Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Climbing Ethics - Grading Pt.II

By Aubrey Wingo

In our last article on Climbing Ethics, I discussed grading in the rock climbing community and how it got started, how it is determined, and how important (or to some, not important) it really is.  In this part of the grading article continued, we are going to open up a world of controversy, involving downgrading, grade inflation, and how the pros react to an ever changing climbing world.  Now, unlike the previous article, this particular feature doesn’t focus on the grade controversies of your local gym or disagreeing about the newly downgrade problem that you had sent and are angrily looking for the reasonings behind such a decision.  This is about the big dogs; the Grahams, the Woods, the Ondras of the world and how their power, not only in their strengths, but the power of their influence upon the world of climbing.  There are hundred of examples that we can discuss over the past decade during the peak development of bouldering and sport climbing but we are going to go over some of the highlights and the most talked about.

Grade Inflation

I’m sure there are a great deal of you who have climbed at a great deal of different climbing locations.  Being that I am primarily a boulderer, my experiences with grade inflation are only subject to one aspect of climbing and are only from the comparison of the places that I have climbed.  But a lot of this came about originally because of where climbing started.  If you read the previous article, you would see that grades have changed tremendously with the growing popularity of the sport, and, because grades were determined in different developed areas of climbing by several different people, they’re all different.  This is where grade inflation and the beginning of our discussion of downgrading begins.  Grade inflation (and this is best official definition that I can come up with since I can’t find one stated by a rock master like Fred Nicole) occurs when an area or a person collectively grades harder in comparison to other areas, or other routes.  Many times this is due to grade-driven first ascents, huge egos, and an overall desire to impress sponsors and inflate their scorecards on 8a, but this can happen from crag to crag, or even from gym to gym.  Because a grade is a subjective, comparative opinion, any first acensionist or head routesetter can take it upon their own to determine what the grade it.  But this great power does come with great responsibility... and a lot of criticism depending how “fair” your grading is.  Because climbing is such a small community, there have been many blog wars and Facebook banter when one climber disagrees with another on a particular grade.  While some of these arguments seem warranted, others leave with a sour taste in their mouth, and perhaps event a black mark on their name.

Photo Credit: Dead Point Magazine

Dave Graham became one of the biggest advocates against grade inflation in the climbing community and one of the biggest battles in this subject occurs in Ticino and Cresciano, Switzerland.  In 2005, Graham made the ascent of The Story of Two Worlds V15, a sit start (or low start depending on who you argue with) to The Dagger V14.  As recording on his 8a profile, and recognized by the climbing, he coined it as "The New Standard", meaning the new standard example of the grade 8C (V15).   The problem had been a project for so long, and thrown off many of the best that many assumed that this was one of the hardest problems in the world, and quite possibly even V16.  However, the ascent of this route, and others around it, spark a great deal of conversation, mostly from Dave.  On, Graham changed many of his sends' grades to reflect his newly found perspective towards grading and openly announced his thoughts, found on

"I think this is the hardest bloc yet, and I think it can change the mal-progression we can see when we are seeing millions of 8B+ and 8C blocs climbed everywhere. Now its just about comparison. The big point is REVOLUTION, hell with the media, hell with (don’t take that personally, it’s a symbol of the people who abuse the concept from the page), hell with climbing big numbers to keep yourself sponsored, now, it’s time to climb the REAL numbers, and really progress our sport. The Story of Two Worlds, proves that point.”

I encourage reading the rest of this article as Dave says it best.  However, there were those that didn't necessarily agree with Dave's point of view.  The Story of Two Worlds would remain unrepeated until 2010 when Dai Koyamada would claim the second ascent (although soon after he was told he did not start in the correct spot, and would later return to do it again).  In an interview with DPM, Koyamada, who of course was questioned regarding his opinions on Dave's statement, commented,"There are many people who are trapped into 'grading' so much that they are making climbing rather constrained and uneasy. That's very unfortunate...Proposing grades and stating one's thinking should be free. But I think it's wrong to say you have to climb this problem in order to claim having climbed the grade or to be qualified to have done the first ascent of this grade or higher. World is full of strong climbers. But I think it's useful in that you can confirm where you are and/or grades of certain FAs by climbing the 'baseline'."  This problem has seen more sends now, as the "standard" of climbers is always ever-rising.  Some have followed Dave's path, changing their perspective of the meaning of 8C and other have held steadfast to their beliefs, but nonetheless, this route is considered one of the most difficult and benchmark problems in the world.

「The Story of Two Worlds low start V16」 from project_daihold on Vimeo.

 Here is also an amazing perspective of grade inflation from Nalle Hukkataival, who touches specifically on Switzerland and strongly backs Graham on his opinions.


