Why Rock Climbing Grades are Dumb

Why Rock Climbing Grades are Dumb

Published by Derek Williams on 2019 Nov 18th

Welcome to our very first HVS article, hooray! For those of you who don’t know, HVS is part of the British trad grading system. It stands for Hard Very Severe, so it only makes sense that we’re going to be taking a hard, very severe look at some of our favourite climbing topics. If you’re ready to get smacked in the face by a sandbag, read on because we’re diving into rock climbing grades!

Sport rock climbing on sandstone.

Grades can be motivating, but there's more to climbing than numbers.

The Basics Of Rock Climbing Grades

Before we get into why grades are as dumb as cramming your feet into shoes five times too small, let’s take a quick history lesson. The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) was originally created in the 1930s by the Sierra Club to classify hikes and climbs in the Sierra Valley. They developed a five-class adventure system that ranges from walking (class 1) to technical rock climbing (class 5). When climbing started to take off in the 1950s, the class 5 portion was further divided, with 5.1 being the easiest and 5.9 being the toughest. Here lies the first flaw in the system.

For over a decade, climbs that were 5.9 or harder were all given a grade of 5.9! Sure, some climbers would add the 5.9+ to the end, which means its slightly more challenging. But, most leave you to figure out the real difficulty for yourself. If you’ve ever been the Gunks in NY, you know exactly what we mean. The following photo is what a 5.7 looks like in the Gunks.

Rock Climbing in the Shawangunks

Eventually, climbers realized there was a whole world above 5.9 and started grading 10s, 11s, 12s, and so on. Then, in the 1960s Jim Bridwell thought, hey let’s complicate this even more and add ABCD to the end of grades above 5.10. Great idea Jim.

So now we have this ridiculously complicated grading system, and this is just the tippy-top of the garbage pile that is climbing grades.

How Grades Are Assigned

Most crags around North America base the route grade on the hardest individual move. Someone does the first ascent (FA) and assigns a grade. Sometimes, that’s it! In other situations, members of the community climb it and give their input. Maybe they find some neat beta to make it a lot easier, and a consensus is reached. Then, the grade is locked into lore.

This style of grading based on the hardest move is not universal. Some crags take into account the length of the climb, pump level, rests, etc. We also have areas that are known to be graded harder, like the aforementioned Gunks, and areas that are graded easier. Yes, I’m looking at you Tonsai!

Keep in mind that assigning a grade is completely subjective. It’s definitely more art than science, so take them with a grain of salt.

The Art Of Sandbagging

Has this ever happened to you? You just cruised a super fun 10b and you’re ready for a little jump to 10c. It’s only one grade harder - you got this!

You start climbing, and about halfway up you’re gripped out of your mind, pulling on a pinky mono to throw to a slopey ramp that a bird just took a big dump on? It’s definitely harder than 10c. What a sandbag!

I was listening to a podcast where John Sherman, the inventor of the V-grade boulder system, spoke about the art of sandbagging. In the discussion, he said that climbers putting up first ascents would purposefully mess with the system - just because! What they would do, is establish a bunch of routes giving them accurate grades, luring climbers into a false sense of security. Then once in a while, they would purposefully assign a route a few grades easier than it really is, just to mess with people. Nasty!

You hop on a chill cool-down at the end of the day and WHAM. You’re hit with a sandbag.

Other first ascensionists would always assign routes two grades easier because they are just that good and it wasn’t hard for them.

Grading Fosters Egos

John Sherman went on record stating that publishing the V-grade system for bouldering was one of his biggest regrets. Back in the early 90s, John was writing a guidebook for Hueco Tanks and wanted to leave his grading system out. However, he was pressured by his editor who said the books wouldn’t sell without a grading system. John reluctantly threw in the grades.

One of the main reasons John didn’t want to include climbing grades in the guidebook was because he knew that ego-driven climbers would only chase hard climbs. They wouldn’t care for much else, and would just boast about the hardest climbs they’ve ever done. Instead of campfire talks about an amazing move or sequence, they would become full of numbers as climbers try to one-up each other.

You can check out which climbers have egos for yourself. The next time you’re on a climbing trip or at the gym, ask a fellow climber for route recommendations. More times than not, the conversation will look something like this:

“Hey, you’re a local, I’m climbing in the 5.10 range can you give me some recommendations?”

“Oh totally man! Dude, I just sent this 5.12 coming out of a cave, you crimp off this gnarly shark tooth and throw to a ledge that a homeless man lives on. It’s super rad!”

“Oh...Ok. Well, anything else?”

“Ya my man! My friend is projecting this 5.14d. You do a pinky mono campus move through a waterfall. He’s got all the moves down, you can totally come project with us!”

“Thanks, I’ll think I’ll pass.”

Is it so hard to give a recommendation without the ego?           

