By Dave Westlake
The latest rock shoes from La Sportiva promise complementary qualities on the same last. The stiffer Otaki and the softer Skwama also strike a distinctive look, carved out by bold colours and imaginative designs. But do they perform well enough to redeem themselves for such odd sounding names?! I’ve been testing a pair of each over the last few months and I’ve tried them out on a variety of rock types. I’ve used them bouldering and sport climbing on granite, limestone, gneiss, quarried sandstone, and gritstone. Alongside this I’ve clocked up a fair bit of time using them for indoor training on commercial walls and training boards.
I’ve also done some research into those names. Apparently Otaki is Japanese Samurai slang for the “oldest single wire sword: extremely sharp and precise also on small targets”. The etymology of Skwama is less easily unearthed, but the La Sportiva website describes the shoe as sensitive and embracing “like the scales of a snake”. This is beginning to make a bit more sense, so let’s start by turning our attention to the kind of climbing are these new shoes are aimed at.
It’s fair to say that both models are gunning for a place at the more technical end of things. In the days of old this might have meant automatic discomfort, but rock shoe designs have advanced significantly in the last 5 years or so, and modern construction gives us the best of both worlds. La Sportiva have been at the heart of this progress and the Otaki and Skwama use the latest technology to give both comfort and performance. This opens both models up to a wider range of climbers looking to improve and progress, and it’s easy to see that their target market includes anyone from the improver bracket upwards.
More specifically, the Otaki has aspirations to become a go-to shoe for technical sport and trad climbs, with its stiff midsole and support for longer routes. The Skwama forges a different identity with its split midsole and softer overall feel. This makes it a suppler alternative, better suited bouldering and indoor climbing. Both share the S-Heel, which is an innovative new heel design that has been unveiled to considerable fanfare (more on this below).
The shape of the two models is similar – a product of sharing the same last - though the differing softness means they feel a little different on your foot. I found the similar profile to be an advantage on trips as it allows you to switch between models easily, without having to re-familiarise yourself with a different shape at the toe or a different heel cup. Both shoes are fairly wide in the forefoot, but narrower in the heel.
The toe profile of the Otaki and Skwama is excellent, much like the other shoes in the La Sportiva performance arsenal. It has an asymmetric shape with gives great precision on micro footholds and pockets, with a slight down turn that comes into its own when the angle steepens. The down turn is maintained throughout the lifetime of the shoe thanks to the P3 ‘Permanent Power Platform’ technology – which is featured in the tried-and-tested Miura VS and Solution models.
In terms of innovative tech, the S-Heel is the key development that sets these new shoes apart from their more established counterparts. Inaugurated with the Otaki and Skwama, the S-Heel is said by La Sportiva to “maintain perfect torsion stability accentuating performance and adaptability in heel hooks when bouldering”.
Essentially, the S-Heel is a strip of rubber that prevents the heel from compressing around your foot on marginal heel hooks. There is an art to designing a heel that fits properly, and the Skwama and Otaki heels are definitely examples of that. The heels feel snug when heel hooking and they push your toe to the front of the shoe, so they are up there with the best shoes available. And this might be the most important thing. I’m always looking to heel hook my way around hard moves, and I’d only really found this to be a problem when using ill-fitting shoes. As the months of testing went on I didn’t notice any particular differences between these and other well designed heels; I was beginning to suspect the S-Heel had more to do with marketing than it did with heel hooking.
Then, just recently, I found myself trying a boulder problem at Caley that required a particularly weird and rather tricky heel toe drag (can anyone guess which problem?!). On this move, your heel is pulled around and against the hard strip of rubber as you drag your toe against an undercut. You never know, until you move your hand, whether it’s going to hold securely, or slip out and eject you sideways into a heap on the mat. Having attempted the move several times in another shoe, with the ‘eject sideways’ outcome every time, I switched my right foot into a Skwama and stuck the move next go. This could be a one off, of course, but afterwards I saw the S-Heel in a new light. While it may go unnoticed most of the time, the extra stability it offers in certain orientations could well give you the edge on those rare occasions where it really counts.
As you would expect, both the Otaki and the Skwama feel like they are built to last and have fared very well during the time I’ve had them. The toe patch on the Skwamas deserves particular praise, as it’s as good as any I’ve used – being thin enough to be super sensitive but also durable and robust to resist peeling. The Velcro straps could probably be a bit longer, because there isn’t much strap left to play with if you size the shoes fairly tight. That said any initial concerns I had about the straps being insecure proved unfounded.
At this point the two models begin to differ, so I’ll consider them separately.
The Otaki is an excellent performance shoe for anything requiring secure edging capabilities. They come into their own on routes, and are less suited as an all-round bouldering shoe due to the lack of toe rubber. Their stiffness means they take a while to break in, but once they soften the Otaki’s feel comfortable enough to wear for extended periods. The rubber (4mm Vibram XS-Edge) is durable and offers the stability you need on small edges and on longer pitches. The Otaki is a good choice for anyone who rated the Katana – as it is a similar shoe with a more aggressive feel.
Although the Skwa
ma is softer than the Otaki, it remains good for edging due to its 4mm sole. Unlike other soft models, which feature very thin sole rubber, the softness is maintained by the split sole and the use of Vibram XS Grip2. This gives it a nice versatility that makes it a better all-rounder. I was really impressed by the edging capability of the Skwama, partly because it took me by surprise. Other soft shoes tend to perform badly on small edges but the Skwama proved really adaptable. This makes the Skwama stand out among the many softer shoes available and it gives it a true versatility that I found really impressive. On longer routes the level of support wouldn’t be as good as the Otaki but as a go to shoe for short routes and bouldering I couldn’t find much not to like in the Skwama.
I found the normal La Sportiva sizing was a useful guide, and I went for the same size in both (38.5). Having said that, I would probably take a 39 in my next pair of Otaki’s because they are stiffer and harder to break in. I’d stick to the 38.5 in the Skwama as the softer shoe lends itself to a tighter fit (for reference, my shoe size is around a UK 8.5/9, and I like to size my rock shoes on the tighter side).
Both the Otaki and the Skwama perform very highly in the areas they are designed for, and buying a pair of each would be a wise choice for all-round climbers. The fit and design of both models represents the state of the art, for now at least, and this combines high performance, durability and comfort. I was particularly impressed by the Skwama because it took me by surprise – showing not only the characteristics of a great soft shoe, but also holding its own on edges and excelling on marginal toe hooks. For what they are designed for, the Otaki and Skwama are two of the best shoes available.