Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Actual Danger continued... A.K.A. ‘the effect of pads’

To avoid all the issues regarding gear (will it/won’t it hold) let’s just imagine the route in question is a solo. Its 25ft, sketchy landing of rocks, earth and turf- you get the picture? -A typical Gritstone horror. Let’s say this route was original climbed in the late 80’s without pads as they were not available at the time and it was graded E5.  Over the years it has seen a few falls without pads, resulting in broken ankles and heels; so is clearly quite dangerous.

Bring in the bouldering pads......

·         It’s the mid 90’s.  Person A decides to climb the route and uses his new bouldering pad to start off.  It is 90cm square and 3 inches thick; not much by today’s standards but enough to protect the tricky first moves. E5? 

·         It’s year 2000, mat technology has come on a little and person B climbs above his new pad (1.1m sq, 4 inches thick with new firm foam.  Person B falls from around 10ft, landing on his pad and is fine. He gets back on and climbs to the top.  E5?

·         Its 2004, everyone pretty much has pads.  Person C wants to try the route and goes out with 3 friends, each with 2 pads.  They stack them at the bottom, making a large landing zone.  Throughout the course of the day they take numerous falls from up to 15-20ft, until finally pushing on for the top.  E5?

·         Its 2009, highballing and grounding-up are the order of the day.  A group of friends carry a load of pads out including a couple of monsters over 10in thick.  They carpet the base of the route, making falls from the top perfectly possible.  E5?  Where does it end?

I always thought mats made a difference and because our trad routes are traditionally graded without pads, I refused to use them.  Having recently seen very fast repeats of The Promise, where one of the main differences was the use of pads (remember we’re excluding gear for now), I decided to try them out for myself to see if I was making a fuss over nothing. 

After carting some up to a route I have been trying, I was truly amazed.  The difference was more than I would ever have imagined; turning a very scary route, into a tall boulder problem.  It was the difference between going for the lead and walking away – I knew I could comfortably fall off from the majority of the route, with almost zero chance of injury, so it was worth a shot.

I believe it is this mentality and approach that has fuelled the recent fast repeat fever we have all witnessed on the grit.  Starting up a route from a pile of pads puts you in a completely different head space, than stepping off some pointy rocks.  The whole way you view a route change; it stops being a tiger ready to rip your head off and becomes more of a tabby cat.

I think refusing to use mats is pretty stupid- without a good reason for it.  Mats reduce the danger, making injury less likely and your climbing life longer.  My reason always seemed good enough to me to justify the risk; trying to repeat and put up new routes in the same style as they had always been (and please let’s not get into this headpoint vs onsight debate, lets save that for another rainy day). This was my attempt to make an already confusing system slightly less confusing. 

From where I am sitting it seems impossible to have a grading system that is based in part on danger, yet “allow” the use of a massive variable like pads.  The protection mats can offer is in theory limitless and so the amount that they can affect the grade must be relative to this.  Mats are not just new technology as friends, or sticky rubber once were - you can only place as many friends as the rock allows, and the friction won’t get better if you try to put on more than one pair of shoes.  Every other piece of protection is limited, mats are not. 

I could go on for hours about this subject, but I’m sure you will be getting bored so I will try to wrap things up. 

Fact – Mats make climbing “safer”

Fact – The more mats you use, the “safer” climbing will become

Fact – If the climbing is “safer”, then the route is not as “dangerous” as when it was originally graded, and thus the grade must change accordingly.

But how do you decide how much difference these pads will make.  What about one pad, how about two; did someone say ten?  What about old pads, what about new, what about red pads, what about blue? Maybe we should have a pad grade rule book, so people can cross reference their make, model, age and number, then plonk them in a formula and bob’s your uncle?

In a world where people seem very concerned with making sure their peers are claiming the correct grade, this seems awfully confusing?


Lee said...

I think it's very hard to argue with that logic.

Anonymous said...


Not to be inflammatory, but how did pads effect TWOL?

'Twould be quite a stack 'o pads to change that grade!

Jonathan Whitfeld said...

I dunno dude,Pads are just another new technology in gear, like ropes first where and like cams where, all make climbing safer, and all have been labelled bad form by various people when they where introduced.

Though you raise a very good point about the endless possibilities, if you have one pad, why not twenty? I think the answer lies with the responsibility of the climber to know when they cross the line, or form a new style - deep pad soloing.

