1978. My 16th birthday. O-levels finished. Anticipation of my first self-managed trip after years of following in the wake of my dad, scout masters, Cadet Corps instructors and other responsible adults. Summer in the Lakes, on my own. I couldn’t wait.
I’d told my mum I needed proper mountain boots. Truth be told, I didn’t really. But I was obsessed with climbing and wanted to be a real mountaineer. And real mountaineers wear real mountain boots. Everybody knows that.
So there we were, in the YHA shop in Covent Garden staring at the boot display.
“Mountain boots”, I told the shop assistant, pointing at the ones that had caught my eye.
He disappeared into the stock room and emerged moments later, carrying what seemed to be an unnaturally heavy box. Struggling to control the effects of gravity, he lowered it onto a fitting stool, and opened the top to reveal a splendid pair of Zamberlan mountaineering boots.
I loved them. Several millimetres’ thickness of one-piece, dark brown leather uppers. Norwegian welts sewed with thick twine. Real vibram Montagna soles. Four pairs of open lace hooks on each boot; and a ladder of D-rings nearly down to the toe.
“Full length steel shank”, the assistant told me. He said it like this was a good thing. And I believed him.
“Hand-made”, he said. I knew this was a good thing.
I didn’t even need to try them on. I knew from the way they looked that they were perfect: they were just like the boots worn by the alpinists I saw monthly in High and Climber.
Trying them on did nothing to damage my enthusiasm. They felt exactly like mountain boots were supposed to feel – as I imagined, at least. Solid and utterly unyielding. But with a bit of effort I could lift them off the ground, one at a time; and by concentrating hard, I could put them back down in roughly the place I wanted my foot to be. So they were fine for walking. I knew they would be.
“Good for kicking steps”, the shop man said.
He wasn’t wrong. Those boots could have kicked steps in solid granite. I don’t think they flexed under my weight at all. I was glad. Mountain boots shouldn’t bend. Everybody knows that.
“You’ll need to break them in”, he said.
I was slightly insulted that he thought I wouldn’t know this. I wanted to tell him, so he’d know I wasn’t a beginner. Of course proper mountain boots would need breaking in. Everybody knows that! But I just nodded and asked for a can of dubbin.
My mum paid for the boots. She said “Happy birthday” quite loudly as she handed me the bag before we left the shop. This was a bit embarrassing. It made me feel like a child.
Nevertheless, I had my new mountain boots, and I knew they were perfect.
And, to be honest, I still don’t think I was wrong about that. Of course by any rational assessment, they weren’t ideal for summer fell-walking in the Lakes. They must have weighed well over a kilo each. In all the subsequent years I had them, I don’t think they flexed. Ever. And the only effect of dubbin seemed to be to turn the leather dark and greasy. But they fitted me well enough, and rarely gave me blisters. And they did a fine job when I graduated to Scottish winter mountaineering. (The shop man was right: they turned out to be great for kicking steps.)
But mostly, they really did make me feel like a real mountaineer. This mattered to me. It still does, even though my accomplishments have rarely warranted the description.
So, more than 30 years older, maybe wiser, and definitely less image conscious, I’m still tempted by boots that might make me feel like a real mountaineer.
[Previously posted on Outdoors Magic]