Is climbing a grade obsessive sport? Are we fueling a grade chasing culture?

Did you hear about that new really fricken hard climb that is super super hard V17/18 5.19g? Me too! Isn’t it crazy? Isn’t that grade just so huge? It’s a huge grade! Wow. So hard, you can tell by the huge number that is so far from the numbers that I do! Wow! Pretty big, hopefully it doesn’t hurt tomorrow! So big!

I am so god damn sick of this, “but what was the grade” thing that is attached to every piece of climbing media. It seems like we are scrutinizing something we don’t even comprehend physically, much less even have seen in person or thought of thoroughly enough to grasp.

It is, of course, a fair progression of rock climbing: grades do reflect some sort of difficulty or change in the sport. For example, the routes Action Directe and Hubble were considered incredibly hard in the day (or even now), and were the first of their grade and thus very important due to multiple factors: the incorporation of hard training and the rise of incredibly athletic climbers crushing the hardest of routes imaginable in this time period. Even La Dura Dura and Change have their place in history (maybe, time will tell of course) and will remain objectives for the future climbers wanting to make a career climbing with the elite of the past.

Somehow, out of the sheer progression of hard climbing, the idea of grade chasing was born: the idea of doing a hard climb can ‘level you up’ metaphorically in the world of climbing and make you much better since now you have conquered everything below it. Grade chasing is like a to do list, as though one or two 5.12 climbs have made you a climber of that grade. As if you’ve conquered every grade at the level or could.

Is that even true though? If you manage to climb a V10 are you magically entitled to say you have crushed every V8 on the planet (or could, if given the opportunity and time) and are now a member of some club that meets at the library on Thursdays?

No.

(and if you think so, please stop reading)

I think many people have seen this coming for a long time and it is now probably joke in some circles. Fred Nicole, for example, has hundreds of hard climbs that he doesn’t want to attach a rating or grade to (how much media attention does he seem to get? not much). When Sharma first climbed the Mandala, he jokingly proposed a grade

such a hard problem
such a hard problem

only because he (most likely) was begged by the media to release a grade and perhaps for his sponsors who needed to fill out some magical tick list for him and his sponsorship deal.

Some authors and climbers have now resorted to abandoning the grade letters and giving a large range of difficulty. For example, just saying that is is a 5.14+ or even simply put, a 5.14. (Which letter?! I’m so confused!)

Perhaps this theory is the most well served in trad climbing circles where the idea of letter grades is all but relevant. The most prevalent grading styles I see for trad these days is in the +/- type grades or just the number grades. Plus, who even really cares other than to know a ball park figure? I barely subscribe to such intricate knowledge of a climb when trad climbing since i have been crushed by 5.8+ climbs and have breezed through 5.11+ climbs in the same book. Perhaps the author has a different skill set than I do? Maybe I come from the generation of gym trained climbers? Who’s to know.

Furthermore, well protected trad climbs have little to no risk or inherent danger if done in proper style. If you can’t climb a climb, just aid past it. You have all the tools on your harness/sling, just use them. Plug a cam and pull, god dammit!

Similarly with bouldering, as there is no inherent danger of anyone hurting themselves (within reason), thus arguing over a soft V15 or a hard V14 seems to be an exercise in futility, especially for the media and those who can’t even pull up on it.

but was it a hard boulder??

Should we do away with grades?

I can’t say grades are not important. Grades are one of the measures that keep us on track mentally and physically. Weightlifting comes to mind here, where a 500 lb squat is a 500 lb squat, no matter what. However, there is that guy who doesn’t squat correctly and claims he’s done one, or that other guy who is 6’8″ and 310 lbs and does it like it was nothing.

Same thing goes with grades. You can find those soft grades if you try, and they might even help you out as you climb the first few of that grade. You can also chase after grades that are exactly your style and feel easy to you. However, follow this path too long and you will soon find yourself being a number-loving grade chaser.

Grades also keep you safe. If you’re deciding that you might take the time to do a big rig like a multipitch or alpine objective, it’s good to know how hard some people think it is. However, again, it is all but irrelevant to think that this will be the same climbing as your boulder problems or as the crag next door. It’s more of a way to keep you from having to bail on every outing and to keep you from being too paranoid or scared of climbing.I find it incredibly fun to go and climb things easier than my hardest grade since then i can just cruise and enjoy my day, almost stress free (for the most part).