If people want to turn a trad climb into a boulder by placing too many pads, they might as well go to font, or magic woods etc.

Like I said, I agree with pads to protect a nasty landing (laid across a nasty pointy out rockyy thingy) but if we take all the risk out of trad we might as well save everyone the bother and throw bolts in everything - or fill every crag with foam, at least that way we will get rid of rope drag.

With regards to grade change, can someone walk up to a parallel crack, decide that cams are cheating (I still know people who refuse to use them) and solo the route as they couldnt place any other gear, then upgrade it to reflect them turning it into a death route? If people share my answer of no, then by the same logic how can you downgrade the same climb by throwing a sea of pads at it.

It remains the same grade, just climbed differently, like you said everyones experience on climbs are different, the only constant is the rock, and the grade the rock is given (though not lately it seems)

Anyway, enough of my ranting, a really good insightful read James, thanks and I look forward to more in the future!

Climb Safe

Jono Whitfield

Fiend said...

Oh dear.

Step 1: Prominent top climber posts something entirely sensible, logical, and unarguable about bouldering mats.

Step 2: Internet explodes.

Nothing to add really. It's all perfect common sense and something I've been banging on about for years in the face of varying degrees of ignorant derision.

The simple matter is that mats are now de-rigeur, that is today's style of ascent, which is fine.

As far as grades go, I think the BMC have got it right for short routes / solos where they're using two-tier traditional solo / padded highball grades. How this affects leadable routes, hmmm dunno. I'm sure someone will work it out though.

Anonymous said...

Interesting response by Macleod...

Grading 25-foot routes with an E-grade is a difficult proposition.


Anonymous said...


I believe the guys who have downgraded the Promise to E7 surely should say that "it's E7 with mats, but clearly harder without!"
It's not rocket science is it? It can't be the same grade if the danger has been greatly reduced!

I've actually got a nasty broken leg at the mo from climbing up an auto-belay and forgetting to clip in! Does that mean the F6b I climbed was in fact an E1? It felt safe at the time because I thought I was clipped in!
Keep up the legendary climbing!


Robert said...

Hey James, thanks for your thoughts. I'd just like to further what you said a little. I completely agree with you on the use of pads not applying to the grade. If we look at a route like Long John's Slab E3 5c at Froggatt, the route description clearly says "pads help lower the grade". Why does this not apply to routes like the promise?? It seems quite obvious to me, the Promise is still E10, or E9 with a pad, E8 with a crap load of pads, and E7 when you use pads and a ladder(!!) to protect the base (which is what the repeat ascentionists did btw).

That said, TWOL is a strange one since it took you so long to complete it yet DM did make a fast repeat. It would be nice to hear you congratulate him on his ascent because afterall it was a fine effort.

I also realize that some very harsh things have been said about you and they weren't fair. But do try to understand that it was inevitable with the highest proposed grade ever in climbing history gets downgraded a few grades. Although, i cant help think that DM's repeat hardly makes for a consensus at E9. I think like ol' G. W. Bush, history with view you with a much kinder eye James.

Keep up the great climbing and try not to take all this too seriously.


Anonymous said...

This is an important point for FAs. We all need to know exactly how a route was first led so that we can assess for ourselves if the grade will be relevant for us.

For example, if someone rolls up to burbage north with a rope and a standard rack of gear, and has a go at onsighting the promise, he/she is going to be in for a shock if the guide just says

"E8. Climb the right arete".

If they knew that the first ascent was made using a slider and that the downgrade involved mats and a ladder, they would think that for them, and their limited gear, this was going to feel more than E8.

So, yes, James is right. Guidebooks should record the use of mats (and if a significant number were used then that should be included also). For example, the Froggatt guidebook says that a fall from "Ulysses or bust" has been tested, all-be-it with above a pile of rucksacks and an army of spotters. So if you turn up by yourself, you can't expect the same outcome. It would be wrong for that route to be downgraded on this basis.

Having said this, it doesn't mean that people shouldn't use mats, just that if they do on a first ascent (or when proposing a change to the grade) they should be honest about it.

Rich Ackbar

bonjoy said...

