Climbing Grades Are Stupid–So Why Do We Obsess Over Them?

Recently, I moved to Colorado’s Front Range after climbing for the past four years at a notoriously sandbagged climbing area in Washington State. Where I used to find myself working incredibly hard on 5.11s and 5.12s, I now find myself beginning to tick off 5.13s, something I had never been able to do before, with comparatively little effort. This has got me thinking about climbing grades and the power they can have over us.


I, perhaps more than anyone I know, seem to be guilty of simultaneously claiming how irrelevant and stupid grades are, and yet, at the same time, maintaining something of an unhealthy obsession with them. Either of those extremes, on its own, is fine — I think. But both together is paradoxical, confusing, conflicted, and often hypocritical. So what follows is my best attempt to explain.

Why I Don’t Care
I’ve often talked about how little grades matter, and how little attention we should pay to them. This is because, to be blunt, I believe life is simply about so much more than climbing. And climbing, itself, is about so much more than grades. The better points of climbing–persistence, dedication, comfort and poise in difficult situation, and (perhaps most important) humility — are wonderful lessons to bring back to everyday life. Grade-hunting, on the other hand, seems to me almost inherently competitive, and overtly capitalistic. We can talk about how they are a metric to measure our progress, but the truth is, we could say the same of # of falls on a route. Counting falls is all we really need to measure ourselves. Counting grades, on the other hand, is how we measure ourselves against somebody else. It’s a nasty, pernicious little habit we have, and it’s one that makes us weaker.

Why I Do Care
Ever since I started climbing, back in 2000, I knew it was the most exciting wonderful enjoyable thing I’d ever tried in my life. 16 years later, nothing has changed. When I learned that there was such a thing as being a pro climber, of course, that became my life goal. It didn’t take me long to realize that being the next Sharma was utterly unattainable. I don’t think I ever really had misgivings about my middling place in the world of climbing athleticism. But, I knew there were pros and sponsored athletes out there who I could hang with. I knew that if I tried hard enough, I could continually improve. And, really, it’s quite a logical progression. Even if you’re just gunning for free gear — if you love climbing more than anything else, you’ll seek out anything you can imagine that will make it easier to do it more. And while I eventually came to realize that the grade you climb doesn’t often have that much to do with who gets the hook up and who does not, I always saw climbing 5.13 as something of a right of passage. It’s almost embarrassing not to have done it, after more than a decade of climbing. And although I went on to climb lower-rated routes that folks said would likely be 5.13 somewhere else, it still felt like something missing from my climbing resume. For mostly shitty reasons, probably, I wanted to be able to say “5.13? Check.”

Why Grade Objectivity is a Myth
Anyone who believes in grading objectivity needs to try climbing at Index. Or the Needles, or Joshua Tree, or Yosemite, or almost any other crag in California that was getting developed pre-90s. Or Claret in France. Or Cochamo. Or probably some backwater in the middle of Missouri. Or the Wichita Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. Or La Pedriza in Spain. Or the Black Canyon in Colorado. Or Granite Mountain in Arizona. Or wherever.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand this. Different areas have different rock, different rock has different texture, different texture requires different grip strengths and foot work. Beyond that, different histories, different first ascentionists, different features, different safety ratings, and different angles make almost no two crags in the world really the same as one another.

And then, of course, there’s height of climber and distance between holds and angle of wall. If you’re short, and holds are plentiful, you ought to have an easier time on a roof than someone tall because you don’t have as much weight to lever in your legs. If you’re tall, and holds are scarce, you ought to have an easier time on vert than a short person, because, duh — you can reach the holds.

And then, of course, there’s sport versus trad. WTF. Add the head game to the moves, you have a whole other thing.

Some routes are objectively soft, such as Lucid Dreaming in Boulder Canyon, which was originally 5.13a, has since been downgraded to 5.12c, and is probably more around 5.12b compared to the rest of the area. Some routes are objectively hard, such as Fifth Force in Index, which is 5.12b, but has been called 5.13 by visiting climbers. In between obvious examples like these, there’s a whole lot of gray area, and subjectivity.


