Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Since returning from China, which by the way was pretty cool, I have had an intresting and eventful week.  I should probably write about the awesome rock in China or the crazy festival in Yangshou, but time is a commodity I don’t have much of, and the following few paragraphs seemed more important at the current moment.  There are however some pics of the Yangshou Climbing festival online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ho_faifai/sets/72157608636045288/

Right, down to business

There seems to have been a bit of a storm over repeats of some of my first ascents and I have had some pretty hurtful things written about me by people I have never met.  I understand that by choosing to live my life in the climbing public’s eye, I open myself up to abuse that would not normally be there, and in the past I have done my best to take this on the chin.  This time however, it was different.  The words I read stung, especially the ones questioning and doubting my honesty and integrity.  It upset me how spontaneously cruel people could be but I guess is should come as no surprise in what is often a spontaneously cruel world.

The Promise has been repeated twice by the incredibly talented visiting Americans and as you are all well aware, they proposed a downgrade from E10 to E8.  Whilst at first this came as a bit of a shock, I know that grading trad routes is far from an exact science and that things can change.  I wanted to meet the guys for various reasons, but mainly because I was impressed by the way they had not only climbed, but reported these repeats – honestly, politely and courteously, with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of facts.  They seemed like really sound guys; refreshingly different from the “jump on the band wagon”, “burn the witch” mentality which unfortunately seems prevalent in the UK.

I met up with them at a very windy Curbar, shortly after Alex had made a flash ascent of The End Of The Affair.  In line with what I have said above, he was incredibly modest, and un-phased by this very news worthy ascent and told me, without a hint of snobbery or cockiness, that he felt the route was E6!

We moved to a different part of the crag, and chatted about this and that between ascents of this and that.  Inevitably, like all climbers, we got on to the subject of grades and did our best to put the world to rite. 

I thought of something Leo Houlding had said about how routes with a high historical value have been, and should continue to be, used as benchmarks for grading other routes by.  I asked Alex to assume, from a historical perspective, that TEOTA is E8 (the grade it has been for the last 22 years) and then asked him what grade The Promise would be in relation to this?  His answer was without hesitation – E10

 Quote from Andy Popp on UKBouldering.com

 just wanted to inject a little historical perspective before everyone runs away with the idea the older routes are dead easy and were (either wilfully or delusionally) overgraded. This is just an example I can draw on from personal experience, and not an attempt at bigging myself up. When I did the third ascent of TEOTA in 92 it had lain unrepeated for 6 years. The floodgates didn't suddenly open afterwards - I don't think it got another repeat for several more years. So, it hasn' always been a trade route. At the time I had a solid track record in onsighting grit E6 (going back to Fistful - mooted by some as E7 - in 1985), had onsighted one route now graded E7 (The Salmon), and headpointed, ususally with v. light practice a bunch of E7s. Basically I think I knew the score and the TEOTA simply felt harder than everything else, E8 in fact. If it goes down to E7 so be it but I think if it does we will require MASS downgrading across grit.

Alex then said that the reason he and Kevin had thought The Promise not E10, is that they were under the impression that E10 and 7a were the limit of our grading scale – simply put, the hardest a traditional route could ever be.  They are not alone in this view; the more I read on the forums or talk to people when out climbing, the more I hear this misconception that E10 and 7a are the absolute limit. 

I don’t know where this idea has come from, the way I have always understood the “E” system is, like any other grading scale, it is open ended.  As standards improve, and people climb harder routes than before, the grade of these routes will increase.  When you take away all the glitz and glam, the magic and the bullshit, and look at routes in very simple terms it becomes very obvious.  If the holds are smaller, or further apart, or the protection is worse, then the route is harder, and so the grade increases.

New grades should be nothing to be scared about, nor should they be scorned, but this appears to be the mentality in the UK, which in my opinion has done incredible damage to the UK trad system, resulting in cries of “the E Grade is broken”.  I don’t think it is broken, but I do think it is being misused and if it is to regain any usefulness there need to be some fundamental refines, starting with the insanity that is the ever widening English tech grade! (more about this in my next post)

It also seems to me that over time, as a route receives more ascents from more people, the perception of how difficult it is goes down.  This seems mainly based on the number of people who are now able to climb at that level and, to me, this seems madness.  Standards move on, people get better, but the routes do not (rarely) change.  Just because a route is further away from the cutting edge, does not make it any easier than the day it was first climbed.

If we can come to terms with moving things forward, I feel this issue of “backwards condensing” would no longer be a problem.  We should be proud of where we have come from, but prouder of where we are going.

11 comments:

Jon Redshaw said...

Brilliant post

Anonymous said...

Don't let grades and opinions bother you, just go and climb and enjoy it, the shit on UKC meens nothing, good luck!

Fiend said...

New grades should be nothing to be scared about, nor should they be scorned, but this appears to be the mentality in the UK, which in my opinion has done incredible damage to the UK trad system, resulting in cries of “the E Grade is broken”. I don’t think it is broken, but I do think it is being misused and if it is to regain any usefulness there need to be some fundamental refines, starting with the insanity that is the ever widening English tech grade! (more about this in my next post)


Word.

bluebrad said...

As ever another well thought out post - even though the grades at the top level are way beyond my ability I look forward to reading your thoughts on the "ever widening English tech grade".

Björn Pohl said...

WORD!
Brilliant!
Standards DO, SHOULD and MUST move on.

Anonymous said...

Hi James,
it's sad that you felt 'stung' by the stuff some people had written about you. If you go on any webpage that allows comments, for example at the Guardian site, you get people posting really offensive things anonymously.
It's a common problem - I hope you just dismiss these people as the morons that they are, I'm certain the majority of readers do. They're not worth getting upset about.
All the best.

Peter said...

Smart and well-argued. A refreshing break from the impulsive stuff shouted across the climbing blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

I think that your penultimate paragraph accurately portrays E grades. Routes, especially well established ones are the grade they are through peer consensus, they settle and then endure, even if the number of people able and willing to climbing them increases, through improved standards.

However, route grading, just as route setting can only truly and accurately be done by people with experience at that grade.

You would not expect someone bouldering Font 7a to consistently set problems at 8a or above, why. They have nether the experience or strength to accurately be able to grade the problem. It is accepted that very few people can set consistently more than 2 grades above their limit, if that.

In conclusion, it is unlikely that anyone not climbing E8 or above could accurately and consistently comment on E10 and above. Having nether the skill, strength, nor experience to do the routes. Perhaps the climbing community should therefore leave the big grades, both climbing and grading them to the big boys and girls who have the experience to do this best.

Chris Jones said...

Excellent post, well reasoned. Good to hear you got to talk to the american lads and find out how they arrived at their views.

Anonymous said...

James,
Dificult as it is, just try to ignore the doubtors and sad cranks who have nothing better to do than spread vile to appease their own envy. 'The Groove' has had many suitors, but only you managed to climb it. Let the crowd prove that they can follow you, and if they cannot, they should just shut up.
Stay safe,

Stephenh said...

Superb post, passionate and articulate.

Interesting to hear about grading hard routes from someone who can actually climb them!