Another way you can observe the massive egos that climbers have is by asking, “Hey, what did you get on today?” Unless the climber you’re talking to took an absolutely chill day at the crag, they will start by talking about the hardest climbs they got on. Regardless if they sent it or not! Why would they tell you about anything else? Who cares if they did a super classic 5.8 when they hang-dogged an obscure 5.13d!

Climbers rarely recommend or discuss routes that are below their absolute limit. Their egos just won’t allow it. That being said, I would totally want to try a route where halfway up you arrive on a ledge that a homeless man named Harry lives on. That would be rad.

Climbing Gym Grades

If you’re a gym climber and want to continue living in your little bubble, you might want to stop reading, because I’m about to blow the doors off of gym climbing grades.

Lead climbing in the gym

For context, I worked in a gym for a few years and know how they run so this isn’t speculation, this is how the industry works.

Gyms need people to keep coming back to their facilities. They are, after all, businesses that sell memberships. So, there are a few tricks that setters use when grading routes at your local gym.

Gyms Assign Soft Grades

Let’s say a climb could be considered a hard V5 or an easy V6, guess which one a gym will choose? The V6 of course! Why? If a member climbs a harder grade, they’ll feel better about themselves.

It can take a lot of effort to move up climbing grades. Even going up a single number/letter can take years of dedication, training, and sacrifice. But for regular gym members, if they don’t see steady improvements, they might cancel their membership. To counter this, gyms will squish their grades together so their members see fast improvements.

Gyms want people to feel good inside so climbers keep buying memberships and coming back for more. At the gym I worked at, we graded things more accurately than other gyms in the area. Unfortunately, we had someone write us a bad online review on the basis that our grades were more difficult than what he was accustomed to. He chalked it up to setter inexperience. I’m not sure if he would have felt this way if he knew our setters set for national competitions, have climbed 5.14 sport and V13 boulders.

I administered this particular individual’s belay test and when it was his turn to climb, he struggled up a 5.8. Typically 5.8 is an easy warmup for experienced climbers. At his regular gym, I’m sure he climbed 5.8 there because of soft grades. Now, at a gym with grades being “tough,” he became upset. His poor bruised ego just couldn’t take looking like a beginner, so he took to the interwebs to complain.

Gyms are now worried about hurting their members' feelings so they can avoid a 0 star Google review. Are climbers really this fragile? Perhaps this grade-chasing culture is to blame, or maybe people just suck?

Assigning Soft Grades Outside Is A Climber Faux Pas

In the outdoor world, one of the worst things that a first ascensionist can do to themselves is set too soft of a grade This will undoubtedly give them a bad reputation as a grade inflater. Want to give a route a higher grade to make yourself look strong? Go for it, but prepare for the backlash.

Colorado is notorious for hard 5.12ds that could easily be 13a's but the first ascensionists didn’t want the bad publicity just in case the route wasn’t a real 5.13.

If you want to look more into this phenomenon, check out James Pearson Redemption.

Grades That Are Close Together

In gyms, it’s very common for grades to be so close together that there is only a slight difficulty increase between them. Gyms want their members to see progress, and a simple way to do this is to make each letter grade only a teeny tiny bit tougher. This makes members feel good and keeps ‘em coming back for more. The alternative is a realistic situation where climbers actually have to work hard to get better. Who wants to do that? A world based on working to achieve your goals? I’m a Millennial so I’m basically allergic to hard work.

What Gyms Should Do

My personal opinion for gyms is that they create their own grading system. This way, they can do whatever you want and nobody can really argue. Have a scale from 1 to infinity, use an emoji-based system, who cares? If anybody asks what the equivalent of an eggplant emoji is to the YDS, just tell them 5.9+ ;).

What Climbers Should Do

If climbers want to climb hard and chase grades, go for it! Just don’t be a dick about it. If you’re so fragile that you can’t even bare trying that stout 5.10, or the grades at your local gym make you leave a bad review, you have bigger issues than figuring out the crux of your current project.

Climbing Stark Chek in Squamish

Fun climbing can be at any grade. This 5.9 multi-pitch above a river can attest to that - Star Chek, Squamish.

Also, everyone will know if you’re cherry-picking the “easy” hard climbs anyways. Or, even worse, if you only talk about grades from Tonsai where everything is immediately four grades easier to keep tourists happy.

What you should be doing, is hopping on routes that make you smile. Climb routes that are fun. Climb routes outside your comfort zone. Send - don’t send - whatever. Work on your weaknesses. This is one of the best ways to become a better climber. Do you climb overhung 5.12? Try a friction 5.10 slab. Want some type two fun? Hop on an off-width. Some of my favourite and proudest climbs have been way below my limit. And at the end of the day, nobody really gives a crap about how hard you climb. What should matter, is the enjoyment you get from a sport you love.

Also if someone asks you for recommendations, give them real recommendations instead of selfishly promoting how good you are.

Agree or disagree? Have an idea for a future HVS topic? Hit up Bomber Climbing on Facebook or leave us a comment below and let us know!

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