05 September 2014

The North Face Dhaulagiri II GTX - The perfect all-around hiking boot?

Ask any hiker which part of the equipment he values the most and the vast majority of them will mention the boots.
The reason for that choice is, we all know, quite simple:
Hiking, naturally, presupposes walking and for that you need your feet. Without adequate protection, they won't take you far.
In the end, as in many options in life, choosing the right hiking shoes is a matter of personal taste and always subjective.
Furthermore, if we try to separate and classify things by makers and nationality, we all get more confused in the process. We could argue that the best shoemakers are Italians. An in a way we may be right. Therefore, in terms of quality (at least), we could expect a good quality product, if bought from an Italian company. Brands like Scarpa, La Sportiva, Asolo, Crispi or Garmont - to name a few - became over the decades synonymous of quality handcrafting.
However, when, nowadays, we check their tongues, we hardly get surprised to see that these shoes are not made in Europe anymore.
So much for the European production and quality, if there is still any.
Increasing our doubts, instead of calming us, the market is now being invaded by shoes made by companies that, until recent times, had no tradition whatsoever in the shoe-making industry.
Millet, The North Face, Karrimor or Salewa are just a few, among several companies, that are presently diversifying their catalogs and including in them lines of shoes and mountains boots.
Seeing a clothing company designing shoes should gives us the same peace of mind we would get from a luxury automobile company attempting the construction of jet engines, right? Well, as the latter proved, there is nothing wrong with that.
Today I have the proof of that. Three years ago, while looking for a pair of all-around hiking boots suitable for the Madeira environment and wouldn't destroy my wallet, I gave a moment of attention to the North Face Dhaulagiri II GTX. I had a few guiding lines of what I thought the right hiking boot for Madeira should be: light construction, preferably in a mixed of leather and synthetic materials, hence breathable and simultaneously waterproof (meaning a Gore-Tex membrane), a rubberized toe cap and Vibram rubber sole. I discarded the full-leather construction because, in my opinion, although being clearly the best in impermeability, they are too hot for the Madeira gentle climate. The handful of days per year we have in the island's highest mountains sub-zero temperatures and snow that could justify an all-leather boot are not enough to justify walking with the feet soaked in perspiration the rest of the time. They are also harder to maintain, requiring more complex care.
Having previously used hiking shoes from The North Face and being quite happy with them, I decided to give their boots a try.
First of all, I've noticed that they were with a very large discount. Which isn't always a good sign. Second, the opinions on the web were not that unanimous. Some were saying the boots were great, the others said they were amongst the worst. Well, all I can is to give you, also, my two cents worth on the subject.
And from day one I couldn't be happier with the choice I've made. The boots fitted my feet like gloves. Wearing a 7.5 UK size on the hiking shoes, I choose to buy their boots in 8 UK - half size bigger. I do not regret the decision. The feet are more free inside the boot, without excessive play. No blisters to account for.
The North Face Dhaulagiri II GTX hiking boots. These boots from The North Face ended up being a good surprise, lasting more than two years, after continuous use and abuse in the mountains of Madeira. 86 UK Pounds well spent.
The worn out Vibram soles of the Dhaulagiris. After two years of continuous use, this was, not surprisingly, the first component to collapse. A second (new) pair is already at home. To replace them.

Shoe-making of another era.
Twenty-six years ago, when I embraced mountaineering, we could notice an informed mountaineer (not necessarily a good one!) by the boots he or she wore. Contrary to the present diversity, during those days mountain footwear was categorized for their specific use: low mountain, medium mountain and high mountain. There were almost no hiking shoes (people used tennis shoes for all uses that did not require a stronger footwear) and the modern and so popular approach shoes - a mix between light hiking shoes and rock climbing shoes - were yet to be invented.
In those days, a pair of good quality mountain boots - according to the books - had to have the following characteristics: a Vibram sole, full leather construction (with leather preferably of three millimeters thickness), the minimum of seams on the upper body (meaning using the minimum of leather pieces for the whole boot), the sewing of the sole should be made with a double (preferably triple) seam and the shaft should be high enough to protect the ankle movement.
The rubber soles should be flexible for low mountain use, semi-flexible for medium mountain (suitable for use with strap crampons) and rigid for high-mountain (recommended for use with automatic crampons).
Regardless of their final use, these boots were more or less built with the same technical quality. And we expected them to live a lifetime.
My Dachstein medium mountain boots, reaching now a quarter of a century, have already many hundreds of kilometers of mountain trails under their (original) soles. They just need to be washed once at home, left to dry in the shadow and then greased with Dubbin.
So far, they lasted for twenty five years. And since I don't use them quite so often anymore, with the same proper care, they will probably outlive me.
Well, those days are gone. Except a few high quality models, no shoemaker makes a boot or a shoe to last. The ergonomy in the products, propelled by a better knowledge of body mechanics, evolved, as the technicality of the materials used. But the durability was compromised on the process. For instance, where once you had a flat or straight Vibram sole glued to the insole (allowing for replacement), you now have the same Vibram material on a vulcanized sole with a sinuous and exotic profile, irreplaceable. 

Why am I telling you all of this?
Well, because if you are a little bit complicated - just like me - you still expect, presently, to buy a pair of mountain boots that lasts for your entire career among the peaks.
Forget it. Mountain footwear is becoming more and more similar to any other consumption product. It is supposed to have a lifespan of a couple of years and then you send it into the dumpster. As Sam Rockwell wisely pointed out in Iron Man 2: "Don't get so attached to things, learn to let go!". You just have to accept this as an actual fact, expect the equipment to perform faultlessly during its entire lifetime and move on to another one in the nearby future.

So, as long as you admit this - the temporary and finite condition of any present good - any mountain footwear that you buy today should give you miles of pleasant hikes in the nature. As long as it fits your feet.