Inflating Grades and Egos: A Climbing Difficulty Discussion

With the world’s first proposed V17, is climbing reaching a new level or becoming a numbers game?
By James Lucas ,

Nalle Hukkataival on the world’s first proposed V17: Burden of Dreams, Lappnor, Finland. Photo: Nico Backstrom

On October 23, 2016, Finnish pro climber Nalle Hukkataival walked to his three-year bouldering project in Lappnor, Finland. Discovered by Marko Siivinen, the problem follows five hand moves on a series of crimps over four meters on a 45-degree granite wall. The problem represented the upper limits of hard bouldering. That day, Hukkataival linked the small holds and dubbed it Burden of Dreams. Hukkataival, who has climbed at least one V15/16, suggested that the problem opened a new domain of difficulty.

“Having achieved the first ascent of Burden of Dreams marks a new level in my climbing,” Hukkataival wrote on his Instagram. “With a handful of existing 8c+ [V16] boulders in the world, proposing 9a [V17] is the logical step.” This grade jump was a bold move that sparked conversation about the current status of bouldering grades.

In the early 1990s, bouldering pioneer John Sherman authored an updated climbing guide to Hueco Tanks State Park, Texas. He almost printed the book without bouldering grades, but the publisher, George Meyers of Chockstone Press, thought it wouldn’t sell without ratings. He asked Sherman to differentiate the difficulty of the climbs. Previously, boulderers used either the Yosemite Decimal System, meaning problems had confusing route grades, or John Gill’s B-system, proposed in his 1969 American Alpine Journal article “The Art of Bouldering.” Gill’s sliding scale suggested that B1 was a climb at the highest level of traditional roped climbing, B2 signified a bouldering level harder than 5.10, and B3 was “very rarely repeated, although frequently tried without success.” Repeats of B3 problems meant they were automatically downgraded to B2. The constant downgrading was not popular.

The initial concept behind bouldering grades was so that climbers knew roughly what they were getting into, partly for safety purposes. For his Hueco Tanks book, Sherman devised the open-ended “V” scale, short for his nickname, Vermin, compiling a list of the park’s problems according to difficulty that he had other local climbers review. He adjusted the scale so V0 would be introductory and V9 would be the hardest problems established. “As soon as the book came out, the race was on for somebody to do the first V10 in Hueco,” Sherman says. “Now the race is on to do the first V18—or at least downgrade that V17.”

The process of establishing new hard problems or downgrading the most difficult ones is nothing new. Jim Bridwell discussed downgrading when he introduced the Yosemite Decimal System in his article “The Innocent, the Ignorant, and the Insecure” in Ascent, July 1973. Bridwell suggested that Yosemite climbers had become stuck at 5.9 because they were either innocent (a rarity), ignorant (solved by education), or insecure (inherent in individuals and difficult to remedy). “Fair rating of a climb implies a moral obligation, on the part of the climber, to consciously be as accurate as possible,” Bridwell wrote. He then suggested benchmark climbs in a variety of styles to solidify the climbing grades.

At the upper end of the bouldering scale, there have been a few benchmark climbs. In 2000, Fred Nicole completed the first ascent of Dreamtime in Cresciano, Switzerland, proposing V15. In the past 16 years, more than 20 people have repeated the problem, with over half calling it V14. In 2004, Dave Graham suggested that The Story of Two Worlds, a problem he put up in Cresciano, be the benchmark for V15. These climbs as standards for the grade have fluctuated, meaning new beta, broken holds, and improved gear—like better crashpads, shoes, and kneepads—have made them “easier.” A dozen people have repeated Story, resequencing many of Graham’s original moves and using better toe-hook rubber on their rock shoes. “It might be V14 now,” Graham says. Most of the dozen repeaters call it V15, making it one of more than a hundred V15s in the world, according to a thorough list on 99boulders.com.

“I do believe V15 is solidified at this point,” says Daniel Woods, who has climbed and established 22 problems of the grade. With so many problems given V15, a number of them have reached a consensus rating. Certainly some will be easy for the grade, some difficult, and some accurate, but issues arise because there have been so few repeat ascents.

