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 semi-rad.com.