Climbing: What’s in a Grade?

Alex Kahn bypassing the reach moves on her send of Marble Direct V10 Photo by Tim Foote

Written by Alex Kahn

Grading- a system applied to many fields where living and non living things can be compared. Those who measure high on the grading system are often elated or celebrated, while those on the other end of the spectrum are often left defeated, unfulfilled and striving to be better. Grades, when controllable, are a way to compare ourselves with others, but also to measure our progress and serve as a driving force behind goal-setting. Think of times in school when you got a bad grade and were grounded for it, or that time someone got the promotion over you in a job- both situations probably made you try harder next time.

This same theory applies to climbing. There is a grading scale in which to measure progress. This progression is a culmination of strength, technique, time, patience and luck. It is also a measurement upon which goals can be set and achieved. When applied to the sport of climbing, it is simply a way to determine who is the best, but sometimes at the expense of the passion for the sport itself and all the unique aspects that outdoor climbing contains. Before the grading system was so prevalent and public, climbing seemed to be a little more about inspiration and enjoyment, rather than improvement and personal promotion. Social media and the ability to be a “sponsored” or “professional” climber has put a greater emphasis on the grade of the climb, both from the climbers, the fans, and those paying the checks. One of the “best” and few true professional climbers in the world is southern boy, Jimmy Webb.

Jimmy Webb climbing V14 first ascent in the south
Photo by Alexandra Kahn

A powerhouse to say the least, Jimmy has proven to be one of the strongest and smartest boulderers in the world, with an exceptional track record of boulder flashes. However, even Jimmy says “grades these days are a good thing and a bad thing. Some people tend to take climbing a bit too serious in my opinion and are so attached to the grade they climb and not the quality of the line nor the experience involved. “ Jimmy dedicates much of his time seeking out and establishing high quality boulders for first ascent potential, boulders which inspire him and remind him of his love for the sport. On a positive note, he says grades are also “a nice way to measure your personal progression.  Of course progression in climbing can mean many different things aside from just a random number.. but if you take it all back to the basics, it’s the simplest way to show yourself that you are getting stronger. So if grades are used in a positive manner then I think they can matter a ton.”

Despite what number is assigned to a piece of rock, there is a lot that goes into assigning this grade. Those who established the climbs are often not given the credit they deserve for the work they put into it. Grading a boulder is difficult. You are trying to make your mark on that climbing area, name and grade something that you have often found, cleaned and put time into, all while thinking about how others would similarly judge the movements. You have to think about the hardest move of the climb. How many moves are similar in difficulty to the hardest move? How many moves are there? How high is the boulder and what is the scare factor? How long did it take to complete it while mindful of how many days it took once you knew the correct beta. If people find more efficient beta in the future, will it drastically alter the grade? Are any holds in threat of breaking that would change the grade? Did you have a safe landing and was the boulder properly cleaned when you did it?

These are all things that one must consider when coming up with a grade for a boulder. Even after the decision is reached, it is merely an estimate until multiple people repeat the climb and confirm or change the proposed grade. Then of course there is the next climbers down the line to consider and the great fear that if you propose too high of a grade, your climb will get the confirmed downgrade. Some climbers go the complete opposite and purposely grade it stiff- it might feel harder than the grade they give but at least no one will downgrade it. On the opposite side of the spectrum you have the climbers who want the fame attached to claiming big numbers- they will deal with the repercussions of the downgrade at a later time in life and for now will relish in success.

Jimmy Webb projecting & cleaning a problem in Zimbabwe
Photo by Alexandra Kahn

Jimmy has established and repeated thousands of boulders around the world. He is a respected authority when it comes to grading his own first ascents and confirming grades from other climbers. Often thought of as too strong for his own good and stiff grader, I asked him what he thought about when he grades a first ascent. “I usually just try to think about boulder problems that I’ve climbed recently.  Maybe there is a problem that is a similar style but just a bit easier or harder that you can compare it to,” said Webb. “What are the greatest challenges during the grading process?” I asked. “Well I suppose the greatest challenge is the fact that you just don’t know sometimes.  There are many factors that go into grading a boulder problem and many times the variables involved can be different.  Like maybe the weather was bad or you had terrible skin that day so therefore the boulder felt more difficult then it normally would have. It also plays in the opposite direction too though.  Some days you’re feeling really in tune with the rock and your skin or the weather could be perfect and you could just float up something and it feels easy.  This is also rare but can make it challenging while trying to accurately grade a boulder.  With experience though you start to realize these variables and can grade the problem accordingly.”

This is the case for putting up a first ascent, but most people do not put up first ascents. It is time consuming, labor intensive, requires traveling and searching new areas with no potential to find anything. I merely mentioned the internal struggle of giving a first ascent grade. The next time you go climb a boulder because you are grade chasing, or you climb something where the grade feels off, you think about the whole process that climber went through in order to pick a grade and maybe you give him or her a little slack 🙂

What most of us face every day is a personal struggle with the ambiguity of grading. When a moderately advanced climber does a boulder that is a new grade for him or her and at their upper limit, suddenly the meaning behind the grade is carefully considered. There are different ways to approach this consideration:

One: You take whatever the grade that was given to that problem, regardless if it was harder or easier than the grade states. You most likely did the common beta everyone does and you take the grade for what it is.

