5.9, 5.12, 5.2….
I have said the word ‘five’ probably more than any other word during my time as a climber. Five this, five that. Yeah I liked that five thing but it was way better than that other five such. Yeah? You gonna get on that five big? Let’s get warm on the five low.
If you don’t know what I’m referring to by now you’re probably not an American or Canadian climber. Our dear Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is the standard of grading around these parts. It’s just like any other system in the world for climbing except we have the uncontrollable urge to add a really dumb prefix to every graded route around.
I’ve had this conversation many times. “What does that five in front of the numbers mean?” Well, little Jimmy, the five is this vestige that us climbers have clinged on to in hopes of making our esoteric sport of climbing even more obscure. The truth is that people used to need to know if something was a rock climb or a scramble or a hike, with the number before the period discerning this level of commitment (1 being a sidewalk, 5 being a vertical sidewalk), and so one would read this and be prepared for the day of hardships.
That said, I rarely do anything that doesn’t involve the number 5 hanging out in front of the grade. And when I do, well, I just read about the route (which is generally some high mountain thing or a hike with some exposure) and get some beta on it. This system really hasn’t served me well at all and has only really helped confuse everyone around me.
Take the gym scene: why do we continue to print 5’s in front of every gym grade? Did you think you’d ever climb something that was a 4th class route? Did you hope to do a scramble at the rock climbing gym? Let’s get real: print on the card something that makes sense to someone who’s just started, e.g. the number 9. Let them climb it, realize what 9 means and then move on to 10a or 8 depending on how they performed.
I don’t think we should stop saying 4th class or 5th class terrain. That’s rad as hell. If someone tells me there’s this scramble and we’re gonna do some 4th class and easy 5th, I’m stoked to get scared. But does someone really need to tell you that your route is 5th class at the sport crag? Did you expect to do a 4.12? A very technical 4th class route? Man, this scramble is cruxing me out, good thing I can just fall and get a bit broken.
In fact, none of the other classes are even graded! 4th class is just 4th class. People don’t even say 2nd class because that’s just assumed that you’d be okay. There is no La Dura Dura of the 4th class.
Even aid climbers have outsmarted us rock climbers. They’ve realized that the proverbial “6th class” of aid was dumb as hell and they’ve just started saying A0 or C2 or whatever. Aid climbing may be a lot of things, but it surely isn’t being try hard when it comes to making grades confusing. And don’t try to pretend that you’ve never seen an aid grade. 5.9 A0? The nose? You’ve read that and you know that it’s not 5.9 6.A0. That’d be the worst ever.
Stop saying the five. The five is everything that is wrong with rock climbing. Who cares? Do you have this urge to blurt out that your rock climb was (obviously) a rock climb? What good is this 5 doing? Do you think Royal Robbins will get huffy if you drop it?
Liberate yourself. My route is a 10a. I’ve tried that 13b. Oh, that 9? Yeah, that’s a really good 9.
Trust me, the Australians wont think your 12a is their 12. The French and the Spanish wont say “oh, do you mean the French 8 or the Yosemite 8?” There is no issue.