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Crusty Corner: Why Grades Matter—9 Essential Truths About Climbing Ratings

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For one brief moment in 1988, I was the Best Climber in the World—or, at least, fancied myself soon becoming such. Only 16 years old and overflowing with stoke, newbie cluelessness, and aimless testosterone, I came home from toproping on the vertical tuff of Cochiti Mesa with the New Mexico Mountain Club (NMMC), spraying to my poor father and stepmother about my epic conquests that day. This was only one year into my climbing career, so please forgive me my trespasses.

“I climbed a route that was only two notches below the hardest climb in the world,” I boasted in the kitchen that evening, shoveling licorice mix into my mouth. “And I’ve only been climbing for a year—I’m, like, gonna be the best climber ever!”

“That’s nice,” my father probably said. “Remember, you still have to go to school tomorrow.”

This had all been precipitated by a mix-up in climbs as well as my novice and almost-willful incomprehension of the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The club hosted toproping outings every Sunday; lacking a car and still trying to connect with partners my own age, I’d join the trips, toproping and occasionally trying an easy lead with mentors double or triple my age. My early teachers were patient and kind, turning over the sharp end when they could see I was up for the challenge. They taught me how to give a soft catch, how to slot Hexentrics into constrictions, and how to place and evaluate cams. But, to that point, no one had really explained what happened to climbing ratings above 5.10—probably because NMMC members didn’t climb much harder.

In an era with no Internet and when guidebooks and how-to books were scarce or rudimentary, knowledge was for the most part passed down orally. And I still hadn’t, as further research would reveal, learned my As, Bs, Cs, and Ds.

In fact, there was no guidebook to Cochiti Mesa, so our only reference was the Basecamp section of Climbing, in which regional correspondents mailed in information about new climbs—a sort of horse-and-buggy Mountain Project. Navigating the edge of the volcanic plateau in the Jemez Mountains with a couple of torn-out, stapled-together magazine pages, we dropped ropes down what, as best we could discern, were the Mesa’s more approachable climbs. Cochiti was one of New Mexico’s first sport areas, and the lines followed smooth, vertical faces and sweeping arêtes, sport climbs in the old-school vein. The grades ranged from 5.10 to 5.12, with one 5.13a project, Touch Monkey, which a French ex-pat named Jean De Lataillade was trying and which would become the state’s first 5.13. The area has since been devastated by a forest fire, but back then it was a quiet, peaceful sanctuary shaded by tall Ponderosas and lush with cactus and sage.

That day, we hoped to try 5.10s and 5.11s—our outer limits, and on toprope since this was a club outing. In the afternoon, we put a rope on a 100-foot vertical face up the cliff’s highest rampart, midway along the escarpment. Tying two cords together, we TR’ed a smooth, lightly pocketed red-brown wall that gave way, in its upper half, to friable potholes. I don’t recall if I did the climb first try or second, but it was certainly the first time I found the flow state while climbing. The route demanded precise, sustained sequencing, stabbing your feet into three- and four-finger pockets as you hunted through the porous veneer for the next inset hole. Eventually, the pockets gave way to huecos and the difficulties were over. I danced from hold to hold, breathing hard, strategically resting at the larger holds to drain the lactic acid from my arms before I segued into the next sequence. I felt like such a hero. Until then, most of the harder climbs I’d done had been blue-collar basalt cracks; now, here, finally was athletic, pleasurable face climbing. And as best we could guess from Climbing’s Basecamp report, the climb was Path of the Doughnut Man, rated 5.12b.

Now what that pesky little “b” meant I did not know. Maybe “bold” or “badass” or even “bold-badass-bro,” which is certainly how I viewed myself after climbing my “first 5.12.” In any case, I didn’t think to ask any of my fellow NMMC members about the “b,” content to take the big tick and head home to spray. At the time, the hardest route in America—commensurate with the other hardest routes in the world—was To Bolt or Not To Be at Smith Rock, a 5.14. This much I knew from reading the mags. Therefore, by climbing 5.12, I had, in my estimation, come within two notches of the hardest climb in the country.