Hi James,
We only tie ourselves in knots about the use of pads because we use grades in the wrong way.
Grades are, or should be, given for a theoretical pad free onsight lead, regardless of whether the route has ever recieved such an ascent or whether this type of ascent is even likely or appropriate. Why? Because it is, as you point out, impossible to factor in unquantifiable variables such as pads. A pad free onsight is a clear and simple baseline. It is a useful line in the sand.
It is then up to the skill of the climber to make their own assessment as to how their chosen style of ascent affects the danger, i.e. what the notional e grade will be with pads, practice, inspection or any other deviation from the defining baseline.
The problems arise when people stop using grades as a means of assessing the potential difficulty/danger of an ascent and start trying to use them as badges of honour. Routes are graded, not individual ascents of routes. A route will remain a given grade, but the danger can vary wildly according to the approach taken by the climber i.e. the grade still fits the route but the grade will only apply to the actual ascent if it is a pad free onsight.
If you move away from the idea of grading individual ascents it leaves you free to climb whatever you like in whatever style you feel most personally satisfying/justifiable. So long as you are honest and open. So long as you grade for the baseline value you are still free to use whatever deviations you feel are justified and ethically acceptable to yourself.
Arbitary numbering systems should not bind us into actions we wouldn't otherwise take.
Why protect the mis-application of a numbering system when you can protect your knees instead?
That's not to say that avoiding pads can't be done for perfectly sensible reasons, such as personal satisfaction.

Ultimately it's an inescapable truth that in a relativistic universe all grades are wrong.

Anonymous said...

Pads weren't around until 90's so all the routes FA:d before that were climbed and graded without pads. When people climb these routes nowdays, the use of pads can effect the grade. That's completely logical.

What I can't understand is why a modern climber who has acces to bouldering pads does an FA of a short, bouldery and dangerous route without using bouldering pads and grades the route on the high end of the scale because of that. It sounds to me as a very, very artificial way of climbing a short, bouldery route and an attempt to bumb up the grade.

James argues that if one uses a bouldering pad, there's no limit of what that use might become. That's bullshit. Bouldering pads can only protect a route of bouldering height. Now that they are awailable, there's no reason why not use one, or i you want ten of them on an FA. At least then you are not making the challenge an artificial one.

Hope I made some sense, english isn't my mother tongue.

Anonymous said...

You Brits need to understand a few things about your ascents:

1) Grit routes are glorified boulder problems. You climb things that people in the U.S. boulder, only you rope up to do it.

2) People are beginning to see E-Grades for what they are: outstanding ways to over-inflate the difficulty ratings and the importance of the British climbing scene. Most grade scales equate E10 with 5.14d, but I've never seen a 5.14d that's dead vertical ... get over yourselves.

3) Just because someone in your country does a new route, why do you insist on making an entire feature-length film about it?

It's a bit of a joke ...

Fiend said...

In ascending order from above:

Anon 2: What utter egotistical crap, you clearly understand nothing about the function of a grading system. It's to provide information: Pre-pads, E grades did that perfectly well. End of story. If you want to make a big deal about what grading system is in use or about people leading shorter routes on gear (which happened before pads were invented), that is your personal issue to deal with. And for the record I can't recall seeing any vertical Grit routes claimed at F9a (although elsewhere there is Bain De Sang, that funny rib thing in Spain, maybe a Rouhling route too).

Anon 1: And clearly English grading isn't your mother grading. Yes grades for padless ascents are outdated these days, nevertheless they are a tradition that enables relative ranking of routes with many routes that have been done in the past. The grading system is being tweaked, but in the meantime padless grades are consistent if not wholly applicable. And in my experience and every single person I've ever known or read about, multiple pads make a huge difference over single pads, especially with awkward landings. I imagine it's hard to deny that.

Bonjoy: Wise words from the old goose as usual.

gian said...

@Johnatan Whitfield

as an italian living (by choice) 45 minutes drive to Bleau, I' have to tell you two short things

a)bolts are an irreversible intrusion in the rock. you can hammer them off, but you still have some metal in the rock and the hole. This is why they are a way more serious issue than a removable pad, and as a sport climber I say : keep saving your rocks from bolts, it is a visionary and noble choice!
Pads should be seen a style : ie on sport climbs some people don't consider "onsight" the ascent of a heavily thickmarked, fully geared route after a long ground inspection including binoculars, some others agree that it is ok until it was not your friend who purposely made the thickmarks for you.

b)with the equation grit=danger you are making a really bad service to those rocks.
I met climbers who told me about that unique coarse grain. I've seen pics and videos of these intriguing vertical climbs involving unique moves (The one handed dyno on "the Groove" is already legendary and iconic, for instance).
When I was looking for a first employment after my degree, I seriously considered the sheffield area, and possibly concentrated most of my efforts there (ironically the job near font came by chance, I managed to schedule an interview last-minute before coming here for a climbing trip).
I never ever thought "I will prove that I have big balls on grit".
More something like "oh yes, slopey aretes, unsecure technical challenges, strong wind..."

