Monday, 19 January 2009

Interesting points and questions I ask myself.

Why such a difference between experience

Unless you live on a desert island, it will have been hard to avoid the kerfuffle caused by recent repeats of some of my routes.  People were incredibly swift to jump on the bandwagon and I was quickly labelled as a publicity seeking overgrader.  Whilst I can categorically state that this is untrue, I can see why people could jump to this conclusion, namely that not one, but 3 of my routes have received proposed downgrades (despite only 2 of them being repeated), and also that I am a sponsored climber who indirectly makes a little money from media coverage.

Most people who read this will have never met me, let alone know me well enough to be a good judge of my character, and so saying “I am not an overgrader” is fairly meaningless.  For all they know, I could be a compulsive liar, who enjoys robbing old ladies pension books and regularly steals candy from infants of all ages.  But I am not an overgrader, nor did I purposely overgrade my routes.  I gave an honest opinion of how it felt to me based on the information that was available and my experience at the time.  However, it is also true that other people found the routes easier than I did, for one reason or another, but why such a difference between experience?

The following sections are meant to highlight some of the issues that a FA faces when grading a new route.  These ideas have been buzzing around my head for a while, so I decided to put pen to paper (so to speak) and share them with you.  I am not offering definitive answers, just sharing my thoughts.  There will be more specifically on the use of pads, The Groove, and TWOL in following posts, but I thought I’d give you this to chew on for now, since typing is not one of my more developed skills.  Thanks for being patient.

The Facts



No of days working the route

Felt ready to lead after “x” days

Linked on TR after “x”days

How “hard” did it feel on a scale of 1 to10

How “scared” was I on a scale of 1 to10







The Promise






The Groove

~12 over 4 years




4 or 5


25+ over 4 years


Never tried on toprope, only abseil and never linked full route




The above table is meant to give an idea of how much mental and physical effort was required from me to climb each of my routes (with Equilibrium in there to act as a guide).  Hopefully you will be able to see why I graded the routes as I did, simply because each felt far harder than the one before.


Escaping from the messy minefield that is the E grade, talking about boulder grades should be a breeze.  However, actually dishing them out doesn’t seem quite so simple, especially on funny old gritstone.  Now we all know that grit is a bit conditions dependant meaning things feel a little tricky on certain days, and also body shape plays a part, and sometimes if you have had a little too much to drink the night before, things might feel a little tough, but all in all, the grades work out...  This is how I used to think in times gone by when everything seemed so simple, but on reflection, I have to disagree.  In my opinion, conditions, body shape, style etc etc make the difference between moves being easy and impossible, with the biggest factor being conditions.  Normally this would not be a problem; you climb the climbs, succeed and fail, then laugh about it with your mates.  No big deal, where’s the fuss?  However, when you start being called a liar and an overgrader because you offer a grade to a piece of rock based on your experience, and then “x” person comes along on “y” day and said piece of rock feels easier for them, then things are not so cool.



The Promise

The Groove (lower section)

The Groove

(upper section)

James Pearson

Days to link boulder section on rope





Boulder Grade





Kevin Jorgeson

Days to link boulder section on rope

Not linked after 7 days effort



Not linked

Boulder Grade





As you can see from the table, both Kevin and I’s grades line up fairly well with the amount of days we spent on each route.  For myself, Equilibrium was the benchmark to rate all others against and since The Promise took me considerably longer, and The Groove longer still, I graded them accordingly.  Another thing to ask yourselves, is why did Kevin have such an epic on Equilibrium and the top of the groove, yet cruise The Promise and lower groove?  Body shape perhaps, I don’t know?

The Promise has now been repeated by a few people, with 7b+ to 7c being offered as a boulder grade, depending on who you speak to.  With such a strong consensus it is obvious I was out with my original grade, but I strongly defend the fact that I did not overgrade the route as 8a is genuinely how hard it felt to me at the time! 

Why was this?  I have not had chance to get back on the route this year to see for myself, but my suspicions lie with the conditions.  In early January 2007, conditions weren’t so good to say the least, and so the amount of days and effort needed to climb the route may have been way more than should necessary and hence felt considerably harder.

