Crusty Corner is a monthly column written by Climbing Editor Matt Samet, a climber of 30 years. When he's not at the gym or the rocks trying to stave off the inevitable performance decline of middle age, you can find him in his basement playing Xbox.
About eight years ago, my friend Ted and I came up with a term to express our frustration at the wanton ego-downrating that our new Boulder-area climbs were experiencing: “5.13ahole.” The term, as it evolved in our crag banter, came to signify someone who has to downrate a climb graded 5.13a to 5.12d or 5.12c because “There’s no way that thing is 5.13a”—even if it most certainly is. They simply need it to be 5.12, for whatever reason: perhaps to feel superior to/stronger than the first-ascent party or perhaps out of some inborn disbelief that they themselves could never climb that hard in X amount of tries. Or perhaps a little of both.
This term also applies to any grade range where some sandbagging, self-important mouth-breather has to come along and knock it down into the next number. So, yes, there can also be 5.10aholes, 5.11aholes, 5.12aholes, and so on. Hell, there are probably 5.15aholes, but since I don’t speak 8a.nu (“soft/second go”; “yellow card”; “poorly/mainly chipped”—WTF?), I have no idea what they’re saying.
Grades don’t matter as much as we tend to think they do, but at a certain point they have an impact. They are useful as measuring sticks that help us select which climbs to get on or let us gauge how well we’re climbing. And when they’re consistent within a given area and even—ideally—across different cliffs, they serve as a lingua franca: “If I can climb 5.10a at my home crag, then I should reasonably be able to try 5.10a’s at other cliffs.” Which is why shitty, lousy, ego-driven downrating does a disservice to the entire community. It’s one hell of an unpleasant surprise to visit a new crag and jump on a 5.10a hoping to experience a fun climb, only to find yourself fighting for survival on some 5.11 R/X the asshole locals have wired into submission and knowingly down- or underrated because Ha-ha, snicker-snicker, why not? There’s no way this thing is 5.11, right, Joey?
I mean, weren’t rating systems invented to prevent these scenarios? If not, then what are they for? Are grades universally agreed-upon measuring sticks that help us select our climbing goals or are they just trophies, heads to be mounted on the wall?
I’ve noticed way more grade insecurity in America than in Europe, perhaps because of the very nature of the rating systems. In Europe, the commonly used French grades, though they roughly translate to specific number/letter grades on the Yosemite Decimal System, feel “bigger” somehow—more commodious, with more room for easy, middling, and hard climbs of a grade. For instance, an 8a, which technically translates to 5.13b, can be pretty much anywhere from 5.12d/5.13a up to 5.13b/c, but instead of splitting endless hairs over slash grades, the Euros just call it 8a and move on. Maybe that’s why they climb so much better than we do—they don’t waste time on pointless shit. While they’re up at the cliffs ticking 8a after 8a from sunup till sundown, we’re on online forums arguing about whether some three-bolt local pile is 5.12d or 5.13a after spending two months kneebarring it into submission.
There may also be less grade insecurity in Europe because of the vast spaces between the numbers. Consider that on the French scale 7a is 5.11d while 7c+ is 5.13a (and an 8a is, well 5.13b…ish)—both are still in the same number range, 7, just on opposite ends of it. Yet on the American scale, these climbs would be five rungs and two whole numbers apart; there’s a lot of real estate between 5.11+ and 5.13a— like, all of 5.12. From what I’ve seen, breaking the ratings down into these granular increments almost encourages the sort of ego downrating we Americans are prone to. I’ve never heard a European refer to himself as a “grade 7” climber, but I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had to endure some spraylord referring to himself as a “5.12 climber” or “5.13 climber.” Our numerically illogical, overly determined grading scale encourages us to split hairs, and so we—aided with the usual dash of American exceptionalism/stupidity—split hairs.
Think about it: It sends way more of an "FU" to the first ascentionist of a route to take it down from 5.13 to 5.12 (“Hey, you suck, loser!”). Downgrading it from 7c+ to 7c is essentially meaningless, because those two ratings look and sound almost exactly the same.
Let’s try it:
Joe American Freedom Liberty Patriot: “That route is stupid easy—softer than a baby’s buns. No way that thing is 5.13a. More like 5.12c or Gunks 5.8. I barely even got pumped. Off to downrate it on Mountain Project then spray at the bar!”
Pierre Française Baguette Beret Loulotte: “For me, zees route is no problem and I do it as warm-up flash. Closer to 7c zan 7c+, but c’est la vie, 7c+ is also OK. We must also have zee nice climbs for great-grannies and infants. Now, where are some 9a’s to try?”
I understand, as a longtime first ascentionist, that it’s easy to get locked in tunnel vision—to stick with a more difficult sequence simply because it’s working, only to have other climbers come along later and find better beta. Also, some routes do get easier with time and travel: Before the holds get totally greased up, having more chalk on them can make them grippier and easier to see. And crumbly little footholds and intermediates also get smoothed out and more usable. A well-trod trail is easier to navigate than a bushwhack.