This climbing shit is easy, I remember thinking. I’ve got this—I’m super-talented, God’s gift to rock climbing. I’ll just do a 5.13 next and then a 5.14—boom, bam, snap! It hadn’t been so difficult to go from 5.8 to 5.9, and then 5.9 to 5.10—and then of course my prodigy-level success on a 5.12, completely skipping 5.11. So why not just bump it up to 5.13 and then 5.14? I’d likely be the world’s best rock climber after just two more toprope outings.

I’d found my calling!

In the ensuing weeks, it emerged from talking to a few Cochiti locals that we hadn’t been on Path of the Doughnut Man at all but instead on a neighboring route called Boya from La Jolla Who Stepped on a Cholla, named for a big patch of cholla cactus below the wall. I also learned that that pesky little “b” after the 5.12 grade denoted a subdivision—a, b, c, and d—of all ratings above 5.10. And I learned that Boya was 5.11a—the easiest type of 5.11. So, while I had done my first 5.11, which was nice, instead of climbing a route two notches below America’s hardest, I had in fact done one that was 12 notches below, with lots of As, Bs, Cs, and Ds standing between me and greatness. (I’d also come to see that it’s much harder to make gains at the top of the scale, but this would take years to understand—it wasn’t exactly 12 evenly spaced increments you could just leapfrog across.)

My self-esteem plummeted. I was worthless, a poseur, just some dumb kid toproping in a too-large pair of Mariachers while wearing a bike helmet, clad in an Alpine Bod harness adorned with sad prussiks he barely knew how to use.

This climbing shit is hard, I thought. I have a long way to go….

* * *

I would also, 12 years later in 1999, come to be the Worst Climber in the World, this time at the Buttermilks during a spring-break trip with my friend Josh. It was our first day at the ‘Milks, and the lore at the time centered on the problems’ near-free-solo height and sandbagged grades. So we’d arrived ready to be intimidated—and the boulders delivered.

Molly Mitchell and Arno Ilgner climbing on the Roof Wall in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Many of the routes on this wall were freed in the 1970s, when 5.11/5.12 were cutting edge. As a result, there is some grade compression—as well as decades of built-up boot rubber and chalk—that makes these thin, vertical routes feel quite stout compared to modern sport climbs with the same ratings.

Using an old guidebook—I think it was SoCal Select—we stumbled from rock to rock under the warm March sun, inhaling the fresh scent of sagebrush and staring up at the massive snow-clad peaks of the Eastern Sierra. The boulders were mostly empty save Josh and I and some friends who’d also come out from Colorado. We tried lines like the bald, slappy arête of Pope’s Prow (a stout V6 highball) that in the book were given grades like “5.10+” or “5.11d” in that ridiculous way of pre-V-Scale California ratings, probably relics of early Yosemite hardmen like Dale Bard and John Bachar hanging at the ‘Milks. Humbling, yes, and out of sheer stubbornness I willed my way up these sandbaggy old blocs because to fail on 5.10 or 5.11 would have been too damaging to my fragile ego.

Then we went to the Peabody Boulders, again taking the old guidebook at face value as we tried to sort out the lines. As afternoon turned to evening, I took my shoes off and looked down at my pink, rock-worn tips. It was time to call it, if I wanted to climb any more that week and not just bleed everywhere. Guidebook in hand, I circled the two massive eggs, scoping out prospective lines to try the next day. On the east face of Grandpa Peabody, the book showed a “V7,” an attractive, difficult-enough-to-be-sexy grade for a short trip. As I came around the corner, a towering 50-foot wall, gently overhanging, varnished golden-brown, and featured with miniscule crimps, came into view. It had not a bit of chalk on it, and was as tall or taller than many of the sport climbs back in Boulder. It looked both way too high and way too difficult for me to ever climb.