Actual, or Perceived Danger

Should a route be graded for the actual (what happens on average when you fall) or the perceived (what you think will happen if you fall) danger that you are in when on the lead?  At first the answer seems obvious – grading something based on what you think may happen is surely silly and will vary wildly depending on different people, so we grade things for the actual danger.  What then do you do as a first ascentionist, for unless you have actually taken the ride on the lead (which is usually unadvisable on bold fa’s) you are grading based on (hopefully) well thought out judgement of many different factors.  Sure, you can test gear by pulling/bouncing on it but it is never going to be under the same strain as on a lead whip.  The other option is to do simul- falls (lead falls backed up by a toprope) but these are often not accurate/possible for a number of reasons leaving you back at square one. 

Even after the fa and a few repeats, the route may not have been fallen off and so the grade is still based on perceived danger.  Only when some brave/unlucky soul fails to make it to the top, will this perceived danger become actual.  If the kid lives, then let’s all throw stones at the FA for being an overgrading bastard.  If they die, well, time will tell...  One way of avoiding being labelled an overgrader, would be to purposely undergrade all your fa’s by a grade or two, just to be safe.  The only trouble is, when this brave/unlucky soul pops off a new E7, which is actually an E9 and ends up dead, whose conscience is it on.

Just another few things:

1.       Person A climbs a short grit route graded E”x”.  It is a solo, the landing is flatish, but with lots of small protruding rocks, perfect ankle snapping territory but fine with a few pads.  Person A decides to solo the route and refuses a pad offered by his friend, wanting to climb the route in the original way for the E”x” experience.  When person A is mid crux, his friend is worried and chucks a couple of pads underneath just to be safe.  Person A is unaware of this, and climbs to the top, feeling really happy and proud. 

Question – did Person A still have an E”x” experience (and please, no wisecracks about grit not being proper climbing) due to his perceived danger, even though the actual danger was significantly reduced by the pads?


2.       Person B is practicing a classic, but polished fr”xx” at Ravens Tor.  They have been falling off all morning at the crux, but after a break for lunch they feel a little refreshed, time for a few more tries.  They set off up the route, unclipping the rope from the draws as they go and smoothly climb through the crux, arriving at a rest at about 45ft.  On looking down they realise they are not tied in, panic, and quickly clip into the closest bolt.  On the climb, person B was completely relaxed due to perceiving they were safe when actually they were in real danger.  Does this mean they have just soloed an E?


Theres more to come soon but my eyes hurt too much to continue tonight. 

Thanks for listening, you’ve been a wonderful audience.


Simon Whittle said...

Really interesting and honest post there, hopefully that will stop some of these stupid and unfair comments about you. Whenever i go climbing there's always some stuff i can't do but my mate can, and stuff i can do but he can't...guess thats just the way climbing goes sometimes. People who think you overgraded things on purpose don't know what your talking about. The rock is always going to be there for someone to try so what would be the point of lying about it?!
Anyway keep up the good work!!

Simon Whittle said...

'People who think you overgraded things on purpose don't know what your talking about'

sorry meant 'People who think you overgraded things on purpose don't know what THERE talking about'
whoops!!!! Made that sound completely wrong!

Simon Whittle said...

or even 'THEY ARE'
i'm off to revise english
ignore anything else I write... ate to much Chinese food

dom said...

Great post James, thanks for sharing. It sounds like grading discrepancies can happen when you base your scale off of a route that felt unusually hard or easy to you. It seems like you were basing your grade The Promise, the Groove and TWoL on Equilibrium which sounds like it felt fairly easy to you. Similarly it sounds like the americans had a tough time on one of the first routes they did, The New Statesman which is 'only' E8 so felt like the other routes which felt easy to them should be downgraded.

Anyway, i hope you continue to put up new hard lines, and continue to write interesting blog entiries for all us armchair climbers to chew on.


Morgan Preece said...

Thanks for that James!!

James Argyle said...

I'm glad to see you have chosen to respond to your critics. I think it's interesting to see the reasoning behind your gradings and how the experiences compared. Reading your thoughts, I agree with Dom that it seems you had a comparatively easy time on Equilibrium compared to the Americans and this accounts for some of the difference.

Add in the use of pads/perceived danger/"FA factor" and i think it's quite easy to see how there can be significant variation between the ascentionists.