There are only five V16s compared to the hundred-odd V15s. A number of suggested V16s have been downgraded, creating an even wider base of V15s. When Woods made the first ascent of The Game in Boulder Canyon in 2012, he suggested V16, breaking the grade ceiling. The problem has since seen three repeats and was downgraded to V15 by all three climbers, who used new beta. In 2010, Woods established Hypnotized Minds in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and gave it V15. After six years of repeat attempts by some of the world’s strongest climbers, Woods uprated the problem. The Russian climber Rustam Gelmanov repeated the route in summer 2016, taking only a few days. Uprating tends to be less common than downgrading. “Nobody wants to upgrade boulders,” Hukkataival says. “It makes them look weaker in other people eyes.”

In late September 2016, Woods completed the first ascent of Creature from the Black Lagoon, also in RMNP. Graham repeated it shortly thereafter. While working the problem, the pair discussed one of the larger questions about bouldering grades. “We are left dumbfounded to realize that the same level in bouldering has been maintained from Fred Nicole, Bernd Zangerl, and Klem Loskot a decade ago until now,” Woods wrote in an Instagram post. “We can either acknowledge what is a level up from the standard of 15 (based off of consensus over the years) or continue climbing V15 for another decade.” Woods and Graham both rated Creature V16, making it just one of a few repeated boulder problems at the grade.

In 2011, Adam Ondra completed the first ascent of Terranova in the Czech Rebpublic, suggesting 8c+/V16. He repeated Christian Core’s Gioia (8c/V15) in Italy shortly thereafter. Comparing the two, he believed Gioia should be uprated. “If you were to give this 8c, then bouldering grades wouldn’t make much sense anymore. You’d have to downgrade all the 8b+’s (V14s) and most of the 8c’s (V13s) as well,” Ondra said. He believed Core rated the route 8c to “play things safe.” Ondra then suggested Gioia was V16. “If we admit that some of the current testpieces are V16 and not V15, I think it is better for the whole scale,” Ondra said.

“We’ve been climbing V16 a long time,” Hukkataival says. He repeated Gioia but declined to grade it. “Everything has not been the same difficulty, but everything has been the same number.” Hukkataival suggested that because of grade stagnation, climbers began reporting how many days, how many hours, how many attempts it took to climb V15. “It was like V15 was the V and the time was the number,” he says, suggesting that commonly accepted grades failed to convey the physical difficulty.

After trying upper-limit problems and sending problems that he believed were harder than their given grade—like Gioia and Livin’ Large, his highball FA (which he rated V15) in South Africa’s Rocklands—Hukkataival felt comfortable suggesting V17 for Burden. “I think Burden of Dreams is harder than the V16s that I know,” he says.

“The hardest climbs in the world will never have an accurate grade,” Hukkataival says. “To have an accurate grade, you need multiple people’s opinion, and once multiple people repeat a grade, it’s not the hardest climb in the world.” Hukkataival suggested that grading becomes difficult particularly on cutting-edge first ascents because so much of the battle is figuring out if a problem is even possible. The first ascensionist must then give a rating based purely on physical factors and ignore the challenges posed by conditions, fall potential, and the mental difficulty of making the first ascent. Subsequent ascents reveal the reality of how difficult a climb is, unbiased by the emotions involved in the FA.

There are few people climbing at the upper limits of bouldering. While the number of climbers who have sent V15 has increased, most lack a diverse résumé at the range. “How can you know such a grade with so few participants?” Graham says of rating high-end problems. “It’s like an experiment with six control subjects.” Furthermore, new grade levels are established by first ascents since upgrading established problems is a rarity. In the next few years, grades will most likely continue to increase. Individual climbers may become “stuck” on a grade for years, and undoubtedly the grade debate will continue. Since all grades are subjective, nothing will ever be V16 for everyone. As Woods puts it, “We’re not mathematicians over here.” 

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