Why Grading Matters
Grading is a measure of the human imagination. Jonathan Siegrist could say “the route had holds that were barely existent, at a 30 degree overhang, requiring incredible core tension.” Or, he could say it was a crimpy 5.14. In some ways, the latter is more useful for the reader, because she can go to the gym, or the crag, and feel what crimpy 5.14 holds feel like, can attempt those kinds of moves herself. Meanwhile, if the reader tries to imagine what the crimps were like given Siegrist’s description, who knows, perhaps this reader’s mental image of “barely existent” turns out to be a jug to a 5.12 climber. Grading is a means of communication, and it also helps us to contextualize the massiveness of a climber’s achievements. I can’t begin to imagine what 5.14c would feel like. 5.15c means an equal amount of nothing to me. But having those different numbers allows me to think “Holy shit. I know what 10c, 11c, and 12c feel like. I can probably do all the moves on a lot of 5.13c. But 5.14c is so far beyond me it hurts my brain..And then there’s a whole other level of insanity beyond that!” It gives you at least the pretense of being able to imagine the unimaginable.

What’s Wrong With Grading…
…Is, largely, what’s wrong with the climbing media, the climbing community, and the brands who sell climbing gear. Look, I’ll be the first to tell you that being sponsored is not all about what grade you climb. You have to produce media, you have to be articulate, it sure as hell helps to be good looking, it’s basically requisite to be active on social media. You throw enough skills in those realms together, and you can be a sponsored 5.12+ sport climber, or 5.12-trad climber. I know, because I have been one (minus the good-looking part). In the end, sponsorship really comes down to what you can offer a company — how you can help them present and share the image they’ve branded themselves to have.

That said, everyone knows that climbing hard grades is the golden ticket to recognition. If I wanted to further my writing/climbing career, I would have moved to the Front Range years ago (where harder grades seem to be comparatively more attainable) and ticked off as many 5.13 sport routes and close to V-doubledigit boulders as I could, intentionally and ruthlessly seeking out only those that suited me well, and usually whatever is soft as possible without having already been downgraded. And then I would have sprayed about each one on the internet.

And even though it is likely that most of you reading this would agree how annoying that is, I think we can also agree that we put a lot of stock in numbers. They are expedient. I could spray “I sent Stern Farmer — wow, that was so hard! I can’t believe I finally sent this 12b!” And for the vast majority, for anyone who never tried Stern, 12b means whatever 12b means…and what it means is three letter grades softer than 13a. Or, I could spray “I sent a 5.13a, and it only took me four tries!” If you don’t know about Stern, and you don’t know about the 13a, all you know is that this dude either projects 5.12b, or wraps up 5.13a rather quickly. Now pretend you also don’t know me. Who do you want to sponsor, the 5.12b project climber, or the 5.13a in a few tries climber?

Of course, it’s not just about sponsorship. Simple name recognition makes it easier to do, literally, everything in the climbing industry. Want to write an article? Sell a photo? Win a grant? Get a trip paid for? Get free gear? For any of those things, notoriety is key. The more people know about you (in a positive light), the more people will want to work with you. It just so happens that the more you spray about seemingly impressive numbers, the more people will know about you.

In today’s world, everything comes down to soundbites: quick, easily digestible, pleasant packets of information we don’t have to think much about. For climbing prowess, there is no soundbite more effective than a brief combination of numbers and letters — whether it’s V12, or WI5 M7 TD X. Those letters and numbers, in less than a second, tell us everything we need to know.

And yet, they also tell us almost nothing of what that experience was like for the climber, or what kind of person that climber is. And those two things, in my estimation, should be a more commonly used metric for doling out sponsorships, magazine articles, and publicity of climbers. Forget what # they climbed — how do they treat other climbers, the crag, their spouse? What do they do for the sport of climbing? Why do I care about this person’s own inner struggle with 5.XX — a struggle which, as California climber, Vitaliy Muisyenko pointed out, boils down to not a lot more than chasing Pokemon?”

So long as we emphasize numbers over stories (whether producing media about them or consuming it), we disenfranchise notable climbers who put a premium on the human aspects of the sport and pave the way for the gradehunting, number-driven, competitive egomaniacs that almost nobody seems to actually care for.

It is all of our responsibility to seek out the kind of media that reflects our actual values. If we, as consumers, stop obsessing over numbers the climbing media will follow suit. And that means that people like me need to stop spraying about how hard or easy any climb was for its grade.

As my friend Grant said, “Either way, looks like it was super cool climbing!” And it usually is, whatever number you want to attach to it.

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