The brasher Hillmaster II GTX

The brasher Hillmaster II GTX

Come and join us in the Lake District, the email said.

You’ll need a sense of humour and nerves of steel.

Now there’s a challenge. But the date was 31 October and, rather than teetering blindfolded from Broad Stand, the warmth of the Wasdale Head Inn, surrounded by some of the national park’s finest mountain scenery, beckoned.

The inn, which boasts it is the home of the world’s biggest liar, was also one of the favourite haunts of Chris Brasher, the man who helped Roger Bannister to the world’s first sub-four-minute mile, bagged his own Olympic gold medal and co-founded the London Marathon.

But Brasher also loved the mountains and his experience of uncomfortable walking boots led him to introduce his own brand of boot where comfort was king. The ethos lives on in the brasher brand, and its Hillmaster boot, which has sold more than any model in the UK, is 30 years old.

Time for a rejig.

Time seems less significant at the Wasdale Head Inn

Time seems less significant at the Wasdale Head Inn

A waft of diabolical smoke and the sound of spooks and ghouls filled the oak-filled confines of the inn as I walked in.

brasher chose Halloween to launch the Mark II version of the Hillmaster, the quintessential walking boot for the British walker and, to the accompaniment of pumpkin soup, Philippe Galland, a Frenchman in charge of developing this icon of UK hillwalking, explained the thinking behind the rebirth of the Hillmaster.

“When we thought about working on Hillmaster II, the next version of the Hillmaster, there was always a bit of worry. The first thing you will hear is: don’t touch it; it’s not broken,” he said.

“It’s already a very good product. Our intention was: how can we make it even better? That’s really the philosophy we tried to apply.”

Philippe Galland, category manager footwear for brasher, explains the new model

Philippe Galland, category manager footwear for brasher, explains the new model

The three areas the Sunderland-based company worked on were: comfort, fit and performance.
Mr Galland said: “We put in a lot of work testing it. Not just in the lab. The whole purpose was to work with consumers, with existing Hillmaster users, but also working with Ken Ledward’s team. Ken was one of the original brasher team that worked on the Hillmaster.

“We had a total of more than 20 consumers working with us, which is quite unusual. We put in, with these users, more than 200 hours of wear testing. We did more than 11 variations of the product. It was a very lengthy process.

“We believe we ended up with a product that was a lot better; Ken Ledward’s team believe that too and the testers – real consumers – concluded that, over Hillmaster I, it was a much better product.

“We ended up with 10 key points that actually improved the product. It’s not radically different from where we were. It’s an evolution; not a revolution. brasher is not about revolution. It’s about innovation in disguise, in a sense.

The brasher Hillmaster II GTX: modernising the product

The brasher Hillmaster II GTX: modernising the product

“We don’t want to alienate our existing users. Some of them are diehard fans; some are on their sixth or seventh pair right now.”

But the footwear manager was candid about another reason for the new version: “We also want to get some new users by modernising the product,” he said.

For comfort and fit, brasher worked on developing a completely different last – that dictates the internal volume of the boot and that basically follows the shape of the foot.

The Hillmaster II GTX last is gender-specific. Men’s feet are different from women’s.

He explained: “Women have smaller ankle bones than men; there’s a thinner bone structure in women’s feet and the arch support is different.”

For similar reasons, brasher socks are also gender-specific.

Pointing out the crucial locking hook Mr Galland said: “We also looked at, when you lace the boot, the position of the hook here is quite critical. On the Hillmaster I, the position was not absolutely correct. By modifying it, putting it a little higher, it actually pulls the heel into the correct position in the boot.

“We also use memory foam extensively, particularly round the tongue and round the collar line. It gives better recovery and cushioning.”

The foam also extends a little lower.

Fabric has replaced leather as the lining material

Fabric has replaced leather as the lining material

He is quite evangelistic about the new boot. “There’s a noticeable feeling of immediate comfort when you put your foot in,” he said, adding: “Everything is perforated as well, for breathability.”

brasher boasts of ‘comfort straight out of the box’ – the days of breaking in boots should be history it says, and the Frenchman explains the goal is extended ease of wear. “We’ve tried to deliver comfort, not just when you try on the boot, but throughout the day,” he said. “We talk about comfort all day long. Very often when you get back to the car, you just want to get out of your boots, but actually the big advantage with the Hillmaster II is that it’s really going to be comfortable all day.

For a climber, Mr Galland has a very broad knowledge of hillwalkers’ needs and the necessity for a pair of boots to do the job asked of them. “Performance was also critical to us. The Hillmaster I has leather lining. We decided to move to a fabric lining simply because the breathability is better.