Jesus Christ, I thought. This is V7?! WTF is going on here? These California dudes are hardcore. I suuuuccckkk….

Without even pulling on or grabbing the starting holds, I slipped immediately into a maelstrom of self-loathing. I’d barely been able to get up the “5.10+’s” and “5.11d’s” all day, which was bad enough. But now, here in front of me, was a V7—a grade I’d climbed plenty of times at other areas—that I could never, ever do or certainly would never, ever do. In taking the guidebook—which I’d later learn was erroneous—at face value, I now had to discount my entire climbing career. Because if this savage line was V7, then I’d never even climbed V5. Or V3. Or V1….Or anything of note, for that matter.

I felt worthless, weak, like a poseur, stupid. This climbing shit is wayyy too hard, I thought. Maybe I should just quit. I’m so light duty.

This “V7,” it turns out, was the line that would later come to be known as Ambrosia, first ascended at V11 X by Kevin Jorgeson in 2009 when he was at the top of his bouldering prowess, and after roped rehearsal. It was originally a toprope problem of Tommy Herbert’s, so perhaps some confusion over what had or hadn’t been climbed on the face, or how difficult it was, led to this now-legendary double-digit super-highball being labeled “V7.” Who knows? I certainly didn’t, and in failing to think critically about the rock in front of me—to see it for what it really was with my own eyes—I’d fallen into a shame spiral that clouded how I felt about myself for the rest of the trip, even as I continued to flash “5.11d’s” that would be given V6 or V7 in subsequent guides and which I should have been ecstatic to tick.

I’d fallen into the Ratings Trap, basing how I felt about myself and the sport on arbitrary numbers—scribblings, really, on a page. In both cases—being the Best Climber in the World and being the Worst Climber in the World—I’d set aside the joy of the experience and the majesty of these places and unique allure of these routes to instead immerse myself in a microcosm ruled by fuzzy mathematics and ego. And ego, as we all know, is a dirty trickster who will lead you into dark thoughts, jealousy, and ruination.

Still, ego aside, these scribblings did have meaning and do so for all of us, no matter how reluctant we are to admit it or how often we fall back on the old canard that “Ratings don’t matter.” Because they do—even if we just agree to call them “guidelines,” they are still the guidelines we have chosen and they are still the way we measure progress both at the cutting edge and in our own climbing arc. They let us know where we’re at in our climbing, they help with goal-setting, and they can even be part of a healthy climbing process. Grades, in a word, are essential.

Paige Claassen bouldering on Flagstaff Mountain, above Boulder, Colorado, where the ever-crumbling and -disappearing holds play into the area’s sandbaggy grades. As one of the original bouldering areas in the country, Flagstaff was also originally graded on John Gill’s B-Scale. This problem looks like a B1+, whatever that means on today’s V-Scale—you figure it out!

To get my head around this complex, ever-evolving subject of endless debate, I reached out to a host of friends and diehard climbers, both professional and recreational alike. Like me, many of my friends and peers have also done the “ratings dance,” and have many of the same conflicted and even conflicting feelings about grades. But sharper minds than my own have also grasped some essential truths, framing the discussion in ways I never considered. The results have been both ambiguous and thought provoking—grades are subjective, and even thoughts on grades could be said to be so as well.

Here, then, in no particular order, are the 9 Essential Truths About Climbing Ratings.

1. Grades Are More Important in Your Early Years

As you’ll recall, as a 16-year-old neophyte, I was hung up on doing my first “5.whatever”—much more so than on simply climbing routes that spoke to me. I believe this is a common experience, and a quick trip to your local gym where you’ll overhear all the grade-spray about “My first outdoor 5.10 lead” and “My first 5.12 in the lead cave” would seem to confirm this.