Moving to another part of the world, one closer to home, we come to the problem that one could claimed change the game of bouldering in Colorado.  Jade, located in the Upper Chaos area of Rocky Mountain National Park was first ticked by Daniel Woods in 2007 (also known as the Green 45 Project named after the general description of the wall).  Battling for the first ascent with Ty Landman (who would claim the second ascent only weeks later), many who witnessed the attempts knew this was infamously going to be the hardest problem in Colorado at the time as a "notoriously crimpy" V15.  And naturally, as Colorado is a climbing mecca in the United States, this would attract the strongest of the strong climbers to repeat it.  Over the next three years, Jade would be marked off the tick lists of, Paul Robinson, Nalle Hukkataival, Phil Schaal, Carlo Travesi and Jimmy Webb and with send, the grade of V15 came more and more into question.  In retrospect, and in the heat of the discussion about grade inflation and more defending one's belief in the selected grades, Robinson, in an informative blog post, explaining his perspectives.  Here's his thoughts on Jade:

"This is an interesting boulder.  The hype around the climb made it out to be the “hardest” thing in the world and people began to believe it even if it was not.  The green 45 was an infamous project and now is getting repeated like crazy.  I think we all kind of built it up in our heads and maybe that was one reason that the line never was considered to be 8b+ for the longest time....  Rethinking the line it is 8b+. It is just so condition/skin dependent that it is really hard to assign a grade to this boulder... So considering the swarm is now 8b this is very easily a solid 8b+ crimper boulder."

Traversi also had some interesting, but open ended thoughts about the problem's grade after the footage of his send in this video from DPM.  Beware: there are a handful of F-Bombs, but only after the disclaimer.

Carlo Traversi Sends Jade V14 from DPM CLIMBING on Vimeo.

So, Carlo brings up a lot of thoughts from our last grading article.  If even the pros question the importance of grading, is this something that we should all reevaluate in the climbing aspect of our lives?  Nonetheless this is a perfect example of, perhaps, a positive aspect of downgrading, where it seems that a collective group of opinions came to a more accurate conclusion.

Downgrading occurs eventually everywhere.  For me, as stupid as it was, my first V3 I had ever done outside is called Copa Cabana at Horse Pens 40.  I worked it, and worked it, over a couple trips when I was in college and eventually sent it.  Long overdue was a new guidebook, and when it finally came out, my dreams were crushed.  V2.  In all my frustration (as the Cave Traverse remained a laughable V3), I balanced it out with other very acceptable downgrades, such as Redneck from V7 to V6.  But this frustrated a lot of southerners dedicated to their home town boulders.

While it seemed that some of the Southern USA lost it, many were psyched to see what also occurred last year at the Red River Gorge when an onslaught of strong climber united in a sending fury.  Adam Ondra pretty much wrecked the Red, with onsights of Pure Imagination and Golden Ticket and a flash of Southern Smoke DirectSSD's send, the 2nd ascent ever, with some beta from Daniel Woods and Jon Cardwell, confirmed the downgrade of Adam Taylor's original, but "tentative" grade of 5.15a, to 5.14d agreed upon the men who were all working it.  "Regarding the grade, we all agree that 5.14d (9a) fits this route just perfectly."  So then, there were the other two...which Ondra also downgraded, but fortunately with much agreement.  But then again, if there was anyone on the earth who would be an expert on 9a, who better than Adam?  Jonathan Siegrist, commented to DPM, regarding the recent send fest: "Very stoked for Adam. This is super impressive, and while he may be too strong to really
Photo: Peter Lundgren/ Dead Point Magazine
know (probably), I think a little grade correction is long overdue in the Red - even if it is one of my routes getting downgraded..."

This is what Adam had to say to all the grader haters in the world, a reflection of what seems to be, as it is mention many times in this article, the evolving opinion of professional climbers around the world.

“I do think that everybody should say as honestly as possible what he thinks about the grade of the route after the send. I wouldn’t call it downgrading—I would call it a personal suggestion or opinion. It is easy to stick to the guidebook’s grade, but how does it feel when you are sure that it is not as hard? It feels totally wrong for me, and that is why I didn’t hesitate to say my honest opinion..... What is a grading system worth if we are not even trying to make it objective? We’re just lying to ourselves to get the highest number possible. I am always trying to compare my ascents with other benchmarks of that grade, so climbing said grade feels the same in the Red, the Alps, Norway or Spain. It seems to me that grades were really stiff in the 1980s and 90s, but then, strangely enough, inflation occurred. And what is happening right now is trying to find a point somewhere in between hardcore grades of the past and inflated grades of modern age. That means downgrading some new climbs and upgrading the old climbs.”

In summation, it looks as if the world of climbing is becoming a little more flexible when it comes to our egos.  I could imagine, as a human being, if I had accomplished one of the hardest test pieces that the world had ever seen, something that I was so proud of, and then someone's opinion was that it wasn't as hard as I thought... Well you'd be a little defensive too.  The "Grade Chasers" (which some people consider a derogatory term, but sorry, some of you only want the grade) have created a bit of hard knocks.  What determines the strength or even the worth of a climber?  Their highest grade?  The amount of sends?  How many sponsors they have?  I guess that's up to you, readers, to decide.  But the more weight we put on these factors, the more up and coming athletes are going to seek the number and desensitize their climbing passion.

But what do I know?  I chase V5.

Stay tuned for more Climbing Ethics!  I have no idea what's next!

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