10 Things You Didn't Know about Bouldering Grades
2.The B-system had three tiers: B1 was “difficult,” denoting the highest level in roped climbing (about 5.10 trad at the time); B2 was “very difficult”—or greater than 5.10—a category for stouter, “bouldering-level” problems; and B3 meant the “limit,” a problem done only once (or, as Gill wrote in his 1969 essay “The Art of Bouldering,” is “very rarely repeated, although frequently tried without success”). Repeats, even by the first-ascent party, automatically dropped the grade.
3.Gill’s rating scheme never caught fire like the V-scale for two reasons: firstly, because it was too fluid (a B1 put up in 1958 would naturally be easier than one done in 1968, when standards had risen), thus thwarting easy comparison; and secondly, because of Gill’s outlying talent. Says Richard Goldstone, who bouldered with Gill in the Tetons, southern Illinois, and the Needles, “Ninety-nine percent of the existing boulder problems were B1s in John’s system. He was the only person in the U.S. bouldering harder than that.” Indeed by using gymnastic training techniques and employing dynamic motion, Gill had completed, as he wrote, “short pitches or boulder problems—by 1958 and 1959—that would today be rated... V9 to V10, but were then simply ‘more difficult’ than the new 5.10s.”
4. In “The Art of Bouldering,” Gill also advanced an “E-system,” or an elimination system for the hardest problems. An E-1 would be a problem so tough only one person had climbed it, E-2 had only two ascensionists, and so on up to E-10, after which the rating would be dropped. Prescient about today’s endless V-bickering, Gill also wrote, “Reach and body compactness would make the B-system absurd for occasional problems, and climbers of different strengths would dispute the grading.” Not so with the E-system, which emphasized “the accomplishments of certain climbers and not the inherent difficulties of the rock.”
5. Today, the Font scale holds equal global sway as the V-scale, yet despite being around for decades longer, it never crossed the pond—until the last quarter century, climbers rarely bouldered internationally. Nonetheless, like the V-scale, the Font scale’s open-endedness has given it staying power: Michel Libert’s L’Abbatoir, done in 1960, is still le forêt’s first and benchmark 7A (V6), even if Font’s current hardest problem merits 8C or V15. (The Font scale often uppercases the letter to distinguish it from the French route-climbing scale.)
8. There has been much speculation about where the scales currently top out: Does true V16/Font 8C+ exist? Two American V16 contenders, Daniel Woods’ The Game and Paul Robinson’s Lucid Dreaming, went up in 2010, though the former was repeated using new beta and suggested to be V15, while the latter was downgraded to V15/16 by Robinson himself, despite zero repeats to date. In 2011, Adam Ondra established a V16, Terranova, at Holjsten in the Czech Republic, and repeated Christian Core’s 2008 problem Gioiaat Varazze, Italy, saying that both felt like V16. In an interview, Ondra said: “If these two are to be only 8Cs, OK, but in that case, grading doesn’t make sense anymore and every single top-grade boulder problem would have to be downgraded.”
9.If V16 exists, what about V17 or V18? Wouldn’t you just run out of handholds? While it’s true that rock can become too blank, Robinson thinks that such stratospheric grades will be realized through specialization: finding lines that cater to one’s specific strengths. For Lucid Dreaming, Robinson proposed V16 because the problem demanded two back-to-back “limitesque” (V12/V13) moves on the micro-holds he excels at. Robinson says a V17 or V18 will require that the climber simply link more sequences like this.
10. If all these scales weren’t number soup enough, consider the primary Japanese bouldering scale, the kyū/dan system, based on martial arts levels and put into play on the boulders at Ogawayama. The easiest problems, as with the easiest (student) martial arts level, start at 10-kyū and work their way down to 1-kyū, at which point you attain black-belt mastery called shodan, or “the first step” (roughly V7). The world’s current hardest problems are thus rokudan or 6-dan. In other words, climbing V16 makes you a sixth-degree black belt!