“Grades are useful tools in the early years in order to stay the course, [and get] fit and focused on improvement, which leads to regular exercise and social interactions, which is good for the spirit, morale, and longevity,” says Sonnie Trotter, a Canadian professional climber. Rob Pizem, a schoolteacher and sponsored climber in Western Colorado, was motivated by grades early in his career, too. His goal when he began climbing was to learn; when he first saw a 5.14, he wondered if he could realize a route of that difficulty. “So my journey was to learn what I needed to in order to reach that goal on sport then trad then as many styles as I could try,” says Pizem. Once he attained those goals and established 5.14s of his own, he never sought out the grade anymore, instead focusing on the aesthetics of a line, “whether it was 5.9 or 5.14.”

As you mature as a climber, “The ego learns to let go,” says Trotter, “and after that, most people just don’t care [about grades] anymore.” In other words, grades can change from goal posts to guidelines—they are no longer a driving force, just handy markers of progress.

2. Grades Are Essential—They’re the Periodic Table of Climbing

However, without grades, we’d have no way to quantify difficulty or performance. So, when some crusty old trad-dad or Internet pundit busts out the corny, old “Grades don’t matter” blather, hit them with this knowledge blast from Bill Ramsey, a lifer who was in on the early sport development at Smith Rock, most recently climbed his twenty-sixth 5.14 at age 59, and is a professor of philosophy at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Bill Ramsey, professor of philosophy at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, focusing on the tiny grips of Kill the Gringo (5.12d), Clark Mountain, California. Ramsey argues that in a strength-oriented sport like climbing, having a grading system is de rigueur for being able to effectively challenge ourselves. “Imagine a serious weight-lifter who refuses to pay attention to how much he or she is actually lifting and just says, ‘I don’t believe in numbers; I just lift heavy things.’ That would be pretty silly,” he says.Max Fox

“I’ve always thought it to be quite obvious that route grades matter, that they should matter, and it is a little bizarre that anyone would think otherwise,” says Ramsey. “We are doing a strength-oriented sport that involves challenging ourselves. When people do that sort of thing, they like to measure their performance, their improvement and progress, their successes and failures, etc., and that requires some sort of scale.” Ramsey posits an analogy with other sports: “Imagine a serious weight-lifter who refuses to pay attention to how much he or she is actually lifting and just says, ‘I don’t believe in numbers; I just lift heavy things.’ That would be pretty silly. The same goes for, say, a serious runner who never pays attention to distances or times, or a tennis player or golfer who refuses to keep score.”

You hear that? A strength-based sport without some way to measure achievement or progress would be silly! And even if you climb “just for the experience” or for “being outside,” you likely seek some sort of physical/athletic component as well, to heighten the experience, which in turn means relying on ratings to identify the appropriate level of challenge.

Says Pizem, “Ultimately, we need grades to have a common language to communicate with each other. Progress, safety, and technique all come from a common language, so why should grades be any different?” This, says Pizem, is why we have just one periodic table—so chemists can speak about the elements and their properties and behaviors in one universal way. Ditto for climbing grades: They are the lingua franca of climbing.

3. Grades Are Not Entirely Subjective

Bill Ramsey puts forth a solid argument that much of the community’s willingness to dismiss grades as meaningless by dint of being “entirely subjective” stems from a misunderstanding of how we arrive at these grades. “I think part of this confusion comes from the fact that climbing grades stem from evaluative judgments,” he says. “People seem to think that propositions like ‘This route is a 12c’ are on a par with ‘Chocolate ice cream is the best!’”

However, Ramsey points to plenty of other sports that, like climbing, rank difficulty and performance based on evaluative judgments, often based on a consensus. Examples include golf (whether or not the hole on a golf course is par 4 or par 5), kayaking (whitewater classifications), skiing (difficulty of the runs), and gymnastics (where the difficulty of a move and a gymnast’s performance of that move are taken into account when scoring). “No one thinks that Simone Biles’s status as the top living female gymnast is somehow bogus because her performance is measured by evaluative judgments,” Ramsey says. “[And] no one thinks it should be impossible to win a boxing match by decision.”

