Semi-Rad: Everywhere I Climb is Sandbagged

It is a fact that nearly every trad climb I have ever done in the United States is sandbagged. Please do not suggest that I have poor technique or get scared on routes that are not straightforward. It is obviously sandbagged—a kind-of-funny, kind-of-scary lie brought to you by the Yosemite Decimal System and thousands of previous rock climbers.

The difficulty rating scale, as it has evolved throughout history, is a language beyond simple translation. It’s not like Spanish, in the way that a non-Spanish speaker can ask, “What does ‘agua’ mean?” and you can say, “It means ‘water.’” When someone asks you what 5.7 means, he is asking a question that often must be answered with more questions. How old is the 5.7? Where is the 5.7? Is this particular 5.7 regarded as a classic? Oh, and who put up said 5.7? It wasn’t Layton Kor, was it?

Don’t go out there unprepared. Know your sandbag. Here are three types.

The Historical Sandbag

Back then: They rated it 5.7 when the hardest climb in the world was 5.9.

Now: All the kids invited to an 8-year-old’s birthday party can send 5.7 at the gym on toprope.

Also now: I’m trying to imagine how this now-greasy, awkward, behind-your-head fist jam made sense to anyone in the late 1960s—especially because they were likely doing it while they hammered a piton. Why don’t I just add two grades to every offwidth I ever lead? Am I a weenie for using Camalots and Stealth rubber on this climb? Turns out after about 5,000 people climbed this, the consensus was that it warranted a “+” but not an upgrade. I guess they call that a paradox: I barely made it up that old-school climb, almost shit my pants on it, and couldn’t believe someone would rate it so low. But once I’m home in front of my computer clicking the “add new tick” button on Mountain Project, I think to myself, I’m not going to be the sissy who suggests it might be a full grade higher than what it was in 1964.

When I see an old-school grade that includes a “+,” I pronounce the “+” as “Ha!” which is the sound of the badass first ascensionist laughing at what a softie I am. As in, “Kor’s Flake is 5.7... ha!”

Something else to note: Layton Kor was practically superhuman. Well, not practically—he knocked out Chuck Norris in a bar fight in 1972. Although it’s not widely known, Fritz Wiessner used to rip apart volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica with his bare hands as part of his workouts. As a young man, Henry Barber regularly lifted refrigerators over his head. When you get on the climbs these men pioneered, remember that you have done none of these things. But don’t sweat it—it’s only 5.7+. Or, sweat it a little, and add half a number grade for every decade before 1985 it was put up.

The Geographical Sandbag

Where are you? Are you climbing for the first time at the Gunks? Start two grades lower than you normally would. Are you in Tahquitz? The Yosemite Decimal System was invented here, back when climbing 5.10 seemed about as likely as landing a rover on Mars, so adjust your expectations accordingly. Joshua Tree? You’re just up the road from Tahquitz, so the first ascensionists were thinking, “That route would have been 5.6 at Tahquitz, so…” Eldorado Canyon? Grades there are based on difficulty of moves, not on how scared you are 10 feet above funky pro you think might hold a fall.

The Classic Climb Sandbag

“It’s a classic,” they say. Never mind it was put up 30 years ago, which means approximately 30,000 human laps on the route, 30,000 hand jams in the same spot, and 30,000 smears of shoe rubber on the layback. The plus side? With that many laps, there’s probably one piece of fixed gear every 25 feet, which makes it almost a sport climb—but that also means you’re a huge wuss if you get scared. I mean, come on—just clip the three fixed nuts. The downside? All the skin oil and shoe rubber have polished it to the friction coefficient of a nonstick skillet. The incut crimps are now rounded like marbles. But it was 5.8 when it went up in 1982, so it’s 5.8 now. You have to get on it, though—it’s a classic! And if you don’t deck, you should tell everyone else to get on it, too.

There are other types of sandbagging, and other places where it occurs. Hell, the routes at your gym may be sandbagged. Only you can tell the difference between 5.8 and 5.8 “ha.” And that’s part of the fun of climbing.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. He lives in his van, sleeps on friends’ couches, and writes at


Previous Comments

I really wish the grading system was more reliable. I agree with Tanner, why even bothering having grades if they are not consistent? I have a 9-5 job and go to the mountains on the weekend. I rely on books and webpages on how hard the climbs are. I know I can lead a 5.8 in most cases, but I would not feel comfortable on anything above it. If I cannot trust the rating, then it's rubbish. Reading these comments I just realize (once again) that the climbing community, unfortunately, has many uneducated, ranting people. Non constructive comment "let's re-grade all the routes" are silly and useless.

