Shoe requiem (Altra King MT 1.0)

As with most things here, this isn’t really a proper review, though the first version of the King MT is still available if you wear a men’s 8, but a discussion of one thing as a salient example, of several trends playing out in the world of trail running and hiking shoes.

The first thing you need to know about the King MT is that it is an Altra in most of the very good and very bad senses we’ve come to know since the brand came into existence.  You also need to know that in a few, very significant, ways the King MT is a huge and positive departure from what Altra is generally know for doing.  Most importantly, the rubber does not suck.  The Vibram Megagrip rubber and tread pattern is in fact the first equal I’ve found for the LaSportiva sole which has been mostly unchanged from the Crosslite through the XCountry to the current Bushido (below at left).  The tread puts enough rubber on rock for good wet traction, and is spaced out enough to clear mud.  The lugs function both uphill and down, and are nearly but not quite the equal of the Bushido side hilling.  Given how bad the rubber and tread was on (for instance) the Lone Peak 1.5s, this is a major development.

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The fit of the King MTs are vintage Altra; moderately wide, moderate volume, with a very wide toebox.  The King MT 1.0s fit at least a size small, and the 11.5s are easily 1/2″ shorter than the Bushidos in the same size.  I can make the 11.5s work because of the toebox, but they’re right on the edge of being too short to fit a thick sock combo.  I wore 11s in every previous pair of Altras.  The King MTs also have a massively wide heel cup, to the point I was genuinely worried they wouldn’t fit.  And with my narrow heel they really don’t; I get plenty of vertical slipping, but the sticky “shark skin” fabric combined with the total lack of a rigid heel counter means that there just isn’t anything to rub against.  I’ve put in a bunch of 12+ hour days in the 4 months I’ve had them, with no hint of blisters or discomfort.

Upper durability has been surprisingly good, given Altra’s crap record in that category.  The caveat here is that I applied a lot of aquaseal when new, anticipating problems.  None have come up yet, excepting the huge rip across the toebox caused by snagging my foot on a sharp stick.  Most shoes would have torn, though perhaps not immediately edge of edge.

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The lack of a heel counter and especially the clunky fit comes back to bite the shoes when it comes to side hilling on steep off trail terrain.  The shoe doesn’t fit me well enough to put the traction and sole stiffness to work, and the shoes end up cutting loose from the dirt or rock as they try to rotate around my foot.  Doubtless some folks out there with boatlike feet like this feet, but I can’t help but think most people would be served by a little tighter midfoot and a little more structure.

I don’t think adding a heel counter is necessary, and if anything the King MT highlights just how well not having out would work, provided that the fit and materials were a little more refined.

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I’ve become surprisingly fond of the silly-looking little velcro instep strap, largely because it goes a decent ways towards actually anchoring the foot.  I find myself cranking it down when in use as a boating shoe, or mountain biking with flat pedals.  The King MT does the former quite well, while it’s a bit soft for extended descents on a bike.  I’ve found the strap of limited utility for walking, as the parts which extend inside the shoe on either side are relatively narrow and stiff.  I’ve bruised my midfoot when the strap was too tight, trying to keep things in check during a burly off trail descent.  Extending the structure would help, but by then Altra might as well just use quality overlays in the lacing structure itself, a la Bushido.

The sum total here is that the shoe industry has largely left faster, strong, experienced hikers behind as the pendulum has swung away from minimalist footwear.  Tip to tip the King MT is actually stiffer than the Bushido when new, though it hikes softer because the flex is even throughout, rather than hinging at the metatarsal transition like most “running” shoes.  I don’t reasonably expect many people to be able to manage super soft shoes (like the old XCountry) in genuine backcountry terrain, but I do find the movement away from low drop and functionally wide toeboxes vexing, as those benefits are in essence universal (I suppose the skinny Bushido toebox would be better for 3rd classing handcracks, but the Altra-style wide toebox even fits crampons better..)  LaSportiva, with their class leading midfoot control, is actually in the best position to use big fat toeboxes.

So for the rest of the year I’ll stitch up the King MTs and tolerate their slop.  I’d also tolerate the stupid low toeboxes of the Bushidos if I ever find a way for the heel counters of this pair to not chew me up, but overall the trail shoe picture is bleaker than it’s been in a decade.  It’s not a question of making compromises for next year, only a question of how many will be necessary.

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8 thoughts on “Shoe requiem (Altra King MT 1.0)

  1. my wife has a new(er) pair of Altra’s and the first thing I noticed was the improved outsole, they also have a gaiter keeper in the rear- great idea! I’ve had a few pair of Altra’s, but the 0 drop doesn’t work very well for me- a mild drop of 4-5 mm seems to be just about right

    if La Sportiva would open up their toebox (keep the secure heel/midfoot as is)- they definitely would be on to something- the Akasha is close though

    1. Benjamin Caplins August.20.2018 — 07:00

      I’ve been surprisingly happy with the Akasha (picked up a few months ago). Good toebox, secure fit, good level of protection. Stack height is a little high, but for hiking that hasn’t been a problem. I wish the drop was 1-2 mm lower, but that also hasn’t been a real problem. And as silly as it sounds I’ve been super-impressed with the laces… they never seem to untie even without a double knot. It is the best shoe I’ve had since the Cascadia 5’s (or maybe 6’s — I forget now).

      1. Little things are important. I’ve replaced laces in shoes plenty of times to keep them tied.

    2. I believe the new Lycans by La Sportiva are meant to have a wide toe box…it certainly looks roomier. I wore some Pearl Izumi shoes this past weekend on Mount Washington even though the rubber is vastly inferior in terms of grip to the LS stuff just because they have a wide toe box and I didn’t want my toes to be turned to pulp on the way down.

      1. My only issue with the Lycans is the largish arch bump built into the midsole. I tried them on without insoles and arch support that high is not workable for me. Otherwise the fit seemed ideal. Not a great tread pattern just for hiking, but fine for overall use.

        1. I didn’t know they had one (not really a place to try them on by me…the local REI sometimes carries the Ultra Raptors). If they have that much arch support they probably wouldn’t for me either, so it’s good to know. I have what the wife calls flat Fred Flintstone feet.

          The more active I am outdoors the more I tell myself to quit searching for perfect…unless you can get someone to custom build your clothing, etc it’s unlikely to happen. 8-9/10 is a probably a pretty solid score.

      2. Pearl Izumi N2’s and N3’s are what I’ve worn for the last 4-5 years- fit was perfect for me; sadly PI has quit making all running shoes and now only making biking shoes/gear 😦

  2. Not sure what it means/will mean for the company, but Altra got purchased by a conglomerate this spring. If they stick with the zero drop and wide footbox design but lengthen durability I’ll certainly keep wearing them.

    https://www.runnersworld.com/news/a20866256/altra-sold-to-vf-corporation/

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