The very best outdoor gear is nothing more than a tool. We often get distracted by flashy advertising campaigns and ‘game changing’ new technologies. When it comes down to it, though, all that really matters is how well that steel cuts into the ice, or whether that helmet saved your life from ice and rock. Hype may be king in the front country, but in the backcountry there is nothing more important than performance. You’ve probably never heard of Aku. You’ve almost certainly never heard of their Montagnard GTX, which is decidedly not one of the popular boot models that you see at Banff or Ouray. And even though hype isn’t everything, it’s time for some major frontcountry hype for these backcountry tools.
Aku Montagnard GTX Features:
- Full Gore-Tex, insulated mountaineering boot with automatic crampon compatibility
- Flex zones on upper boot for ankle motion
- Integrated elastic gaiter
- Small pulley lacing system
- Upper material: Perwanger 3.00mm
- Upper protection: rubber rand
- Lining: Gore-Tex Insulated Comfort + Primaloft
- Outsole: Vibram Nepal
- Midsole: Double Density PU
- Lasting board (shank) 6-4mm nylon, 30% carbon fiber, EVA Microporosa
- Footbed: Custom Fit Pro Alum
- Weight: 1020g, 36oz
Climb the mountains
The Aku Montagnards keep your feet warm with three basic strategies. Every winter mountaineering boot has to deal with heat loss due to moisture and contact with snow/ice on the bottom and top of the boot. One very simple thing that Aku has done is crafted an insole with a thermal reflective layer, to bounce heat lost from your foot back up into your body.
All around your foot is Gore-Tex’s Insulated Comfort liner, a five layer fabric that incorporates protective liners, insulation and waterproof liners. . This is Gore-Tex’s attempt to integrate insulation and waterproofness and, in theory, it should be engineered to be more breathable than just laying another insulation against a waterproof liner. I hardly care about this because I always wind up with sweaty damp feet and so choose a vapor barrier sock. That said, it’s one of the best options available for keeping feet warm and dry in cold, snowy or rainy conditions.
Running along the front of the boot, where snow and ice tend to collect and sit, is a thick extra layer of Primaloft insulation. This traps the heat escaping from the top of your foot and provides extra protection within the tongue of the boot from the crap sitting on top or trapped within laces or crampon straps. It does its job well. The built-in elastic micro gaiter also helps to keep out snow and debris, but in truth it could stand to be built up a bit more to offer more effective protection. I think something like Scarpa’s Mont Blanc Pro sets a good example here.
So much for the warmth and waterproofness technologies. But none of this matters if you can’t get a good fit on the boot. With that in mind, let’s head on to lacing.
Boots have come a long way in terms of the flexibility and precision of the lacing system. There are basically three ‘zones’ on the Montagnard’s lacing system; a toe box with D-rings that offer quite a bit of friction; pulleys along the front of the foot which top off in a ‘hook’ to lock it off; three more hooks running up the shin. The result of this system is that you can basically differentiate between the toe box, the front of the foot and the shin because at each transition point there are hooks that lock off the tension you’ve put in the laces. So you can keep the toe box loose while cranking down on the front of the foot and ankle.
I can’t really overstate the importance of a thoughtful lacing system. On climbs I will tighten my laces differently for the ascent and the descent, helping to secure my ankle from rising on the climb and moving pressure from my toes to the top of my foot for the descent. Aku’s lacing system is brilliant and works flawlessly. The pulleys along the front of the foot pull easily and evenly, helping you get it right the first time.
Some of the less noticeable but highly important features are found at the bottom of the shoe. Aku included a dual-density footbed that cushions shock while still providing lots of support. They chose a last that’s built partially out of carbon fiber for an impeccably stiff, yet overall quite light, boot. Carbon fiber shanks are preferable to metal equivalents because they’re lighter and, importantly, don’t transmit your body heat into the ground as readily. The Montagnards offer loads of stiffness for front pointing on waterfall ice, not to mention glacier and alpine travel.
One of the miracles of the Montagnard is how nimble the boot manages to feel. I did a somewhat dorky test where I wore a Scarpa Mont Blanc on one foot and the Aku Montagnard on the other; the Montagnard was noticeably more nimble. I attribute this to the overall lower volume of the Montagnard and, especially, the high-tech ankle flexibility technology that’s built into the boot. The boots walk much more like summer mountaineering boots than other winter boots I’ve tested. They’re very impressive in this regard.
When it comes to crampons, the Montagnards get the job done. I used these boots both with Black Diamond Contact Straps for glacier walking and Petzl Lynx crampons for more technical climbs and waterfall ice. Compatibility with both crampons was flawless, and I’m happy to say that I never had an issue at any point. Crampon issues on vertical ice can be disastrous. Also, kudos to Aku for builidng in a rubber toecap which cushions the blow from front pointing slightly. I didn’t get any bad toenail bruising despite hours of sending waterfall ice.
Finally, a note about fit. More than anything else, a good fit (and often a good custom insole) is what will make or break your experience with mountaineering boots. I have terrible feet for climbing – wide at the front, high-volume at the arch – and it’s terrible finding boots for them. The Akus have a wide enough fit for me to be able to use them comfortably, but the toe box is noticeably narrower than the Scarpa Mont Blancs I’ve also used. However, they also have a more generous heel pocket than the Mont Blancs. It’s a bit of a toss-up and in truth my feet aren’t perfect in either boot. Make sure to try these on before committing, as with any boot.
- Remarkably nimble boot for its build
- Excellent quality construction, waterproofness and durability
- Excellent crampon compatibility
- Sturdy, lightweight last that’s remarkably stiff
- Thoughtful insulating technologies keep you warm
- Lacing system is the best I’ve seen
- The micro gaiter could be built up to be more effective
- Toe box is narrower than I would like to see
The Bottom Line: Aku Montagnard GTX
I had never heard of Aku, and it’s really a shame that I didn’t know about them earlier. Their quality and design leads the industry in many ways, and perhaps the Italians don’t want their best-kept secret to get out. While brands like Scarpa and La Sportiva obviously offer excellent products, there’s something about Aku boots that feel like they were made especially for you by a wizened old bootmaker. Perhaps that’s what the founder would like you to think, as he sits at his desk on the factory floor. But like I said, the ultimate test of a boot is whether or not it is an effective tool. The Aku Montagnards are the most precise, durable alpine boot I have come across. They pass the test.
Buy now: Available from Sierra Trading Post (at an incredible price)