Ramsey climbing at the X Cave near Las Vegas, Nevada. He has climbed 26 5.14s, including his most recent one, Jumbo Pumping Hate (5.14a) at Clark Mountain, California, at age 59, and was also involved in the early sport development at Smith Rock, Oregon.

In climbing, Ramsey points out, we also assign difficulty grades by consensus, with individual climbers using a combination of objective factors like the route’s steepness, size of and distance between the holds, and a judgment of how difficult the moves “feel” and how the route feels in comparison to other routes. And while it’s true that the “feel” part can vary based on conditions, a climber’s body type or size, and her strengths as a climber, this still doesn’t mean we can’t arrive at an eventual consensus—as close as possible—based on honest feedback from repeat ascentionists.

“I see no reason to think that a collection of honest and reflective assessments based on how a route feels compared to other climbs (and takes into account the relevant variables) is so subjective that it has little value as a tool for measuring one’s performance,” says Ramsey. Meanwhile, he cautions that the fact that grades matter does not mean that other things (aesthetics of a line, quality of movement, safety, rock quality, etc.) do not. “When picking something to climb, all of these factors are relevant,” says Ramsey. “And the fact that they are does not suggest that difficulty shouldn’t be either.”

4. “Chasing Grades” Actually Means Seeking out Soft Routes—and It’s Junk Food for the Ego

For some reason, I’d always understood “chasing grades” to mean you’re seeking solely to send routes of a certain grade to boost your status. But there is a more nuanced definition, which the Colorado-based pro climber Paige Claassen brings up: “Finding the softest routes of a grade in order to tick that grade.” That is, instead of seeking benchmark routes that present you with a concrete challenge (“Am I capable of this?”), you’re instead hunting for routes you’re sure you can tick, perhaps at that same grade, to cultivate bragging rights.

We’ve all been guilty of this, myself included, but the satisfaction is fleeting: Like the “full” feeling you get when cramming your gob full of junk food, the buzz soon turns into a post-send hangover and cravings for the real thing. “I just did a ‘13d’ in Leonidio, Greece—the most popular one of its grade here (of course)—that felt no harder than 13b,” says Chris Weidner, an avid climber based in Boulder, Colorado. “If it were in Rifle or Boulder Canyon, it would probably be 13a.” Weidner says it’s just not as satisfying to climb soft grades, because deep down he knows the routes aren’t as difficult as they’re rated. In fact, as he says of the Greek 5.13d, “The worst part is that I let the soft grade soil my thought of the climb, even though the actual route is amazing.” In this case, instead of feeling good about sending, say, a killer 8a, he instead felt bad about sending a soft 8b.

Dave Montgomery, another Colorado-based climber, tells a similar tale of flashing a 5.13a (now graded 5.12c) at Maple Canyon, Utah: “At the time, I felt like a superhero, but also a bit guilty,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I could take the ‘flash’ on” And Weidner’s wife, Heather, a pro climber, recalls a similar experience on Kalymnos, Greece, where after doing a 5.13c second try that she felt should have been graded much easier, she felt like “was cheating” (though she took the tick anyway, to pass her husband point-wise on!).

Weidner onsighting K3 Climbing (7c, 5.12d) at Leonidio, Greece, a crag at which he climbed an 8b (5.13d) he considered so “soft” for the grade that it tainted his experience of the climb.Ed Mowbray

5. However, You Can Also Chase Grades in a Healthy Way…

Chasing without “chasing,” as it were. “Sometimes I climb for the process, and other times I deliberately climb to chase numbers,” says Chris Weidner. “I’ll often set a goal based on a grade because I know that, in order for me to climb that grade, I will have to improve and or get lighter/stronger. It doesn’t mean the number is all that matters; it’s just a target I’m aiming for that I know will force me to improve.”

