I’m about to open up a whole can of worms here… actually discussing climbing grades. Most people treat climbing grades like politics or religion, topics best not talked about in public and only amongst a close group of friends. I however have a different opinion (surprise, surprise). I think grades should be talked about and discussed. Basically routes are given a tentative grade based on what the first ascentionist felt the difficulty of the grade should be. From that point on however I think each person who attempts the route should comment on the grade, even if they don’t complete the route. Granted their opinion has more validity if they do complete the route but most people can comment after trying and doing or failing to do the moves. There’s no way that every 5.12a I’ve ever climbed feels the same just like there’s no way that a steep 13a and a vertical 13a can feel the same, or can feel the same for different people. Grades are a consensus and should/must be discussed in order for the consensus to be more accurate.
I recently ran across an interview with Lynn Hill after her redpoint of a boulder problem called Chablanke in Hueco Tanks, TX. Chablanke is a great problem rated V11 but after doing it, and trying it with different people, it is obvious that it is easier if you are short. Just like there are boulder problems that are easier if you are tall. The full interview is here but the part I liked is pasted below:
Do you agree with the grade?
Since I’m not used to the bouldering rating system it’s difficult for me to say. The rating system is based on the perceived difficulty by people of average size, so I’m not a good judge of what the grade should be. I am used to accounting for my own perception outside the bell curve.
While I wish she had come right out and commented about her perceived difficulty of the climb I still like this quote because she hits the nail on the head about grades “perceived difficulty by people of average size” and “accounting for my own perceptions outside the bell curve”. Basically the more you climb the better a sense you get of a certain grade FOR YOU. I’m a sport climber and for me it seems that in bouldering or crack climbing grades are all over the place. Both disciplines can target strengths or weaknesses quickly. With bouldering I just the (+/- 3) system. If a boulder grade is within the +/- 3 of the given grade (some V6s can feel like V3 or V9…) then I don’t complain (too much) and with crack climbing I can’t grade anything at all and even with sport climbing I would usually let +/- a letter grade slip by. In sport climbing I tend to downgrade endurance based routes since that is my strength but at the same time I upgrade powerful or reachy routes. I don’t get upset when people downgrade routes that are hard for me, that’s their opinion and they are entitled to it but it cracks me up when people get upset when I mention that a route is soft FOR ME, as if that impacts how it felt for them??? A great example is a route called Badman in Smith Rock, OR. The crux is a big reach off an undercling and it took me forever to figure out beta to be able to do this route. The route is rated 14a although some people think it is 13d. For me it honestly felt 14c, it’s just the nature of the route.
On a way more contraversial level I also think there is more to a route than just the pure difficulty. Sometimes the complexity or level of committment required should factor into the grade. This is where people really get upset. I think short powerful routes that are easy to work tend to not be as involved as long complex routes even if the actual ‘difficulty’ is the same. Also I think that linkups after you have done every move on other routes should be graded stiffly (given an easier grade). Whether we like it or not there is a certain status to grades and I think the status should be placed on the overall experience of the route. Again, that is my opinion and should not affect how the route feels TO YOU.
All of this however brings about the discussion of the website 8a.nu. On 8a.nu climbers log their routes and for every route you enter the grade, name and some comments about the route. What do you think people should enter for the grade? Should everyone simply enter the guidebook grade? What about if a hold breaks? The route gets more polished with time? Or the route exploits your strengths/weaknesses? What is the purpose of 8a? Is it simply a log book of climbs or is it a tool for guidebook authors and people traveling? I think people should enter how the route felt to them and the grade of the route is the average of the entered grades. If you think the route should be downgraded then enter a lower grade, if you think the route should be upgraded enter a higher grade, if the route is within the right range then simple input that it is soft or hard or just right for the grade.
Then of course there is the whole political game of grades. What if a route you think is soft is the first of a certain grade for a friend? What if an ascent is newsworthy for the grade but in reality the route is softer?I have no answer for this. I sometimes downgrade a route and log it as such but it’s rare since people do get offended.
I guess the point of this post is that grade discussions should not be taboo. There is no science to it.
This doesn’t change the fact that I’m still an asshole when I downgrade your project, but I’ll downgrade it with a smile on my face . Please feel free to downgrade my routes, I deserve it.
Posted on March 26th, 2009 by Mike Doyle
Filed under: Rant