Neptune - 07/02/2014 4:36:12

Ego driven jerkoffs pounding their chest to make themselves feel less weak. Funny shit, so was the article.

As - 03/18/2014 1:26:43

A perfect example of how a tongue and cheek article gets turned into an ethics and who can climb harder flame war.

Fred - 10/14/2013 12:13:06

All this talk of sandbagging and grade creep happens mostly at grades below mid 5.12. (Even at the mild grade of 5.13, it's a little talked about fact that 5.13 in the alpine is notoriously fluffy.) This places the issue firmly in the "who gives a f*ck catagory." If I said that 30 years ago a 20mph softball pitch was actually 20mph but today it's really only 15mph, who would care? Nobody. That was a rhetorical question. Why does anybody care that a 10b sport route is soft or that a 5.7 might actually be 5.8? Soft or sandbagged, arguing about nuances of the 5.10 grade is like appealing for a photo finish in the extra special olympics. Nobody who matters cares and nobody or cares matters. P.S. idiotic, orwellian platitudes aside , the best climber is the one climbing the best, and they are rarely the ones having the most fun. The climber having the most fun is the best at nothing other than having fun, not necessarily climbing.

sir henry stalwart - 09/21/2013 10:48:16

There is a difference at most places where I have climbed with the trad routes (and older routes more generally) definitely being more awkward and difficult for their ratings than the sport climbs. At other locations, Custer State Park and Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills come to mind, there generally seems to be no difference in terms of how "stiff" the ratings are for sport vs. trad routes. Ratings themselves should always be seen as approximations-- variable from area to area, climber to climber (differing heights, strengths , and weaknesses) and from crag to crag within a larger climbing area. Even in the cases of routes developed around the same time, in the same climbing area, and in the same manor (sport or trad), there can be some pretty major inconsistencies. I recently led two sport routes at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (not very far apart in the North Forty) with one rated 5.7 and the other 5.9+. I felt both routes were "really" in the 5.8- 5.8+ range with the route that was rated 5.7 actually being a touch harder for me than the route rated 5.9+. This really only matters I think when it becomes a safety issue. If a route looks harder from the ground than the advertised rating and there seems to be safety issues associated with climbing it, be prepared to walk away. Nothing wrong with that.

Mark O - 09/20/2013 10:54:51

Youre an idiot. And your soft.

guy - 09/19/2013 4:39:53

It's grade creep in part for sure especially owing to the increasing prevalence of toproping and sport climbing. Also, though no evil intent can be accused of gyms, climbing gyms are businesses which may contribute, however inadvertently, to grade creep, because they do by necessity attempt to create a safe place to try increasingly challenging routes. If a gym didn't have to worry about insurance and liabilities and marketing, it could create routes with natural challenges to better train climbers for the outdoors. Placing gear is much more physical work, and generally more mentally taxing which increases the physical effort too, in contrast to toproping, and usually requires much more effort than clipping bolts too. A 5.7 that you don't have to strategize about stancing much to place gear, and actually fiddling gear into place, then trusting, is going to create a lot less of a pump and fear of falling than a trad line of the same grade that you put much more effort into climbing.

setageus - 09/19/2013 12:07:05

I love EVERY Kor route I've had the pleasure of climbing. Unfortunately, I can only climb up to a 5.7 Kor route. But for real: those have all been great. At the Diamond Reflections/Kor Memorial at Neptude, one of the great guys of the 60's (I think it was Northcutt) said "back then, no one wanted to be 'that guy'. 'That guy' that said 'this is harder than every other route there is... Its a 5.10.'" There was also some joking about the total sand-bag nature of their ascents. "I don't remember anything too bad on it," was countered later in the evening with "I heard they rapped off of 1/4" bolt driven 1/2" into the wall that was tied off with a piece of webbing. The left the line there, and jugged up it the next morning." I have come to the conclusion that those hardcore guys from the back in the day weren't actually sand-bagging. They are from a generation where you went to work and worked hard. Every day.. When you weren't working hard, you still worked hard. Every day. Nowadays, we bolt granite cracks (The Sport Park in Boulder Canyon). We carry doubles--and even triples--of spring loaded camming devices. We throw away Aliens because they were recalled. We carry cell phones with routes on them for Christ's sake. The ratings weren't sandbagged. These days, we're* just soft. * By "we", I mean mostly me.

