Dispelling the myth that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Simon Madden and Denby Weller find out that they both live happy and comfortable on Planet Drago
I like the Drago a lot. Light and soft, as sensitive as a 19th century English dandy. Not to big the shoe up too much but it has shown me that you can teach an old scarred insensate to feel again.
Firstly, a little about me; I am a brute. I cannot willingly channel my attention into specific parts. I am not in tune with my body’s feedback, though to compensate I am quite good at looking down at my stiff hoofs stamping around like a baby elephant’s.
I also have unbelievably inflexible toes – a frightful condition for a rock climber. Tested against a sample of fellow climbers I am the most immobile. In fact, so uncomfortable is trying to bend them that even seeing another person curl their toes under their feet as they sit on the couch chugging a post-send day beer causes a shudder of revulsion through my body. A visceral manifestation of horror.
And a little about the Dragos; they are very asymmetrical, there’s no midsole but the Scarpites use a PCB (Power Connection Band!) to link the heel to toe and to increase grip, strength and feel. The shoe is decked out in 3.5mm of Vibram XS Grip 2, including lashed over the upper. They are cinched up with a single Velcro closure , while the microsuede upper is soft for a skintight, locked-in fit. The heel cup is on the smaller side, good for me as my heel often swims a little.
I have been wearing the Scarpa Vapors for a year or so and they have been great. In a shoe I can handle a bit of aggressiveness but not too much – say the difference between shaking a fist at the tele when David Leyonhjelm is on vs coward punching a fellow drunkard in Kings Cross on a Sunday morning. So it was with some interest that I tried to slip into a pair of Dragos. On the advice of brand experts I got them sight-unseen at the same size as my Vapors (punter error!).
I tried them for about five weeks, and I mean once a week squealing, squeaking, eeking and crying, to break them in (or at least break into them) and they broke me. I am a big baby, but maybe it doesn’t matter as no one is doing too tight shoes nowadays and, if you are, that is just because your tastes are anachronistic and you haven’t learnt that clenchingly-tight shoes were a product of historically poor shoe design and now with great shoe design you should never have to burst into tears to get your shoes on. That makes sense to me and it strokes the egos of the shoe designers, so I am sure that it makes sense to them too.
So I upped the Dragos one full size, ditched the plastic bags and wearing them under my desk and stepped into usability. What a great decision. There are a lot of good raps going around for the Dragos and for good reason. I’ve found them to be soft, comfortable while also sensitive and precise. I haven’t suffered any badly rubbed hot spots from the inner and they remain sock-snug even after giving a little. I have bouldered a lot indoors with them and taken them for a burn out climbing routes in the Blueys and at Frederick Peak and on some blocs in the Grampians and Sydney, and the biggest surprise is that for aggressive shoes they edge and smear pretty well. I still have a little bag in the heel but that’s the result of my own peculiar foot dynamics. Unless you are Ondra getting a factory to make a precise shoe to order, most of us are not going to get a perfect fit.
But best of all I am feeling things. I’m like the old spinster who has long given up on love only to be swept off her feet in time to glide into her fulfilling golden years with a heart full of feelings once thought lost.
I remember the first time I felt a heel hook. Not the first time I ungainly draped my hoof on a hold, still taking all my weight on my arms. I mean the first time I placed the heel and turned the toes out and down to engage my mighty buttocks and hamstring. It was a revelation. It was like the first time that I put on seeing spectacles after fighting against the tide of blindness for years and realised that trees were not watercolour smudges but were instead fractured and you could make out all the individual leaves. The Dragos have been like the seeing glasses of my feet.
It’s not all the shoe I am sure, perhaps I was finally ready to learn. Too aged and inconsistent to get stronger so resigned to getting better. And with those thoughts of getting better I ask myself, what body part will I discover looking through my Dragos?
My only concern is longevity. Does softness translate to a short performance window? The answer is probably yes, but if you want a shoe that allows you – nay, mayhap teaches you – to feel what you’re putting your feet on, gives you loads of feedback, is supple and comfortably-fitting yet a power-generator that performs pretty well across a broad range of conditions, then it’s worth taking a look at the Scarpa Dragos.
Many years ago, a physio eyeing my skewed, bunyioned toes suggested I might try developing some footwork instead of jamming my tootsies into ever-shrinking climbing shoes. Naturally, I elected to take the ever-shrinking shoes route.
It was a given that my climbing shoes would ruin my strappy-sandal feet, rob me of sensation in my toe tips, and make me swear and grizzle every time I put them on. But boy, did they stand on tiny edges and stingy jibs with style. For the mere price of nerve damage, this was a trade I was happy to make.
Enter the Scarpa Dragos. These are the shoes I wanted to hate. I’m a La Sportiva girl, and I’ve been wearing my Heinz Mariacher–designed Solutions for years. I loved my Solutions. Just because Heinz had moved to Scarpa and made these lovely new shoes, didn’t mean I’d be moving with him. Scarpa invited me to a demo night and offered a review pair of Dragos, but even the lure of free shoes was not enough to dazzle me, convinced that my love affair with the Dragos would be brief.
Selecting my usual size, I slipped on the pretty yellow things and was immediately met with a suspicion-inducing sensation of comfort. Nothing that felt so much like a hug for the foot could perform at all well, so I prowled the gym looking for the unlikeliest of polished, mingy heel-hooks and screw-ons to bear down on until the pliant, suede foot-hugs spooged right off the holds. To my surprise, they held. I put this down to the uber-sticky Vibram XS Grip 2 rubber, which I expected to wear through in a matter of minutes, and got on with hauling my way up every problem I could do. By the end of the evening, the toe rubber was intact, the shoes were worn in, and the comforting ‘pfffttt’ sound they made when I pulled them on had become an object of my affection. Time to take them for a real test-ride.
Pfffttt, said the shoes as I slid them on day after day, putting them through their paces on all terrains, for three sessions a week, critically eying their toe rubber after each sesh. Initially, they wore alarmingly fast, but after a couple of months, they settled. The rubber didn’t get polished, the alluring comfort didn’t descend into shapeless gumbootery. The shoes looked, and felt, good. Bloody good.
And boy, did they perform on my favourite terrain: slightly-overhanging walls with technical sequences and small holds. Off-angle holds, polished holds, holds I couldn’t see with the naked eye: nothing would spit these shoes off. I found myself climbing better, and more confidently, than ever before. In roofs I found toe hooking more comfortable, and on every angle, I found the rubber stickier. Pfffttt became the sound of send.
My physio’s words drifted back from the fog of memory with a strange new feeling of comprehension. So this is what foot technique is like. The first technique I mastered was ‘smedging’ – a portmanteau of smearing and edging which some would say is not a technique at all, but bugger them, because I stuck that foothold and they slipped off.
As the shoes wore in, I began to ask myself if maybe the Dragos would wear out in another month? Maybe the stitching would give, or the leather would soften too much, or the rubber would peel at the rand? None of these problems eventuated.
It was the return of feeling in my toes that really won me over. After a couple of months, I could even bend my big toes a bit. This made for further enhancements in my footwork.
The truth is not that this is a better shoe than the Solution, but it’s definitely a better shoe for me. The Dragos’ last is undoubtedly narrower than even the women’s Solution, and the heel has less volume, befitting to my, er, modestly-endowed heels. Years of climbing even moderate grades have made my feet strong enough to handle the other critical difference: the Dragos are nowhere near as stiff as the Solutions. That’s why they’re so comfortable, and so good at smedging, but they’re not made for a beginner’s foot. Perhaps they’ll wear faster than my old shoes, but that’s a price I’ll pay for the enhanced performance, and two months in, even that is not a certainty.