Grades also motivate you to keep going. Grades also show progress and progression if used properly. Grades make gym sessions rewarding and on-track. Grades can be good. Grades are a tool.

Grades have their place in climbing, i can tell you that much!

The media and the “hardest climb in the world”

I know lots of people who laughed about the Dawn Wall for being “the hardest climb in the world.” Yeah, it’s pretty hard, for sure. Hardest? I’d say it’s up there, yeah. But this whole objective definition of the “hardest climb in the world” freaks me out, since who is climbing the route with the same body twice?

dawn wall

In the camp of those who were laughing was, however, the dreaded grade chasers, eagerly pointing out that it couldn’t be as hard as La Dura Dura or even Biographie ! For shame, thinking that the hardest route on earth would only contain half a dozen pitches of 5.14.

Tommy and Kevin had indeed broken down the climb in terms of difficulty in a route guide which seemed to indicate that they had established a grade for every pitch. They were also not as hard as the grades given to some top sport climbs or boulders. However, I think that if it weren’t for their sponsors and their following they wouldn’t have had to. There were too many eyes, and it seems that people really wanted them to reveal this series of magic numbers.

Perhaps they also wanted to discourage people who didn’t know if they could climb it to try. All those budding 5.13+ big wall climbers are probably thinking twice before getting themselves stuck in a project that large.

Maybe it was even for themselves, in a “this must be a 14 or something, and these are the harder ones and these must be the easier ones.” To keep them on track in a certain way, and to have the right expectations. This could have been a way to think about how these are among the hardest pitches they have ever tried, since both of them have more than a few 5.14 climbs under their belts.

But, thinking that the 14d pitch of Dawn Wall is a 14d for sure is a fool’s trap! It has 2 sends that both agreed on the grade. Not every person in the world that has climbed 14d has climbed these pitches! This grade is, in some ways, baseless in the idea of consensus grading (which is the way we grade climbs, not objectively or out of some sort of scale that is supposedly objective).

Again, La Dura Dura is a 5.15c… for now! It has two ascents! The beta has been refined but who knows what may happen in the future? Will we find some magic beta that downgrades it a few letters? Maybe the next Ondra will decide it was a 5.16 all along?

A really prime example of this is Kundalini at Rumney. It used to be a stout 5.13 (first of its grade for Rumney), which is now a softer 12d. How? The knee-bar beta was discovered and then everyone used it and the grade softened. Incredible how something was adjusted by beta and repeating the climb. Something the old-school didn’t have was discovered, and then in turned used against this climb. Similar things have happened with the Kaleidoscope rest at the Red River Gorge, which softens the grade if you use an off route no hands rest (you shouldn’t). Beta, technology and tactics are forever changing. Maybe one day endurance will not be a problem due to some amazing recovery drink or some training tactic or using ice buckets.

Hard boulder problems are also not immune to this. As the new generation keeps putting up V15s, who knows where they will fall in 5 years? Will those who do V18 think that these grades are easier? Harder? Who knows? Who really cares?

Can you do them? No?

Then it’s a V+

That’s an idea that my friend, let’s call him Alex, subscribes to: there are warm ups and there are hard climbs. V- and V+. Other than that, the movement and the difficulty of climbs cannot be accurately predicted or charted since everyone’s body and training is quite different.

And what do you have to lose when you’re cragging or bouldering? Not trying a climb because it has a grade that is too hard is just funny in bouldering, you may as well give it a try or two, or try to pull on to a few holds. Try hard things! Don’t fall in the trap of grades.

Not all 5.15b climbers have conquered every climb of the lower levels

Have you heard of Three Degrees of Separation? It’s a famous, Chris Sharma, rock climb that has three incredible dynos, located in Ceuse and is a 5.14d.

It has no repeats.

Let that simmer. It has no repeats and is located at one of the most popular hard-person crags in the world. Ondra has tried it. He can’t do it. He’s admitted defeat to a route that is ‘much easier’ than his current 5.15c projects. I’m sure a number of other hard-bodies have tried it. No one has admitted to climbing it.

Adam Ondra has even released a list of the climbs he cannot do and it is really revealing of how this grade thing works. He doesn’t really chase grades, it seems, but does things that seem possible in the long term while trying to push the limits of hard climbing. He even reveals this incredible truth that you can read twice if you’re up to it (it’s almost tantric in nature).

