"NEEDS LITTLE OR NO BREAKING IN"
It's easy to take the Danner Mountain Light boot design for granted - after all, the current wave of D-ringed designs makes it easy to get distracted and they're not the brand that gets the rap namechecks, but if you're looking for legitimacy and a legacy, these remain unsurpassed. Anybody who's hobbled the hellish route to boot break in should know that the Danner designs almost cut out the pain barrier completely.
Whether those introduced to the Light now will put them
through their paces sufficiently is anyone's guess - they're
beloved of a Far Eastern audience who applied more viably appealing
Vibram Cristy soles that are devoid of lugs and intended for
military, service or work, in lieu of a stiffer Vibram Kletterlift,
but the scope's there to switch up if the wild calls. In a world
where big money has taken the hardcore performance aspect of so
many iconic brands, the craftsmen and craftspeople of the
Oregon-based Danner factory hand-cut the leather, waterproof test
that GORE-TEX booty and stitch them by hand - that isn't some
cutesy, faux heritage approach either. It's just what Danner
In a world of synthesized histories, the Mountain Light deserves a little more historical context as a design classic and a breakthrough piece of hiking functionality - that's a good enough excuse to cobble together an attempt at a narrative here.
GORE-TEX lined gear has an inherent appeal with a sense of security and a cool name, but it's worth noting that W.L. Gore and Associates don't play around when it comes to the brands creating gear that bears their name. How that porous, unassuming looking white sheet developed its own cult is a tale worthy of study at another time, but while Gore's innovation got so much hip-hop love (it even became the emcee alter ego of at least two artists) Danner slipped beneath the radar at street level, despite being a particularly legitimate item. Vasque Hikers and Merrell Wilderness got some shine, and there was a lot of Havana Joe getting shine in those annual 'The Source' boot specials. With Danner being local, even scrutinizing big butt loving neighbor Sir Mixalot's LP sleeves to spot a pair, yields nothing. Exactly who set off the red lace craze on hiking boots, as spotted on Pivetta, Lowa, Limmer and Browning, is still unconfirmed (it's even on ski boots from the 1940's and 1950's too), but that contrast has been key to the Light's contemporary appeal. Studying the shoe's story and its development takes in some other big names too.
The Danner Mountain Light commenced life as the Danner 6490 (the hardier older brethren of the 7509 Climbing Boot) model back in the early 1970's. While it didn't carry the Light name then, it was a shoe famed for its lightweight feel. If you've held a pair, you'll note that they feel pretty weighty, but the 6490's 3 pound and 14 oz on the scales was low in 1973, when a fair amount of hiking boots clocked in at 5 pounds. The 6490's supple leather on the one-piece upper and minimal seams to rub on inside made it a boot without a break-in period, the Vibram sole maintained traction, a padded tongue ensured extra comfort while that ski-boot style wrapped tongue cover and bellow detailing made them waterproof too. Leather lined and built to last, Danner's 6490, advertised in the mid 1970's as the 6490 Mountain Trail Boot and boasting a glowing 'Backpacker' magazine review became a bestseller that,"Needs little or no breaking in." That was the co-sign to end them all for anyone with the expendable income and an aversion to blisters.
Enter the GORE-TEX era. Oft-debated, both at the time of its initial release by skeptical brand boffins and consumers alike and now in an industry awash with breathable membrane materials, GORE-TEX's laminated debut in 1976 via W.L. Gore & Associates was predominately on apparel and tents- the footwear came a little later. While some brands procrastinated, including Vasque (owned by Red Wing), Danner got involved early, recruiting Guillaume "Willie" Sacre, to develop a lightweight, breathable boot. The project commenced around 1978 and Willie met with GORE-TEX in New York around 1979.
But first, a little background on Willie Sacre - Sacre was in the industry at a point when designers and developers seemed to bounce between brands. After working at Red Wing on Vasque projects, where it's mind-boggling to think that Sacre may be a key mind behind both the Vasque Hiker and the Danner Light (though Patagonia founder Yvon Chounard also worked for Vasque and is confirmed as the man behind 1971's Ascender I and II climbing shoes), before developing the first ever North Face boots in 1975. He also worked for Tirah. A climber himself, trained shoemaker, fan of Vibram soles and a man with a quest to find one-piece perfection in a boot for protection, Willie Sacre is hiking boot design royalty.
Sacre created the Danner Light boot, with a shape akin to the 6490 Mountain Trail Boot, but a significantly lighter feel and leather paneling only where it mattered, using synthetic but rugged 1000 denier materials on the majority of the upper, resulting in a shoe that clocked in at a couple of pounds. Its extra killer application (and coincidentally, the similar sounding Donner Mountain Company/DMC brand had a rival product on the market at the same time, complete with GORE-TEX) was the GORE-TEX sock-like lining. Honed over subsequent years, a cursory look at Google Patents reveals that Sacre's 'WATERPROOF SHOE CONSTRUCTION' (filed in 1983) has W.L. Gore & Associates as the assignees rather than Danner, with illustrations depicting the Danner Light boot and a GORE-TEX sock that could be sewn at the collar alongside Norwegian welts and Littleway construction. The Light was a groundbreaking moment for Gore and shoes and it certainly explains the strong relationship between GORE-TEX and Danner.
The Danner Light's success led to the 6490 Mountain Trail Boot being rebranded as the Mountain Light, to offer a hardwearing partner piece. In the early 1980's the Mountain Light got a similar GORE-TEX lining to the standard Light. By 1982, Vasque saw the value in lighter hikers like the Light, and introduced their iconic Sundowner model that also implemented GORE-TEX. The Mountain Light leathers got darker during the decade in line with altering aesthetics, but the shaped stayed the same.
With Ed Viberg of the excellent Canadian Viberg brand and Bill Danner being buddies, if you've noticed a similarity between Viberg's 66 Hiker and the Mountain Light, it's apparently because Bill shared his company's design with Ed, leading to the release of Viberg's 66 design in 1985. Exactly how many brands in other fields would trade a design like that (and for all the beards and rustic settings, the outdoor gear realm is notoriously guarded and quick to patent) is open to debate, but it's a testament to the friendship behind the figureheads of the two greatest hiking boot brands that the swap took place.
By 1987, there was a complete Danner GORE-TEX collection and by the mid 1990's, there was a distinct split between the cross hiker crossover styles that these looks birthed and hiking boots (the Danner Light and Mountain Light were firmly in the latter camp), and hikers came with a choice of a Vibram lug or Danner's own nippled Bob sole for use on mud and sand, with the Airthotic technology for extra comfort. Around 1997, the Mountain Light celebrated over two decades of dominance with a sequel that kept to the essence (the Danner Light II dropped too) but replaced the leather lining with nylon. The Mountain Light silhouette never really went away during the decade that followed, but Japanese fans and their obsession with all things authentic, plus the rise of publications like 'Free & Easy' assisted with the shoe's ascent at trend level and was bad luck for anybody with a shoe size bigger than a 10.
Now, western fans looking for the boot with minimal break previously Asia-only contrast on the sole are in luck and if the price makes you baulk, you're missing the point -go and buy a cheaper rival and enjoy the Spacey as Söze walk on a fruitless quest for comfort.
For those that grab the Danner Mountain Light, the relationship's a lasting one - and when that medial side starts leaning, the sole's getting bald and just as your Google forefingers get twitchy and start hunting a new boot, the Danner factory can replace the liner, insole, midsole, outsole, shank, heel counter as well as re stitching, cleaning and reconditioning it. With the company lasting 80 years, after starting 2 perilous years into the Great Depression, a pair of the boots is liable to have the same lifespan as the brand that birthed it.