The Italian Shoe Massacre March 12 2016

Dealing with heel pain from climbing shoes

How to alter your climbing shoe to fix heel pain

Are there evil Sicilian gnomes who sneak out of cracks when you’re climbing at San Vito lo Capo and stab the back of your heel with a hot skewer? Maybe they’re connected to the mafia? For a while, I was seriously beginning to think so.

I had just done a second burn on a climb aptly named Ballerina. I hadn’t gotten through the balancey, sequency crux the first time, but enjoyed the climb enough to give it a second go. At the end of the first attempt, my heels just felt like they normally feel after half a day of climbing: slightly sore, and certainly happy to be free of my Scarpa Vapour V’s while belaying my partner. By the end of the second ascent, however, I was feeling a pain I’d never quite felt before, and it was bad enough to make me hallucinate about mafiosi gnomes. How could things change so quickly?

We moved on to a much more burly, overhanging climb out of a small cave. I could barely stuff my right foot into my climbing shoe. The climb was much less footwork-intensive, but I yelped every time I had to put weight on my right foot. That was the end of my climbing day and the beginning of my research session, which surfaced frightening terms like “Achilles heel bursitis” and “Haglund’s Deformity.” Deformity? What, that bump on the back of my heels wasn’t normal? That pain I felt last summer after a balancey multipitch wasn’t normal?

Abnormality aside, the most disheartening part was how long it seemed to take people to get through an acute flare-up: weeks, months, and sometimes surgery! We still had a few more weeks in Sicily. I had project goals. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my climbing trip belaying, dammit. And yet I couldn’t even walk down the street in my comfy approach shoes without hobbling.

Step 1:

 Climbing with one of my boyfriend's old shoes

I decided to try climbing using my boyfriend’s old shoe on my right foot. Yep, my boyfriend’s stinky ol’ worn-out right shoe…the same shoe I tended to pick up delicately by the laces and hold at arm’s length. I was desperate. His feet are about an inch wider and an inch longer than mine (basically duck feet). So, having padded my Deformity with two layers of Dr. Scholl’s callus protectors, held in place with white tape, I cinched up that nasty old, lace-up Miura as tight as I could on my right foot. This worked surprisingly well for a day of steep, tufa climbing at Crown of Aragon. After thinking I might not climb again on this trip, I was elated!

Step 2:

The next day, we were back in a sector with technical face climbs. I re-applied the Dr. Scholl’s padding, laced up that nasty ol’ Miura…and got completely pumped on the easy warm-up climb because I couldn’t trust my right foot in a shoe that was four sizes too big. I then became even more desperate and dug out the utility knife, acquired at the hardware store the night before. I had had no idea how to ask for a utility knife in Italian, so I showed the guy a picture on my phone. He said, “Ah! Bene!” and produced a specimen for €2.50. 

I marked cross on the back of my own right shoe, using the centre of the hole in the Dr. Scholl’s callus cushion as the centre of the cross. The cross was about 1.5 x 1.5 cm. Using the knife, I cut carefully along the lines, all the way through the rubber and the underlying leather. All the way through those expensive Italian shoes.

The Italian Shoe Massacre

Tentatively, I put the shoe on my right foot. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt. I stood up. It didn’t hurt. I flexed the foot upward. It didn’t hurt. “Ah! Bene!!!”

And I climbed pain-free, in my own shoe, on technical face climbs for the rest of the day. Yeah, I got pumped, but it wasn’t because I didn’t trust my right foot. Honestly, I didn’t notice any difference in the performance of the shoe…only that the evil gnomes with their fiery skewers had retreated back into the shadows. I’ve been climbing with those cuts in the back of my shoes now for three weeks. The cuts haven’t propagated at all and I’m back to working on those projects (and swearing a lot, but at least not from heel pain).

In the future, when the flare-up dies down, maybe I can get away with just removing a circle of rubber from over top of my Deformity and pounding out the leather. But as an emergency solution, given the lack of access to tools while travelling, I was thrilled at being able to get rid of the pain without sacrificing performance!