Boone Speed, the first American to establish 5.14b and a driving force behind hard sport climbing and bouldering in America, frames it similarly: “I have focused on routes that I think are of a certain grade because I wanted to succeed at that level. Not ever for bragging rights”—but instead because he wanted to climb that grade. To Speed, “Harder fucking matters, and grades reflect that—or they should accurately reflect that.” For Speed, advancing both his own and the sport’s physicality are important—“Just like breaking a two-hour marathon is important for running”—in that they are motivating, exemplary, and up-leveling, both for himself and other climbers.

As benchmarks to aspire to, grades have helped him and others push the boundaries of the sport—and there is nothing wrong with that. Climbing can be both a lifestyle and a performance sport, and benchmark climbs or routes that are the first of their grade help further both aspects.

6. Only Grade Debates at the Cutting Edge Are Interesting, and Even Then They’re Kinda Boring

Everybody I spoke to said that debates over ratings are pointless, and many had moved away from letter grades with their first ascents to the simpler, broader “plus” and “minus” grades to sidestep the debate over whether a route is 5.11a, 5.11a/b, 5.11b, etc.—simply call the sucker “5.11-” and your bases are covered!

Meanwhile, while there was universal agreement that grades can be somewhat subjective based on obvious factors like height, experience at a certain style, atmospheric conditions, current level of fitness, etc., the sentiment was that trying to resolve these differences by arguing over letter grades was ultimately futile, because there will never be an “official” or “right” answer given the fluctuating variables. Especially pointless, one climber said, was arguing over grades on the splitter cracks of Indian Creek, Utah, where hand and finger size determine which types of jams you’ll use, and thus the apparent difficulty.

Josh Wharton, a professional climber in Estes Park, Colorado, has two general rules about grading:

  1. “Take it if you need it, but don’t hurt your friends’ feelings if you don’t.” I.e., feel good without guilt about sending a particular route/grade whether soft, medium, or hard, but don’t use grades as a way to put others down.
  2. “You win some, you lose some.” After enough climbing experience, you learn that some areas have very stiff grades, and some have largely soft grades, and that you have strengths and weaknesses as a climber. Embrace, and learn from, the defeats and the victories, regardless of the number attached to the route.

If you take Wharton’s approach, detaching your ego from the ratings, you’ll likely never feel keen to argue about grades again, or can at least do so in a self-aware fashion. That said, at the cutting edge where progress is hard-fought and incremental, it seems the only way to truly push into and solidify a new level is to discuss grades to some degree. Could Adam Ondra have proposed 9c for Silence without first putting up and confirming with other climbers the 9b’s and 9b+’s he’d established or repeated? Or could Nalle Hukkataival have done the same with his 9a boulder problem Burden of Dreams without first solidifying what 8c/+ was via repeat ascents and comparing notes with other top boulderers? (Note: There were only a handful of 8c+ problems in the world in 2016 at the time of Hukkataival’s FA, and Burden—still unrepeated as of February 2020——has held at 9a.) Of course, this splitting of hairs can be taken to an extreme, as with Pirmin Bertle’s “refusal” of Adam Ondra’s downgrade of Bertle’s route Meoise, in Switzerland, from 5.15b to 5.15a, all based on something as esoteric as Ondra being able to get a slightly better kneebar—will anyone other than Ondra or Bertle or a handful of other 5.15 Euros really care about such minutiae?

I believe these sorts of wonky discussions are of greatest interest to the climbers having them and to history/climbing esoterica nerds like myself. Anyone who’s half-sane or has better things going on in their life would do well to pay no attention.

Chris Weidner sending the mighty Double Impact (5.13b—not its given grade of 5.13a/b, since Weidner “hates slash grades”), Frisky Cliff, Boulder Canyon, Colorado.Seth Sanford

7. Grades Are Not a Useful Measure of Personal Performance

There are two traps with grades that I’ve seen myself and fellow-climbers fall into: 1) “That route’s too hard for me, so I’m not even going to try it,” and 2) “I just floated that 5.13a over there, so why can’t I even do the moves on this other one?” In both cases, the fatal error is to use the grade as an absolute measure—and not just a guideline—for personal performance.