Although DM has only tackled/commented on one of your routes. It would be interesting to see how he fared on Equilibrium - both in terms of his experience and overall impression of the grade. I believe he has not climbed much on the grit - sllngshot's maybe the only hard route I recall (which he felt was overgraded?).

As another thought for yourself, how do your previous grit routes stack up compared to the above (The Zone and Knocking on Heaven's Door, in particular)?



Anonymous said...

The A & B climbers make for a nice parlour game but grades are for usual circumstances rather than unusual ones. Everyone can have an E5 'experience' on an E1 but it doesnt make the route E5. Grading routes should start with what you experienced but then factor in an appreciation of what you are strong/weak and inexperienced/experienced on compared to the 'consensus' climber as well as other things like conditions rather than basing a grade on your personal feelings alone compared only to a couple of disparate routes. Either that or all visiting Brit climbers would justifiably upgrade the first or every offwidth they 'experienced' in Yosemite.

Best, Simon Lee

James Pearson said...

Hi Simon,
I concur to an extent for well established routes, where a grade consensus has been reached. But what about first ascents when you have little else to compare to, surely your personal feelings are about as real as it can get.

I guess the point I am trying to make, is that grading routes, especially at the top end (where a tiny change in humidity for example, can make a massive difference), is really tough, or atleast it is for me.

This does not mean I believe my routes will/should forever stay at my proposed grade, quite the contrary. I can fully appreciate that over time, once the reliability of gear, optimum sequences etc have been tested, then grades will change accordingly, up or down. I can only give it my best shot, and cross my fingers. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe not, but surely thats why we have a consensus based system?

Sorry if that was a bit rambled, I'm in a rush to get out, but hope to write more pots later.


Anonymous said...

Hi James,

Really interesting post, and well explained.

I can now understand why you gave TWOL such a high grade now, based on 'feelings' vs comparible routes. I can also understand why TWOL felt so scary and hard to you (based on your table), when you had not even previously linked the rope before trying to lead it!!! Thats obviously in the context of your other routes in that you actually got the routes wired before going for the lead.

What do you make of dave's 25 pieces of gear in TWOL and feelings of relative security on the route?


(Only posting anonomously to save time!)

Anonymous said...

Really well though out post, James.

I must ask though - what your are thoughts on Kevin voluntarily lobbing off the top of the Groove's crux? After watching Committed 2, the two don't just add up!!

Also, I don't think the Slider Nut on the Promise as actually been fall tested. Do you think the repeat ascentionists had too much faith in it? Especially seeing as John Roberts kicked it out with his foot...


Anonymous said...


Good post.

The important thing, at the end of the day, simply is that your routes are iconic. The Groove and the TWOL will be forever at the top of peoples' dreams when they think about what they want to get their arses up.

The grades will become irrelevant and you'll be remembered as someone make FA of classic lines, simple as that.

Keep it up (Though your use of grammer and puntuation is appalling!).

Si H

Fiend said...

Good post, nice to see some SCIENCE in action - like the lists of facts. Grading may be a vague SCIENCE but it is a science still. Difficulty + various factors = place on a scale. A lot of people try to make it more mysterious and complicated than it actually is....but it's not ROCKET SCIENCE ;).

I think anyone with half a brain doesn't think you over-graded, you simply mis-graded: Various factors like conditions, over-estimating technical sequences, under-estimating ball-nut holding power, use of mats, and natural variance in people's estimates come into play and affect the grade.

You graded these routes appropriately on the clearest information on your experience, but that information was a bit out (e.g. holding power of ballnuts etc, difficulty of sequences), so the grade was a bit out. No real mystery there...

All the bullshit is a lot of fuss about nothing.

James Pearson said...

Just got back from the crag and I cant tell you how nice it is to read pleasant comments for a change.
I am glad that you guys found my post interesting and apologies for my grammAr and punCtuation etc ;) but writing has never been my strong point.

lore said...

great post james.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that you cleared this matter up, because I HAD heard that you robbed an old lady's pension book!

Haha.. JK

daveaubrey said...

what do you make of Dave Macleod's comments about helmets? It seems to follow the same logic as your bouldering mat argument, although not quite as well? Should a route have a different grade for a with or without helmet ascent?

(I'm not criticising, I'm just interested in a well argued debate, i.e. one without Jens in it)