Is grit really that crappy that with a weakened the danger factor (but with a full respect for the rock) it is not grit anymore?
Should I never get a plane ticket for a first trip there, if I just want to boulder and do safe climbs with a padded start?

Twiggums said...

to the last anonymous.
very funny, bouldering parthean shot would be a good thing for me to watch.
When you do a vertical E10, tell me that it's easy.
And because the U.S climbers boulder some things, it does NOT mean that every other route of the same height or below in every other country is officially a boulder problem, because "oh, some yank did something the same height as it over mats."
Thats crap.

James Pearson said...

Hey Jon,

It was pretty freaky to read your comment as it was unnaturally like a post I had planned to write in the next day or so. You never told me your crazy eyes could see into the future...

You brought up a few issues I had not thought of before that make a lot of sense, and one of your final points is something we should all try to remember;

"Arbitrary numbering systems should not bind us into actions we wouldn't otherwise take."

I feel this point should not only apply to our climbing, but to how we treat others in relation to it as well!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe the utter crap the americo-centric posted above pipes out. What a fucking idiot.

Pearson, you talk sense, unlike most of these choads.

Anonymous said...

I think a route, or boulder, should have a grade that explains how hard it is - like the french system. Everyting else is STYLE! How you shoose to climb - toprope, solo, pads - wathever - its just style. The climbing community can agree that some style is "better" then another but why must this be reflected in the grade? It will allways be more confusing then not. The climbing community - ecspecially in ther UK as it seems - are offcourse very conservative, but I think this way of looking at it will be very natural in the future of the sport.


Anonymous said...

Highball or Route?

If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck and looks like a duck, it's probably a duck.

New gear (pads) equals new thinking required. I think the grit should take their cue from Bishop.


Anonymous said...

Hello James,

I am a big fan of yours and have enjoyed watching your ascents on video.

I have to agree with other posters, I don't think style of repeats should influence the grade. For example, if someone comes along and solos a well known route with obvious gear placements no one would claim that the route's grade should be changed to reflect that "purer ascent". I think style is a personal choice that a climber makes about how they are going to climb a route, and how much danger they are willing to accept. That being said I think that a route should be graded according to the style of the first ascentionist and not down graded by others who do the route in a different style (pads) and then claim it was a lower E grade because it was safer!?(although I may be showing my ignorance of British E grades here!)

Another point one of the bloggers made either here or elsewhere was about the larger amount of time it often takes an FA to complete a new hard route compared to the much shorter time it often takes climbers to do repeats. I suspect this reflects the mental/psychological challenge inherit to putting up hard routes where no one has climbed them before. This pattern has emerged before and does not necessarily reflect a large difference in climbing skill. If you look at other hard routes and repeats (Realization, Chris Sharma vs Ethan Pringle; Rhapsody, just to name a few) you see that the FA took much longer to do the route than the repeat ascentionists; even though they may not have differed much in terms of skill.

Finally, I am glad to see you responding to your critics, this discussion about style and grades has been interesting. I for one never doubted your integrity as a climber.


Luc Dubois

t_b said...

Route grades should be as per the FA. So Ulysses stays at E6 6b, even though increasingly people are climbing it ground up with a stack of pads. It's not a highball boulder problem with loads of pads, but it's not E6 either. Renegade Master has now become popular as a highball. It suits a bouldering grade with a good cushioning of pads, though you could still hurt yourself if you fell off the top. But the same can be said of lots of boulder problems in Font, Bishop etc. Our problem in the UK is that we're hung up on E grades when they aren't much use on a lot of short and bouldery grit routes - like the Promise. I think we really need to be honest and forget about giving new routes E grades, and tell it like it is - Font 7c R or X or whatever. The vast majority of people are going to use pads to help reduce the danger to some extent. How many is up to them. I think it's great that I haven't seen an E grade for the wall left of New Statesman and I hope it isn't given one.