There are of course many other routes, even in the lower grades, which I’ve failed to climb, but those I’ve talked about are the ones that, for one reason or other, have frustrated me most. And of course I’ve failed on many more boulder problems, since in bouldering it’s easier to come across certain one-movers that don’t suit my style, or perhaps the line doesn’t inspire me enough to keep trying.

Many routes.

So why is he considered the best climber? The climber who has done the hardest routes, even? Why are we even asking this guy for an objective grade if he doesn’t have what it takes to do certain other climbs that are easier than the hardest routes in the world? Should he only be grading at the level that he can safely, with 100% success, climb?

Of course not.

The futility of grades

On another note, downgrades happen often and even sometimes by the FA before there are any repeats. However, by that time, they have already gotten paid out by their sponsors and the media that loves gulping down the sweet nectar of grades.

“But was it the hardest to date? Give me the scoop!” -Media-man, the grade chasing junkie

Perhaps a way to think of hard grades then is this: a climber X has suggested this in terms of all the climbs he/she has done to date. V16 currently means that this climber is in the circle of hardest climbers (a small circle) and thinks this is his/her limit and perhaps will not be climbed easily by others. V15 would be similar or he/she thinks that it is possible for most of those hard climbers to climb it eventually. V14 would be something they had initial trouble but then got pretty quick, or maybe at their flash limit if it suited their style. Any thing else they don’t even bother grading anymore until there is a large volume of repeats, or do and the grade changes later because of incredible sandbags or grade inflation. And most of those climbs were the V15 of years past.

Stop feeding the cycle of grade-fetishism

There are some people who can’t help but let the exterior define them. This one time I was told by a climber that he had campused a V8 at the gym and had done a V10 in tennis shoes. I saw him struggle on a V5 and couldn’t campus a V2/3 juggy roof. He was obviously grade obsessed and truly mesmerized by the smoke and mirrors of the game of grades.

Also he was a gym rat.

let's just say he couldn't campus out of here alive.
let’s just say he couldn’t campus out of here alive.

One of my friends is the opposite. When asked how hard he climbs, he tells me “pretty hard.” I truly have no clue as to how hard he climbs, but he is in videos of other sponsored climbers, repeating hard routes and doing first ascents. He doesn’t grade them really, and just is happy to have others play on things he found.

Another happy-go-lucky person i met during my travels was psyched on certain problems, they just happened to be very, very hard. He looked like he was a guy who had picked up climbing a week ago and was really just a happy dude in general. However, he was a seasoned Yosemite and Squamish monkey who lived to climb, and did it all. Grades were truly just a tool for him in his enjoyment of this activity. He crushed everything i saw him on and truly had no use for grades other than to fuel his progress. He loved the movement of climbing, not the game of grades.

All those hard climbs that you hear of, they are still really god damn hard. They are maybe the hardest in the world currently, maybe forever! They test some elite climbers in ways your current climbs will never test you. You will learn so much climbing them and you will feel a glimpse of enlightenment if you can ever top one out. But so will every grade harder than your current grade. And how are you going to pull onto a V16 if you can’t even imagine a V10 in your head? Or a 5.14b?

To me, people who ask the question, “yeah, but what was the grade,” seem to connect on the same level as those who ask the price of a painting to see its merit or the average of a student to see how smart they truly are. These are tools to assess the worth or difficulty and have been misused and overly emphasized.

Use grades, don’t let them use you

Now next time you see a climbing article about a “Hot Flash” or a “Ticklist of the Week” think about what is hard about that climb. Who just climbed it? Why is it hard? Who are these people who are climbing these climbs? Does it matter what grade it is? Is it beautiful and inspiring or is it a dirty piece of rock that gives you nothing but a boner for grades? Will people even care about this climb in a week? Do you want to get to this level and make it your bitch?

Why do you even use the words V16? A suggestion from a friend: “It was harder than any climb that i can see myself achieving and done by someone much stronger than me,” is a good place to start if you don’t climb that grade. If you do, and the person who you’re talking to does as well, you are a lucky, talented bastard. If you do and you’re talking to someone who doesn’t, maybe quit spraying. Just as my parents have no clue why i am so focused on the number 13 and the letter b, they have no fragrant idea of what you may even mean. The numerals have lost their way and are now stuck in someone’s mind as the pursuit of a beautiful sport through near-meaningless numbers.

Until these things are useful tools to you, they are enslaving your view of hard climbing and are a just another race to the bottom.

Stay in sanity,

-CC

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