Saturday, 25 September 2010

The hobnailed boot

"Imagine what the route must have been like xx years ago, climbed in hobnailed boots..."

It's a phrase heard often enough down the pub, but how often does the person saying it know the difference between 'hobnailed' boots and the 'nailed' boots used to make the first ascents of many classic British climbs? The question is not so pedantic as it seems. The humble nailed boot (main form of mountain footwear until the 1930s/40s) has been through many different generations, and the pinnacle of boot nailing bore little resemblance to the crude boots worn by the earliest pioneers of British climbing in the early to mid 19th century.

As part of my project to learn more about the climbing equipment and techniques of the past, I have been using a pair of nailed boots for the past year. I purchased the basic boots from William Lennon in July 2009. They have triple leather soles and steel toe and heel protectors. I then proceeded to nail them using a mixture of standard and triple hobnails. The design may be seen in the photos above.

These hobnails are an ancient design--the Romans were the first known to use them--and it seems very likely that the earliest mountaineers used boots fitted with hardwear of this kind. The early 'Pillarites' (mountaineers to climb the Lake District's Pillar Rock, starting from the 1820s) used hobnailed boots, as did Coleridge on his descent of Broad Stand.

They were also used by early Alpinists up until the invention of the Alpine Clinker. The era of the Clinker nail--which is specially designed to protect the sole, provide better grip, and resist being pulled out--lasted until the early 1900s when it was superceded by the Tricouni.

I have so far used my hobnailed boots to climb two mountain rock climbs graded Moderate, and to climb steep snow and mixed ground at Grade I.

General observations

Perhaps most importantly, I found these boots to be extremely comfortable to wear on the hill, thanks to an excellent fit. The leather sole is somewhat unforgiving, however, and two pairs of socks are a necessity.

In terms of walking, the soft steel nails do wear down quickly and this is a significant disadvantage. In addition, the nails cannot be easily replaced, as the leather sole hardens up after a few uses. The nails also conduct heat away from the foot when walking in snow, making them very cold boots to wear in winter!

The most important difference to modern Vibram boots is the reduced friction on smooth rock. Soft steel nails grip rough rock and edgy holds well, and excel in damp and vegetated conditions, but their main failing is the polished, sloping hold. I found the crux pitch on Pinnacle Ridge (Garbh Bheinn) to be quite difficult in this footwear, although certain other sections with holds of a different character were easy. There is no doubt in my mind that hobnailed boots are quite simply less suitable for rock climbing than any other form of footwear designed for the task.

However, for winter mountaineering and basic climbing (when combined with a step-cutting ice axe) I found these boots to be very good. They are stiff enough to kick steps and grippy enough to dispense with crampons. On the very hardest of ice care had to be taken, but otherwise I found them far better in full winter conditions than my modern boots, while on non-graded ground.

One interesting problem I found was that, under certain conditions, ice was observed to 'ball up' between some of the nails; I believe this can be solved by nailing pattern design.

It cannot be denied that the modern combination of B3 mountain boot and 12-point crampons is more efficient for graded winter climbing. However, my interest is in learning about the techniques of the past, and I hugely enjoyed my climb of Stob Coire nan Lochan using traditional equipment, including a descent of Broad Gully.

In conclusion

While hobnailed boots have a few advantages, in general the problems presented by this design have been progressively solved by future types of sole hardwear. The Tricouni solved the problem of fast-wearing nails and poor grip on some types of sloping hold, but ultimately the Vibram sole has emerged as the best all-round compromise for mountain use, which is why it enjoys almost universal support today.

Want to learn more? Alex Roddie runs a new website devoted to the history of mountaineering, to be found here. He has written a novel based on the exploits of the late Victorian mountaineers, entitled The Only Genuine Jones; check it out on Kindle now!


  1. Hi Alex, until very recently here in the lake district the choice of traditional nailed "curly" ( that is fully sprung) boots was always favoured by farmers/shepherds/fell hunters Apart from the choice of nails (singular or tricounis) I beleive an important factor in choice was the traditional curly full sprung design. Ergonomically this provides an uphill efficient roll.
    I have just bought a pair of these shepherd boots (nailed) after a few years break wearing good walking boots and was immediately struck by their comfort and my ability to to walk with less effort uphill- hope this perhaps gives a walkers perspective on this. many thanks Brian Crossland

  2. The British Army had all their soldiers boots studded this way pre WWII up to the fifties, for long wear and the sound made when the regiments marched in City streets was quite something.