Yet at the same time, I’ve often seen routes that friends and I have bolted get downrated because people found ways to avoid the hard climbing altogether, taking lesser, chossier sequences off to the side of the bolt line, skipping cruxes, and so on. This is not to say that the routes were contrived; only that later climbers found other options. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but to then downrate the original climb based on some variant that avoids the hardest moves feels disingenuous, especially when people often seek out the route for its very grade and reputation. Consider the irony: “I’m out here today to check out this classic 5.13d but I’m going to knowingly do a 5.13b sequence that avoids the crux so I can get a quick tick of a 5.13d—and then downrate it and call it soft.”
A case in point would be a climb Ted and I put up in 2012 on Seal Rock in the Flatirons, Choose Life. Thirty meters long and gently overhanging, the route is an arm-blasting pumpfest that culminates in the technical crux at the next-to-last bolt, on a black bulge dotted with tiny sidepulls, crimps, and pebbles. When we did the route, we bolted and climbed straight up the black streak that runs the length of the wall, both because the rock was best there and the moves were the most interesting. (In the Flatirons, on the steep walls, unless the rock is water stained or varnished, it tends to be sugary and chossy.) To either side of the streak was some ugly choss that we cleaned as best we could, given the difficulties of swinging around in space trying to hammer loose flakes. In the end, we left most of the choss as-is, figuring no one in their right mind would use it—it was well to the side of the climbing.
For a while, people repeated the route as we’d climbed it, though they did sort out a slightly easier way to climb into the crux—legitimate, since we’d been doing a powerful, bouldery sequence into a sloping hueco out left of the bolts, while the new moves stuck closer to the clips. Then comments began appearing on Mountain Project about a couple of pre-crux “rests” out right of the clips, one on a huge, barely attached surfboard flake so thin you could see behind it, the other in a no-hands chossy scoop. And the grade began to drop, and drop, and drop, until eventually what had been a proud 5.13d or 5.14a was relegated to, as one local sandbagger put it, “a 5.12d up to a V5.”
In this case, the grade had evolved, or devolved, with emerging beta, but there also seemed to be ego downrating at play. I’m not sure about your local area, but Boulder, Colorado, can be pretty cutthroat, with so many climbers moving here to “go pro” or “prove their mettle,” and so needing to knock others down in the process. Long before Mountain Project, when I first moved here in 1991, the mountain shop The Boulder Mountaineer kept a new-route logbook behind the climbing counter. Instead of online comments there were marginalia, anonymously scribed missives of downrating despair like: “5.12? More like 5.10, you pecker hole!” “If this route were any easier, you could turn it into a sidewalk and skateboard home.” And: “Someone chop this before it spreads like cancer.”
But those days are long gone, and today we have Mountain Project and scorecards. The pros of all this online feedback are that a genuine consensus rating can emerge. The cons are that having this rating be accurate relies on climbers being honest about the grade—not giving into peer pressure and just taking the grade they’ve seen their predecessors take online—and about how they climbed the route compared to the FA party, two things seemingly in short supply on the Interwebs. Think of that friend of yours who climbs a route some semi-scandalous way, and then downrates it on the Mountain Project but takes the higher grade on his scorecard, and you see what I mean.
In the meantime, my first-ascent partners and I will keep giving our routes grades we feel are fair. Between all of us, we have decades of climbing experience at areas around the world, from bouldering, to sport, to trad, and from limestone to granite to sandstone. I like to think that our ratings are accurate, or at the very least honest. We’re not grading our routes “soft” in order to make ourselves look like hardmen—difficult anyway, given that the world standard is now light years beyond our modest little climbs. We’re just giving them the grades we feel are accurate based on how we climbed them, how long they took to send, and how difficult they feel in relation to similar climbs in the area.
What you then choose to do with that information is up to you.
Are you a 5.13ahole? Take this short quiz to find out:
How many of these bulletpoints apply to you?
- Cannot accept that any route you ever climb, anywhere, ever, is actually 5.13a because, hey, you’re “not a 5.13 climber” and never will be. Thus all 5.13a’s must be 5.12d or 5.12c—that’s how it was back at the ol’ Lake Mishigawkawawawawa toproping bluffs, right? Nobody ever climbed that one local 5.13 from 1972, and if they did it would have to be immediately downrated to 5.12…or 5.9+
- Frequently wear double sticky kneepads and are not afraid to use them—on every move—confusing constant chalking up, shaking, resting, and kneebar-crawling with actual rock climbing.
- Are six feet tall—or otherwise above average height— and do big, ugly, weak-mo span moves past cruxes and, in a glaring display of “height privilege,” fail to consider that most people aren’t as tall as you and thus might find these sequences more complex and challenging.
- Are threatened by the fact that other people climb harder than you, and thus feel the need to publicly dress them down with online downrating, in effect making them look comparatively weaker without having to offer actual proof.
- Like to “keep things real” with “old-school” grading, even though grade compression in the 1970s and 1980s led to outrageous sandbags that are still considered bullshit ratings to this day.
If you answered yes to three of the five above, then you are a bona fide, grade-A 5.13ahole. Congrats! Here’s a puffy with duct-taped elbow patches, a stick clip, and a list of all the 5.13a’s in North America. I suggest you start with some of the OG 5.13a’s, the ones done in the 1980s, and see about downrating those. “Soft/second go”? Probably not. We’ll see you online!
Read more Crusty Corner.