Two: You find much better beta or maybe a hold or knee bar that wasn’t previously used. You complete the boulder and it feels significantly easier than the grade so you either publicly downgrade it or you make it known that despite the widely accepted grade, you had found another way that suited you and your personal grade was different.

Three: You are a numbers chaser and your focus is on the grade, not the quality, beauty or reputation of the climb. For these people, the entire accomplishment is in climbing the number. Even if it’s widely accepted that the grade is wrong, you don’t want to be the person to publicly downgrade because you don’t feel it’s your place, so you take the inflated grade and ego boost and move on to the next.

Four: You found nothing novel or easier about the line but you honestly think the climb was overgraded, feels easier than other climbs of that same grade, and you seek out help from others to arrive at the decision of what you want to publicly grade the boulder based on honesty.

I am a personal grader because I don’t keep a public record of my climbs to display to the world (like scorecards) and grade my personal improvement for me. Some climbs I agree with the grades, others I don’t. Sometimes I find amazing beta and it feels easier, other times I can’t reach the holds and have to add moves that are at my limit and suddenly the climb seems much harder than the grade. Grades are subjective and often times silly. They can make you happy and very upset, but really they are numbers that someone agonized over and finally decided on. So really, why do grades matter at all?

I was curious to see what a non-pro climber’s perspective was on the topic. Cesar Valencia, who is one of the most obsessed outdoor climbers I have ever met. He recently climbed his hardest establish boulder problem but he struggled with what to grade it. He was unsure if it deserved the grade so many had given it, when he compared it to other boulders he had done in the same area. So why did a non professional athlete care so much about the number attached to a piece of rock? Why couldn’t he just take the number as it stood? Because passionate outdoor climbers are all just a bit obsessive and crazy (myself included), that’s why!

“I have had many internal battles with grading in the past,” says Cesar. “I think it’s something we all experience at some point in time. It’s almost like we don’t want to believe that we have improved and have gotten stronger so we doubt the difficulty of the climbs if they are “hard.” I can remember this battle starting to become more common when I began climbing in the 7 or 8 range. This was a level at the time that I didn’t think I was capable of reaching ever so when I started climbing those grades I was always doubting the difficulty of climbs. Always assuming they had to be easier since I did them. Whenever you break into a new level of climbing the doubts are at their peak. It’s hard to believe you’ve finally improved. After a while I realized this was an insanely idiotic way of thinking simply because with time comes improvement and we have to acknowledge that as climbers. Even so, the battle continues.” So by this response, it appears that the issue of grading comes into play in part because of confidence. I don’t feel like I’m strong enough or good enough to climb a certain grade, it must not be that grade. Vice versa, I feel really fit and have done so many climbs of this grade, so surely if it took me this long and felt this hard it must be this grade.

Cesar Valencia bouldering European Humanbeing V12
Photo by Alexandra Kahn

But why did he need to think about the physical number so much? Why not just think in terms of other comparable climbs to measure his progression. I did this one and it felt harder than these comparable climbs and I feel really strong, therefore I must be climber harder than I ever have before. I’m not sure what the answer is, but just as we are graded in school, work, looks, sexual performance, style and every other measurable scale, we are graded in climbing. Cesar says he cares about the grade because “it helps you see progress in your climbing ability. Climbing a grade for a while then surpassing it gives you the confidence to try harder things. Grades are also important because they are simply immediate information for a climb. It lets me know whether I should try a climb or not. Obviously you always want to push yourself, but I like being strategic about it. I wouldn’t want to waste my time trying something leagues above me when I could be working on things within my capabilities that will actually help me improve and become a better climber.” On the flip side, in my personal experience, grades are emphasized more than style of a climb and they should be equally considered in order to evaluate progression.

Take for example a sloper compression climb in the South. It might be V3 and in my mind, of course I can climb V3, but if I’m not used to that specific style, don’t have that type of muscle group and don’t feel confident in the type of movement, I still might not be able to do it. If I go to an area known for tension and crimps, I feel comfortable and strong; I might be able to send a V11 in that area quicker than the V3 in the other area. It certainly makes a climber more well rounded and talented to climb the same grade of every style and it’s a huge confidence booster, but it’s not that common. I have learned to not let the grade of a climb affect me- maybe because I’m a short female, maybe because I’m pretty good at finding “freak” beta that suits my body, but I have learned to give every climb a shot- look at the holds, what kind of climbing will I need to execute and how far apart are the holds? To me, these are the main factors when deciding whether or not I think I can send a climb. Thinking like this makes me try harder boulders that I would have in the past deemed impossible and helps my ego be less bruised when I can’t top out my anti-style V3 🙂

Whatever your perception of grading is, there is a lot to consider. Grades are not all that matter in climbing and it has never been this way. Climbing outside should be inspiring, joyful and challenging both mentally & physically. It is capable of altering your self confidence if you give it that power. Reconnect with why you climb, what you love about it and try to use grades as just a way to check in. Track your personal progression to establish and maintain goals. Above all, have fun and don’t give up!

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