“It may look a bit less premium, and it’s a bit of a tradition to have leather lining, but that’s broadly true in city shoes rather than walking boots. Fabric gives better grip of the socks and less movement of the foot within the boot, and better breathability.”

The chassis of the brasher Hillmaster II GTX, the two-piece sole unit

The chassis of the brasher Hillmaster II GTX, the two-piece sole unit

“One part that’s critical in terms of performance – it’s like a car – is the chassis. We spent a lot of time looking at the sole unit, trying to come up with a new design of the outsole, and rethinking the midsole element.

“The current Hillmaster has a rubber sole, EVA midsole and the rand so there are three parts. We’ve modified that, so we still have a rubber sole but we reduced the depth of the lugs. The current ones are very deep.”

It’s an interesting theory that, perhaps counter-intuitively, you get better grip by making the sole less aggressive.

“By reducing it by a couple of millimetres, we have actually increased its performance. It’s very important because if you look at weather like this [it’s pouring down outside, with strong winds], when it’s very greasy and muddy, if you don’t have a good grip going uphill and downhill, you’re going to have a problem.

“British conditions are British! On the continent it’s a lot more rocky. Instead of having oval lugs, we have more angular lugs which give you a lot more braking and more traction as well.

“There is no risk of clogging, from stones or mud, it will eject the stones and mud and you then have a flat sole so there is no risk of slipping.

“It certainly performs as well if not better; there’s less rubber so there’s more flexibility, and if you are carrying a big amount of rubber, it’s heavy.

“We’ve also moved away from EVA [ethylene vinyl acetate] and went for PU [polyurethane] to still give the maximum amount of cushioning but the interesting part is, instead of the rand being added at the end like a rubber band, is actually completely integrated.

“This gives less risk of delamination and breaking and it gives increased durability.

“There are also grooves that give the right level of flexibility so you’re not on a stiff platform and it also flexes at the right place. I’ve seen a lot of products that, when you bend it, flex in the middle. Ours flex at the right point.

brasher have worked with Portuguese tanners on the leather for the new Hillmaster

brasher have worked with Portuguese tanners on the leather for the new Hillmaster

“The other thing we worked on is the quality of the material and the quality of the leather. We’ve been working with a Portuguese tannery; we started working with them about a year ago.

“For us the leather is a very important part; it’s a one-piece material. We need to find the right balance of going through the wet-dry, wet-dry cycle.

“There’s always the risk of the material breaking around the flex points.

“We did an experiment where someone wore a pair of boots where one was treated and one wasn’t, with the equivalent of an average walker’s year’s wear.

“We got them to use them in challenging conditions with a lot of abrasion, screes and things like that.

“The leather is in pretty good condition, particularly the one that’s been treated. So there’s a lesson: take care of your product if you want it to last.”

His concern with quality of the boots, which will retail at £150 a pair, is comprehensive.

“You could put a cheap footbed in a boot,” Mr Galland said, “but I think it’s worthwhile we invest a bit of money, because it’s the first zone of impact.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of knee and foot specialists and something that came out is that we wanted to design a very simple footbed that does the job in terms of impact distribution and a good level of support around the arch of the foot.

“All the shock waves get distributed and this also works in collaboration with the midsole.

The new sole unit has shallower lugs

The new sole unit has shallower lugs

“There’s also a cradle here [at the heel] to create support and what you will see is that if you walk on a very hard surface you will feel the benefit and you will feel the absorption going through quite noticeably.”

After the theory: the practical. Cumbria was throwing its worst weather at us as we strode out in our Hillmaster II GTX’s in search of various Halloween brasher themed clues around Wasdale in the company of mountain expert John White.

It’s fair to say in the dark and confusion of the rain sodden dale many of us were a bit clueless, especially if we didn’t spot them in the beam of our headtorches, but the jaunt did take us to a graveyard and surreally, a tepee for a taste of malt whisky. Chris Brasher was a fan of the stuff you see.

The verdict: during the brief trog over stony, boggy, muddy, grassy and downright wet ground, the Hillmaster II GTXs held up well.

A stop-off for a glass of single malt in a teepee was a highlight of the two-hour boot test

A stop-off for a glass of single malt in a teepee was a highlight of the two-hour boot test

Dry feet, no discomfort, surefootedness. And no burning desire to tear the boots from my feet back at the inn.

We’ll give the boots a good try-out over an extended period, but first impressions are that the brasher quest for comfort, fit and performance is on track and the mark II could become every bit as central to British hillwalking as its predecessor.

The boot will be appearing in selected shops later this month and will be on sale generally next spring.

The brasher Hillmaster II
Suggested price: £150
Weight: 1482g per pair size 9
Uppers: full grain leather

Waterproof membrane: Gore-Tex
Colour: chocolate
Country of manufacture: China