs a hydrophobic synthetic leather, because it absorbs no water, drying is not a problem. Small mesh panels on the sides provide ventilation at the cost of instantaneous leaking, but the innards dry swiftly. The laces pass through a loop in the middle of tongue so it doesn't migrate to the side.
I needed to get a photograph of Image Lake for an upcoming book on the North Cascades crest so off I went on a 34 mile, 30 hour trek. On the trail, the Vitesse were a revelation. The shoes wrapped around my feet like vacuum packing and I never got tired, mile after mile. After hiking 16 miles and gaining 4,000 feet of elevation, I felt fresh, not always the case at age 47. There was no hint of a blister or hot spot.
I found only two blemishes. First, the stiff foot bed prevented most twisted ankles, but when it finally rolled, it felt like it flipped and hard. Second, you need to train your feet. The muscles in each foot ached toward the end of the day. They recovered in an hour, but a few shorter preparatory hikes would have prevented the problem.
In short, the experiment worked. I'll gladly not wear heavy boots again, and the Vitesse have become my favorite around town shoe, too.
James Martin, Mountain Zone Contributing Editor