The former case happens to me a fair bit, most often at the gym, where the limited footholds and “one sequence only” nature of the climbing mean I hit—or at least feel that I hit—a definitive ability ceiling. So I typically don’t even bother to try climbs or boulder problems above a certain rating, even if I might be capable. “Grades can be detrimental when we stay in our comfort zone and just pursue things around grades we know we can do, like send a bunch of 5.13a’s,” says Ted Lanzano, a devoted Boulder, Colorado, climber. “[And] it’s easy for me to say that a 5.14b is too hard, basing my decision solely on the grade and not my experience on the route.” However, Lanzano, who has climbed 5.14a, also concedes that a 5.14b “could fit my style perfectly and it might actually go”—but until he’s willing to set the grade aside and just jump on the climb, he’ll never know.

This happened to me this winter at the Boulder Rock Club, with its 45-degree-overhanging Tsunami Wall. I’d been avoiding getting on one climb there because I’d never climbed that grade out the wall—or even attempted it. The holds usually just looked too small on that fierce angle. But then one morning my friends Jay and Shumin were trying the climb, so I decided to go bolt-to-bolt to suss the moves—and flashed the route. Clearly, the only barrier to success had been in my head.

As for the latter case, getting hung up on why you might float one route of a given grade but struggle on another, things are more subtle. “I don’t think grades are very useful for measuring our own performance, because there is too much variance in styles of climbing, even at the same crag, to measure our fitness, strength, or progress on a grade,” says Paige Claassen. As an example, she cites 5.14a’s and 5.14b’s she’s done that felt harder than or took more work than the 5.14c’s and 5.14d’s she’s redpointed. In all of these cases, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the ratings are “wrong,” only that Claassen’s subjective experience of the grades did not necessarily “match” the number—though her skill set and fitness likely remained near-constants. I need only think of an area like Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, where I’ve been able to onsight overhanging 5.12+ sport climbs but was redlined redpointing vertical face routes of the same grade—all in the same day.

8. Seeking out “Sandbagged” Climbs or Routes That Feel Hard for the Grade Will Improve Your Climbing

“Sometimes, a low grade for a hard route simply means that you lack a specific technique, while a high grade for an easy route means you’re more than proficient at that style,” says James Lucas, a Valley climber and transplant to Colorado. “A 5.9 offwidth can feel impossible for a 5.14 climber because they lack that technique, but with the proper technique it’s actually 5.9.” In other words, you can use failure at a grade that’s “beneath” you to instead reveal techniques you need to work on: It’s a litmus test for your deficiencies, and is an important lesson to heed if you want to become a well-rounded climber.

Chris Weidner actively seeks out sandbags, as a way of testing himself, getting a gauge on just how hard people were climbing in decades past, and simply framing the whole grade debate in a more humorous light. “I’ve learned that I absolutely love to climb sandbagged routes, because it highlights how ridiculous it is to take grades seriously,” he says. Even in the gym, Weidner will seek out the tough grades, to test his mettle. “There’s something to be learned by doing that nasty V3 around the corner instead of the showpiece V6 that you know you can flash,” he says.

Weidner’s favorite sandbag might be the 1964 Royal Robbins and Pat Ament climb The By Gully (5.9+) on Castle Rock in Boulder, Canyon, Colorado. Weidner would try the overhanging offwidth after giving the neighboring roof crack Deadline (5.13d) a couple of burns. “I think Deadline took me just a few more tries to send than the 5.9+,” he jokes. “I sent them both the same day—BOOM!”

Weidner puts in a redpoint attempt on Jolly Jump (8a+ or 5.13c), a few burns before the send, Leonidio, Greece.Martin Larsson

9. Even Routes at Grades You’ve “Mastered” Can—and Should—Still Feel Difficult

Finally, as I’ve learned in my own career and others in theirs, just because you’ve sent X amount of routes at a certain grade or climbed multiple tiers higher than that grade doesn’t mean that the grade should automatically feel “easy”—even though mathematic or ego-fueled logic might dictate otherwise.