Ryan Stefani - 09/18/2013 9:07:43

If you like the look of a route, then get on it and don't worry about the grade. If you back off so be it. Climbing grades aren't steps up the corporate ladder, and don't forget to have fun.....timb.

Tim ball - 09/18/2013 7:15:56

I love it. I did Kor's Flake a couple of months ago and was leaking poop out of my pants half way up... and yet, I can climb a 10.b sport and think "that was really a 5.9." A genuine, thoughtful article, thank you!

JaminT - 09/18/2013 6:39:56

I've been climbing for over 40 years and have seen this progression happen. I'm afraid, many sport climbers have been sandbagged by sport climbing grades. Not the other way around. Yes there are some older trad routes that are a sand bag for the YDS grade. Some are that way because the original grade was put on there by some one who thought they couldn't climb as well as they were. However in general, it has been my experience to find way more sport routes that are over rated using the YDS than trad routes that are under rated. Just remember the best climber is not always the one climbing the highest grades. The best climber is the one having the most fun!!

Bob R - 09/18/2013 6:32:29

I agree with the article. Wasn't the whole point of instituting a rating system in the first place to create some sort of consistency in describing the difficulty of climbs? What's the point of using a rating system nationwide or worldwide if a single rating doesn't translate to some sort of comparable difficulty between climbs in different areas. If that wasn't the goal, then why doesn't each crag have it's own rating system? If people wear their climb ratings as a badge of honor, then I understand why some will have a problem with getting their butts handed to them on 5.7 while others rant about how modern climbers all suck compared to the rock bosses of yesteryear (no disrespect to the climbing forefathers intended). However, if you care about climb ratings because they give you an idea of what to expect, then all this sandbagging is kind of ridiculous and dangerous. I suppose some would say its a climber's duty to learn the history of an area and become familiar with its nuances, be they sandbagged ratings or other tidbits unique to the area. Others would like to be able to read a climb rating and a short description and then get on the route based on the expectation the rating and description communicate. It's all a matter of opinion.

Tanner - 09/18/2013 5:02:47

Mass re-grading of all routes 5 years and older!!

Dw - 09/18/2013 4:57:59

I dont feel as though there is such a thing as right grades and wrong grades. It seems there are only individual perspectives. Having experienced major discrepancies in what I perceived to be climbs that should be graded equal, I've come to the conclusion that grades in general are nothing more than a helpful way to challenge yourself and are certainly fallible. Perhaps most importantly, grades don't seem to be a good measure of fun in climbing.

Kyle - 09/18/2013 1:59:42

Loved it, very funny which partially describes the ethics of climbing.

Robert - 09/18/2013 1:09:04

Also, just to avoid a flame war, I am no great climber and I also like to clip bolts. But I have a great respect for traditional ethics and the general bad assity of our climbing forebears. This is what drew me to climbing in the first place.

Evan - 09/18/2013 11:48:52

Maybe it's not that traditional routes are sandbagged. Maybe it's that "modern" climbs (read: sport climbs) are soft and graded to inflate the ego's of lesser humans who climb with sticky rubber and nothing to worry about other than clipping a few draws. Henry Barber spent a lot of time climbing routes as hard as 5.11 WITH NO SHOES AT ALL! 5.8 trad climbing can be SERIOUS, and it should be. Right? It's freaking rock climbing, not a schoolyard dodgeball game. Which, come to think of it, can be pretty dangerous too. Either way, let the sport climbers have their inflated grading system. I like shitting my pants on 5.10 500 feet off the deck. WOOT! Tom Cecil related to me earlier this year that trad climbing is to golf as sport climbing is to putt putt. Kind of an odd analogy but somewhat fitting, especially for an old timer (no offense Tom!) :-P

evan - 09/18/2013 11:46:24