Saturday, 14 February 2009

My apologies for the delay since my last post, I have been out of the country quite a bit playing in the snow, which has been amazing fun. Anyway, I had planned to publish this particular post a few weeks ago but never felt 100% sure what I wanted to say. However, in light of a few recent occurrences, my head is a little clearer and the time has come. After this post, I hope to be able to move forwards and begin to write again about the things that make climbing enjoyable and special.

The Nitty Gritty

I guess this is what this has all been boiling down to. I climbed some routes, gave them grades, various things happened; now do I still feel the same?

There are many many tactics that if employed, will alter the overall difficulty of a route. Obviously the most difficult style to climb something in is a pure on-sight with no bouldering pads, every other style is simply easier, to a greater or lesser degree. We could argue the toss all day and night about these other styles, it has been done before, it will be done again but in reality it will get us nowhere because they are all a personal choice; we decided to do something in a certain way and because we have decided it, to us it seems sensible.

To move forward and stop our grading system becoming a farce, I think everyone needs to be playing by the same rules. By that, I mean understand that routes should only be graded for a certain style of ascent and any up/downgrades should only be applied in line with this style. To explain this point better than I probably could, here are the words of a wise old goose...

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.

Ok, back to my original point “There are many many tactics that if employed, will alter the overall difficulty of a route”. If we use the above rule of thumb, then we need to re-asses grades based on changes that are relative to the theoretical pad free on-sight. Reliability of gear and a better understanding of what will happen in a fall are two things that are directly relative.
So what do we now know about my routes that was unknown at the time; and how would I grade the routes today:

  • The Promise – The gear has been tested and has held numerous falls so not as dangerous as first thought. If I were to offer a grade based on my knowledge today, E9 7a would be my probable answer. Jumping the gun a little in the hope of answering questions before they are asked – maybe Superstition requires an upgrade to E9 7a?

  • The Groove – By only using one rope you minimise the chance of flipping upside down making it safer. You may also be kept off the gound after a fall from the break but this is still untested in a lead situation and all down to the reactions of the belayer. E10 7b?

  • The Walk of Life – I don’t really know any particulars about the gear on Daves ascent other than he used mainly wires and a few Peckers. Thinking about it, you may be able to place a Pecker where I placed the first rubbish micro-wire. Its the kind of placement they work well in, but I don’t know as I never thought to check. If you can, this might make the start feel a little less deadly. Its frustrating how sometimes you can be so oblivious to things staring you in the face. Anyway, regardless of the gear situation, the other routes that I based my original grade on have come down a little, and so surely The Walk of Life should follow suit in response to this? Perhaps this means it is only E11, which would actually fit in nicely with Steve McClure’s recent thoughts on Rhapsody. Who knows? At the end of the day, grades are just educated guesses to one extent or the other.

So what have I learnt from these 5000 words and numerous hours spent pondering? Let’s look at each section, and note down the problems:

  • Bouldering – A certain problem perceived differently by different people due to conditions, body shape, personal strengths etc, causes differing opinions on the grade of the problem.

  • Actual vs Perceived Danger – The seriousness (danger) of a certain climb may be perceived differently than the actual danger causing an apparent discrepancy in the grade once the actual danger is known (usually tested by a lead fall)

  • Use of Pads – Routes can be made a lot safer by the use of pads. Problems arise when repeaters claim the same grade, or even downgrade routes that were originally climbed and graded without pads.

Do you notice any recurring themes? Yup you got it - Grades, grades, grades, grades, grades. The route of all the above issues seems to lie in the thing we spend more time discussing than any other, not really a surprise is it.

Am I alone in thinking that the subject of grades has grown into a bit of a monster? There seems to be so much emphasis on them that the actual climbs often take second fiddle or are even forgotten completely. Surely if we used them as I imagine they were always intended to be used – as one of the many “guides” you can use to select a route, then all of these troubles would fade away?

Personally, at this moment in time grades are as un-interesting and un-motivating as they have ever been and I’m not sure how big a part they will play in my future.


J said...


you are climbing at least 7 grades harder than i ever will so take this with a grain of salt....

1) you were brave enough to go where there might be success or failure for the physical climb - you risked failure

2) you were brave enough to claim big grades - along with that you have to accept that dave's downgrade is part of the deal. Dave's view is nothing to do with pads.

3) It is worrying that you regard grade discussions as de-motivating. Ask yourself this.... Would you have attempted the Walk if you thought it would be an ace new route that would be e8 say. If the answer is no then you are climbing at least partly for the grade. That ain't healthy and would explain why you spend so much time talking about them.


James Pearson said...

Worrying? How so?

Yes I would. I have, and will continue to climb new (and existing) routes of all shapes and sizes. I choose to climb lines for many reasons including the beauty, the position, the atmosphere and the personal challenge. The real gems are ones that have it all.

Appologies if this debunks your theory of my poor mental health, but thanks anyway for the imput ;)

Julian said...

Hi James,

It would be really interesting to hear your thoughts regarding End of the Affair since you actually did climb it as a pad-free onsight lead. Does the grade (which you are in a unique position to comment on) hold up under this standard?

Thanks for another insightful post.

Paul said...

Hi James,

Effort on Gerty Berwick (Jesus, thats not a sentence I ever thought I'd type...). Looks like an amazing line.

Julian, lets not drag up the "G" word again shall we? The last grading storm-in-a-teacup has just passed, give it some time before another one.


Panda said...

Great work on the repeat of Gerty Berwick. It looks amazing :o)

Keep on doing what you enjoy and ignore those who revel in picking holes in peoples achievements.

I know it sounds trite, but do you really care what someone who doesn't know you thinks or do you care what your friends and family think?

Anonymous said...

it is obvious that grades matter, to those who talk about them.

climbing is inextricably linked to the perceived difficulty/challenge of a particular climb, and that is one of the appeals of the sport.

as a species, and as males of the species especially, we LOVE to challenge ourselves, and then compare the challenge we faced to how that challenge is perceived by others (i think this is the reason for grades, attaching "objective" units of measurement to an entirely subjective experience). i think as modern socialized animals, somewhat sophisticated in our presentation of ourselves and our motives, these realities are more difficult to perceive (in ourselves and perhaps in others), but it certainly seems that no amount of sublimation makes it impossible to notice these forces at work.

this isn't a knock on anyone, james included, but let's be honest here: if "grades don't matter", one simply wouldn't get so involved in attaching numbers and letters to climbing experiences, and how others perceive those numbers and letters. it seems a bit disingenuous to claim no effect of the above considerations in the face of discussions such as the ones witnessed in this forum.

after all, what does it matter if a climb is e9 or e12, and why would one invest any energy in defending one's claims regarding one or the other? (disregarding financial considerations for the moment.)