“I like to remind myself that anything two number grades below your limit and up is HARD,” says Claassen, who has repointed 5.14d. “I might think I should be able to onsight a 5.13a, but 5.13a is really hard, and it’s important not to discredit a grade or route in order to suit our own ego.” Heather Weidner echoes the sentiment, saying that she’s gotten down on herself too many times to count after failing on a grade she “should” have climbed. “The SHOULD do that climb is the ego raising its ugly head,” she says. “But all we can do is try our best at that moment.” Whereas Weidner used to beat herself up or think “How can anyone think this climb is rated this easy?”, she now tries to cultivate an attitude of curiosity about how to succeed on the route, regardless of the grade.

This happened to me last February in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, which is known for its stout grades and technical, fussy style. Nearing the tail end of a training cycle that had given me remarkable, tangible results in the gym, I jumped on a 5.12a sport route I’d never tried, for my first day back on rock of the season, figuring I’d walk it with my newfound strength.

Wrong! Even with the quickdraws hung partway up (my friend Bennett’s high point), the sun warming the holds, and a newly resoled pair of edging shoes, I still hung all over the thing on my first go, and barely redpointed it my second, thereby relearning the lesson (for the 500th time) that old-school, vertical 5.12 is extremely difficult, even if I’ve climbed much harder. You’d think I would have integrated this teaching by now, after 33 years of climbing, but it’s still something I seem to need to relearn each time I go out. Difficult climbing is hard, and you’re always going to have to try—even if a route is “below your limit.”

* * *

The funny thing about these nine lessons is, as on-point and salient as they are, I at least need to constantly reintegrate and relearn them because my ego takes over and makes me forget: It’s a constant battle. Even as I tripped, stumbled, and fell on that “5.12” and that “b” three decades ago at Cochiti Mesa, so too do I still make the same stupid errors today, putting math before the experience. (Hey, at least I don’t have an scorecard.) I need think only of a route I redpointed last autumn at Staunton State Park, Colorado, after three days of concerted effort, that I felt I “should” have done in two or three tries, given my track record on the grade that season. As its powerful, thuggy, crimpy cruxes continued to spit me off, I grew more and more frustrated, until finally I realized, “This climb is fucking hard and this grade is fucking hard.” Once I settled down and embraced the challenge, I sent—barely—screaming my way through the crux like Adam Ondra’s long-lost and much weaker older brother.

Grades matter, yes, but not to the exclusion of the many other aspects of climbing, and this perhaps is the most important lesson of all. Maybe we should have it tattooed on to the backs of our eyelids so that we don’t keep forgetting. Or maybe we should just reframe it to be, as Paige Claassen posits, that “Grades aren’t definitive” and just move on, and get back to fondling the rock and talking shit with our friends at the crag.

As for my journey to become the “Best Climber in the World”? Well, I did return to the actual Path of the Doughnut Man two years later, with more experience under my belt, and onsighted the climb. But it did, in the end, take more than a couple of New Mexico Mountain Club toproping outings to climb 5.14. In fact, it took a decade of hard work, and by the time I caught up to the grade it was on a route that a then-15-year-old Chris Sharma had established on his summer break, before going back to high school and then on to become the greatest free climber of his generation, soon establishing the world’s first consensus 5.15a (Biographie; 2001) and thus putting me a full number—read: four big-ass, hard-ass letter grades—behind the world standard.

Still, I wouldn’t trade the journey for anything. Aspiring to climb 5.14 made me push myself in ways I never knew I was capable of, and gave me the fitness and confidence to try to untold wild routes and boulder problems I would not have experienced otherwise. In that sense, climbing grades have been useful. In that sense, they have been the ultimate teachers.

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