Anonymous said...

I think this interesting and self-evidently logical post goes to support the post the Dave Mac wrote the other day.

Grit really isn't the place for grading precision, esp. as the height varies from lowball to highball to suicidal. At the other end of the scale though, no matter how many pads you stack under Right Wall, it's still going to be E5.

I'm with the chap who said we should follow what the Yanks do in Bishop.

James O'Neill.

Robert said...

I dont mean to be funny James o Neil but its such a fine line its a silly discussion.

Parthian shot for example, its a grit route but is hardly protectable by pads. Sure there are grit routes that could be considered high ball boulder problems but this hardly forces every grit route into this catagory. I cant imagine anyone padding the base of equilibrium then going for the lead.

My point is... get real. Were talking about grey areas. Fortunately girt 'in general' is NOT one of these gray areas, certain routes maybe.

Anonymous said...


It's fairly obvious that now pads have come into fashion through bouldering, most people will use them on short routes where they make a difference. As this is likely to be the way in which they are usually climbed, surely it makes sense to apply the grading system to reflect this changing fashion, rather than the style in which you and very few others will climb them, however laudable that may be?

At the end of the day routes (again where pads make a difference) should be either given an E-grade using pads, or a bouldering grade (but perhaps both would be most useful). In the case of the Promise an E-grade would be more representative, as there is gear on the route which has undenyably helped previous ascents. You might say that pads offer unlimited protection, but it is only feasible for an individual to carry so many pads! And if someone does use 10 than maybe they can just consider their ascent 'soft for the grade'?

Surely you'd agree that to give the likes of Angel's Share at Black Rocks E8 is a bit of a joke - far better as a bouldering testpiece.

If we overcome this issue of grading (with or without mats) we can also see the use of these as being a great way of promoting ascents in the ground up style that will appeal to the majority of climbers. And just to clarify I am all for headpointing (I do it myself).


Simon Whittle said...

It seems a lot of people (not all!) don't understand the (correct) point James is making. In a world where everyone wants an accurate number put on a climb its not possible to say its 'E8 with pads' because its quite a vague statement, how many pads etc...
He's not saying you shouldn't use pads on short routes if you want, but you have to realize that is does change the grade, if that's what your after. If your just after the movement of the climb then use a many pads as you like!

In my opinion to use the E grade on short routes properly, you should not use pads. But like me if your more interested in your ankles than a higher E grade then use them! But don't claim you've climber E whatever ;)

James Pearson said...

Thanks Simon,

You are spot on. I was going to reply as it seemed people have been misinterpreting my post, but you have cleared things up perfectly.

zachary lesch-huie said...


Thanks for the thoughtful post. I enjoy this ongoing discussion.

I agree with your new view of pad use, though to a point. I don't agree that the use of pads is without limit (sure it is limitless in theory, but in practice it will never be the case that people will carry 20 pads to the base of TWOL or Echo Wall, for example), and I do think pads should just be thought of as another form of possible protection.

But in the case of a formerly roped climb that gets done as a highball with tons of pads, I think you're right to suggest that that will confound the use of an E grade. But it seems folks who are adopting this style are jettisoning the E grade completely and simply giving a V grade. This seems very sensible to me. Just give it a V grade, and know that it's in the genre of boulder problems that are quite tall and scary, though manageable with pads if it's feasible to carry them to the climb.

I could see guides adapting to this historical change by giving an E grade, with an additional note saying, "This was climbed as a boulder problem at V8." Two grades don't bother me, though I imagine others won't like that solution.

This discussion seems to me to be leading us to the conclusion that a route you can put pads under doesn't really work with E grades--that is, if you climb it with pads versus a rope and gear. I think this was basically what Dave M. was getting at in his recent blog post.

Anyway, I hope I've somehow contributed constructively to your thoughts on the matter.


Anonymous said...


The problem with the point you are making is that more people will choose to climb short grit routes with pads than without pads. It's very simple. E grades for these routes doesn't reflect the reality of what's going on out there. So what's the point?


Anonymous said...

I should add 'or it may lessen the E grade'.
Why try to keep a route grade that doesn't reflect the way it will be ascended? And why even try to climb it in a riskier way in the first place?
Now that pads are common it's almost like choosing to solo a sport route, impressive yes, but not worth regrading the route for the 1% of people who'll do it that way.