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Completing the Quiver – The Evolv Zenist

From concept to rock asset, the Evolv Zenist has undergone numerous processes unique from all other climbing shoes

Somehow, some brands provide more than just performance. Between the routesetting grants allotted to Climbing4Change and the original idea behind their new Zenist, Evolv has worked to improve diversity and inclusion in these last years. All Zenist pre-sale profits went exclusively to five organizations working to help diversify the sport of climbing.


In 2019, American Ashima Shiraishi partnered with Brain Dead’s Kyle Ng to develop something new. The pair came to Evolv with a mission: a stylish, new competition climbing shoe built to promote diversity and access to the sport. As a creative collective of artists and designers, Brain Dead has established itself as a brand that resists description. Instead, it strives to be greater than the sum of its parts. This begins to describe the Zenist.

While the limited-edition Brain Dead Zenist has become increasingly difficult to find, an Evolv-branded version of the shoe persists.

The Zenist

To begin, the Zenist is not the Phantom. While technology is shared between this shoe and its predecessor, the Phantom offers a rigid platform for precise technique all at the expense of more general operations. By contrast, the Zenist is an instrument of smearing. It picks up where the Phantom left off.

Like all of Evolv’s more recent models, it is comfortable out of the box. The synthetic construction is vegan friendly and the soft materials reduce the opportunity for hot spots that might cause blisters. The shoe is wrapped in a Variable Thickness Rand that is most flexible at the greatest points of pressure. This technology first presented in the highly-tensioned Phantom.

In the Phantom, the shoe placed the foot under so much pressure that heavy rock overs on foot holds could have felt painful. The Variable Thickness Rand prevented this, allowing climbers to downsize and perform right of the box. This remains true for the Zenist.

By allowing greater stretch in the high-pressure portion of the shoe, the Zenist moves with even greater comfort than the Phantom. This is necessary as the shoe requires a tight size to be useable on smaller footholds.

Although it does retain some of the bend a person might expect from an asymmetric shoe, the Zenist is a fairly straight-shooting operation. The lack of asymmetry means that the shoe’s rigidity must come down to the shoe’s midsole, tension and fit.

As the Zenist only holds tension when it is tight, it is recommended that you try the shoe on in person. Refraining from doing so could mean a half-size error that loses out on performance.

A tight fit will not crush your feet. Instead, it will feel like you are wearing a snug pair of socks. The way this differs from a slipper comes down to the strap. Although simple, the robust single-strap design secures itself in three places: twice on the outer foot and once on the inner foot. These three points remove dead-space and pull the shoe closer to the climber.

As the heel is probably the strongest feature of the shoe, this detail is important. It appears that Evolv designed this shoe with the performance athlete in mind. It seems to suppose that climbers will already have a more aggressive, down-turned shoe that can excel on powerful climbing.

Where the Phantom’s heel offers power and rigidity at the expense of friction, the Zenist gives up structure so as to envelop the feature it hooks. In what must be the softest heel to ever come out of the Evolv range, the Zenist provides a glue-like base for rock-over heel hooks.

At the highest level, this detail is expressed in Ethan Salvo’s progress on the Singularity. Where he strove to use the Phantom’s at first, thinking that the rigidity of the shoe might allow him to pull against its construction for greater power, the boulder problem asked him to instead sink onto the crystals of the feature. The heel enveloped the crystals and offered that slight advantage required to first make progress on the move.

In a sport of margins, this kind of flexibility has perks. In this smeary way, both Guy and Kindar McNamee have decided to utilize the Zenist for the fiction-based style of competition bouldering and lead climbing.

Just as the heel hunkers down on smearing rock overs, the toe also excels at utilizing blank swaths of surface area. The TRAX SAS rubber provides the best friction for the level of durability that comes with the Zenist’s 4.2 millimetres of outsole.

The MX-R midsole offers 1.0 millimetres of half-length, toe-to-arch support that provides just enough resistance to give you something to push against when standing. With that said, it does not push the shoe into the smear. Where the Theory utilizes tension to provide friction through smears, the Zenist utilizes flexibility to exercise a softer touch.

The benefits are largely felt through comfort, where the weakness is largely felt through technique. A technical climber will find they can place a larger contact patch on the volume. A less technical climber will find it difficult to attain the same level of friction as the Theory.

Finally, the toe-patch is perfect. It appears soft and irregular, but the ultra-thin rubber pairs well with the small amount of knuckling at the end of the shoe. If you prefer toe-hooks to heel hooks in situations where either might work, this shoe really excels.

So how do we feel?

The Zenist is many things. It is a lip traverse specialist that excels on the Squamish heel-to-toe-to-heel shuffle found in so many of the area’s classic problems. If you need to stand on a powerful point, this shoe has the edge for it, but will require a lot more effort than a shoe with a full-length midsole.

If you are climbing inside, it is an excellent shoe for flashing. Conversely, if you are trying to project, you may want something that offers greater precision. With that said, Shiraishi recently sent Jade V14 in these shoes. This suggests that a smaller climber than the gripped editor may find the shoe more rigid and precise. It also speaks to the sort of control sensitivity offers when wielded by and advanced climber.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of preference. Our editor’s favourite thing about the Zenist was how comfortable it felt. Where a tight, downturned, asymmetric shoe is fun, you pay for it. The Zenist, on the other hand, has an out-of-the-box ease-of-use that allows all day climbing without the risk of stretch. For long training sessions, it is a difficult shoe to beat. It also comes in a low-volume model.

Support the original initiatives outlined by Shiraishi and Ng:

Young Women Who Crush (YWWC), Adaptive Climbing Group, DEI Film Festival, Brown Girls Climb, and Long Beach Rising.