Amongst the wide variety of approach shoes available today, these shoes stand out as the armored tank of the fleet. They are extremely durable and built to withstand years of hard abuse. In fact, many retailers and reviewers (e.g. Outdoorgearlab) classify them in the “light hiking shoe” category, and for good reason.
Scarpa Zen Pro, Retail $169.00
The Zen Pro is probably better for straight-up hiking than most approach shoes on the market, however they are still useful to a climber in many situations, and since many climbers might overlook them because of the “light hiker” designation I want to provide some field-test experience about these shoes.
Durability*: The Zen Pro is a re-release of the popular Zen, which Scarpa has been making for a few years. The Zen is the most durable shoe I’ve ever owned. I bought a pair in the winter of 2010 and I’ve beat them remorselessly into submission over the last 3+ years, and these shoes have refused to die. Granted, I replaced the laces at some point and there’s a bit of Barge cement involved in the toe rand now, but when I consider the short lifespans of many approach shoes—in fact this is becoming a common gripe I hear at the crag—the durability of these shoes really stands out. The abuse I subjected my Zens to includes multi-day backcountry trips with heavy loads, innumerable descents down loose scree, speed laps in the Tetons, and two trips up El Cap. And quite a few runs, hikes in snow, etc…not bad for a little shoe.
*Since the Zen Pro is new I cannot speak to the long-term durability, however unless there are flaws in the manufacturing I am expecting them to last just as long, if not longer, than their predecessor.
Improvements to the Zen: Scarpa made a few improvements to the Zen, most notably using their new SOCK-FIT design, a technology developed with the legendary mountain athlete Ueli Steck and first implemented in the Rebel series alpine climbing boots. SOCK-FIT basically integrates the tongue and mini-gusset with single piece of elastic Schoeller fabric. They are comfortable; they hug my feet snugly but allow my toes space to move.
The Zen Pro breaks in faster than the Zen; stiffness and long break-in time were chief complaints about the older model.
Leather stitching near the pinky toe tended to blow out on the Zen (the site of most of my Barge cement); Scarpa has altered the design with TPU over-injection to protect this and other wear spots.
Sturdy toe box: Like the Zen, the Zen Pro has a very sturdy rubber toe rand welded to a stiff sole. You probably can’t stub your toe in these shoes if you tried. This came in clutch one day: on a convoluted descent in the Wind Rivers a few years back we found ourselves needing to descend a steep snowfield unroped, without axes, to reach another rappel anchor. With the Zen shoes on my feet, I realized that I could kick steps into the really firm snow without bruising my toes; I even kicked a couple snow bollards that we rappelled on. Not saying that’s a recommended tactic, but being able to kick things can be useful…
Also, these shoes can handle the abuse of jugging. In the Valley I’ve seen people wear straight through the rand of Boulder X shoes in one trip up the Captain. My Zens barely showed wear after two ascents.
Rock climbing performance: The Zen Pro is built on a very stiff, thick sole. The stiffness is a boon or a bane depending on what you’re climbing. For an approach shoe they have incredible edging at the cost of inferior smearing. The Vibram Spyder-2 sole is stickier than a hiking shoe or running shoe but less grippy than climbing-oriented approach shoes (e.g. Five-Ten Guide Tennie, LaSportiva Ganda). I was happy using the Zen in classic approach situations (scrambling up the Death Slabs to Half Dome, soloing easy 5th terrain in the Tetons, etc).
Hiking performance: This is where this shoe really shines. A thick cushioned EVA midsole on top of a rigid rubber sole, topped with a heavily cushioned suede upper, make this a really sturdy hiking shoe. I can step on sharp rock shards and not feel them, which is nice while hiking on scree or rock-studded glacier. The tread is aggressive and will grip in gravel or mud like a hiking boot. These shoes are strong enough to support carrying a heavy load without forcing the foot muscles to do the stabilization work. I wore my Zen shoes on quite a few backcountry climbing trips, packing in 60+ pound loads with no issue of foot fatigue.
Warmth and water-repellence: The Zen Pro is a warm shoe. If you wear it in warm weather you will sweat a lot. This shoe is really better for cold-weather use and works great for alpine scrambling where a little warmth is nice. They are not designed to be waterproof, but the suede upper and thick cushioning keep water from seeping through for a while; they’ll soak through in a proper rain, but I’ve found that my feet stay dry through a slushy glissade or quick hop-and-splash stream crossing.
Weight: The price of bomber durability is weight: these shoes are heavy and don’t really collapse when shoved in a pack. Surprisingly, they weigh similar to less-durable shoes. For some comparison, weights and my basic impression of popular approach shoes:
(manufacturer’s claimed weight per pair, which can be based on different sizes so take with a grain of salt)
LaSportiva Ganda Guide: 40 oz burly, heavy, good climbing, very expensive
LaSportiva Boulder X Mid: 36 oz hybrid approach shoe/ super-light mountain boot, see my review
LaSportiva Boulder X: 34 oz tried-and true classic approach shoe, toe rand wears out fast
Scarpa Zen Pro: 34 oz super burly, stiff, good edging, excellent hiking
Five-Ten Guide Tennie: 29 oz packable, great friction, medium support, kinda flimsy
La Sportiva Ganda: 29 oz excellent climbing, very tight, uncomfortable to hike, expensive
Scarpa Crux: 28 oz light, flimsy, good smearing
Evolve Cruzer: 15.4 oz super light, minimal bulk, minimal hiking support
Good looks: Usually not a factor I take into account much, but I must admit these shoes look pretty good; at least they haven’t fallen victim to what I can only describe as the “gadgeted-out hyper-tech” look of many technical shoes. Sometimes simpler is better. I’ve gotten quite a few complements on them from attractive women at the crag…for you young dirtbag males who can’t start a conversation that doesn’t involve beta, good shoes could be an in…
Pros: Very durable, burly toe rand, good hiker, stiff and cushioned support, medium rock climbing ability, warm, repel some water.
Cons: Heavy, don’t collapse, don’t breathe well, don’t climb as well as slimmer approach shoes.
Bottom Line: The Zen Pro is a very well-built, durable shoe and a great asset to a climber; I’m looking forward to using them on any climbing excursion that involves long and/or scrappy hiking, requires 4th-low 5th scrambling, and where weight/packability is not critical. They will also be my go-to shoe for wall climbing, as they will stand up to the abuses of jugging. This shoe is most comparable to the LaSportiva Boulder X; it is stiffer and has a burlier toe rand, equal weight.
They’re great for most climbing with a long or technical approach where you rappel the route (Red Rocks, Longs Peak Diamond, tons of climbs in the desert). Another application: the Zen was my shoe of choice for a one-day lap on the Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton. With 14+ miles of trail and 1000+ feet of 3rd class through 5.easy terrain, they were perfect.
This shoe will also be perfect for any backcountry climbing trip where you need to carry a heavy pack and want to only carry one pair of walking shoes (Incredible Hulk, Cirque of the Towers, Bugaboos, etc).
And the best reason to get them: you’re tired of paying for things that wear out and need replacement so you want to buy a pair of shoes that you can abuse with abandon for 3 years.
This is not a good choice for climbs that don’t have lots of technical approaching and/or where you carry your shoes up the route (climbs in the Black Canyon, the Rostrum, Half Dome, Lumpy Ridge, etc). For these I bring something lighter, even flimsy ultralight running shoes can be just fine in places like the Black.
The Scarpa Zen Pro (women’s) on backcountry.com
The Scarpa Zen Pro (men’s) on backcountry.com
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.