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Cloaked figures gathered around a circular wooden table in a small room. A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling. It rocked gently in the hum from a small fan. Carved into the center of the table and illuminated in the bouncing light was an engraved triangle. Inside the triangle were a series of acronyms, including UIAA and YDS.
The figures bowed their heads silently and then raised their right arms. Together, they chanted:
I respect the importance of grades,
And although they can never be truly objective,
Sound comparisons and reasons can be weighed.
With confounding variables, history, and different morphologies in mind,
I do solemnly swear to take all thoughts in kind,
Even if my greatest lifetime achievements are downgraded as a result of this discussion.
Then the cloaked figures took their seats. One of them whispered: “First up on the docket: Hubble or Action Directe—which was the world’s first 9a?” Murmurs turned into shouts as the figures began to debate.
An Abridged History
There are many grading systems used around the world for each type of climbing. Globally, the French systems are most commonly used for both sport climbing and bouldering. In North America, we primarily use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) and the V-scale.
History matters in the context of any grade discussion because it reflects how far climbers have come and their shifting perception of difficulty. More on that below. For now, consider the iterations of the YDS.
Despite the namesake, the YDS was developed in Tahquitz, in southern California, by the Sierra Club. The YDS is an expansion of an earlier grading system—the Welzenbach scale—used to grade hikes and scrambles. The Club’s version of the Welzenbach scale numbered one through five, with one being a flat walk and five meaning an all-points-on climb. The version of the YDS that we think of today fits entirely within the original system’s fifth class: 5.0 through 5.15d. Back in the 1950s when the Club was establishing the YDS, it capped out at 5.9, but as climbers got better, it became evident that an open-ended scale was necessary, so 5.10 was added. Then, in the 1970s, Jim Bridwell famously added letters to the scale to further differentiate the numbers.
Ironically, Bridwell’s addition of letter grades came in response to a series of downgrades. “Blatant abuse of the rating system (YDS) was a general practice this past season in Yosemite,” he wrote in the 1973 edition of Ascent. “It seemed almost ‘in vogue.’ Climbs that an individual couldn’t do in the spring were 5.8+ by autumn.” In the essay, Bridwell pleaded for climbers to remain objective when proposing grades, saying that the system’s order must be upheld to maintain its reliability.
As climbers got better, the grading system too became more complex. The practice of downgrading and the debate over grades, unfortunately for Bridwell, had only just begun.
“How do I grade routes?” Adam Ondra paused for a second. “It’s not so simple to be honest.”
Comparing one route with another nearby line was the first thing Ondra mentioned. Makes sense, right? Humans are far better at comparing one thing to another than describing their perception of something outright. And, importantly, grades vary from one crag to the next.
“I think that it’s almost impossible to have an international grade standard,” says Jonathan Siegrist. “I think that what’s way more reasonable is to compare routes and grades within a single area than across the world.”
In his 1973 essay, The Bird echoed the importance of comparisons: “Practice makes perfect, and easier. The only fair solution to this problem is a rating based on a comparison of the climbs. Climbs, unlike climbers, don’t change much. As a climber progresses in physical conditioning, confidence and technical proficiency, he may tend to downrate. He should return to establish routes for a rating comparison.”
Of course, just because one route feels easier than another does not make it so. There’s weather, a climber’s given fitness at a point in time, stylistic differences, morphological differences, whether a climber tried the route fresh or not, and if they even used the right beta. The things that would shape perception are endless. “I think the very final decision, whether a certain route is 9a or 9b+ or 9b or 9b+ or even 8a or 8a+ is some kind of subjective feeling,” says Ondra.
Drew Ruana, who also mentioned the importance of comparing boulders at the same crag with each other when determining grades, talked about how physiological differences between climbers really impact the experience of a grade.
“There’s this boulder, The Ice Knife (V14), in Colorado’s Guanella Pass, and I have the shortest ascent of it by like six inches,” he says. “The beta I had to use was starkly different from what a lot of other people had to use. And it was a lot harder that way.” But Ruana noted that it goes both ways, saying that even though Ice Knife took him 17 sessions, if he gets “lucky” on a V14 or V15—one that suits his style and body dimensions—he’ll knock it out in “20 minutes or so.”
“[The grading system] is just like that. Even though there’s a number attached to boulders, the number is more of a guide.”
Like Ruana, Siegrist takes note of the number of tries a route takes him, and he recognizes that sometimes he does climbs in more or fewer tries than he “should” have. “You know how sometimes you feel like you send a route sooner than you’re supposed to? Like, not everything’s not quite dialed yet. You’re not totally ready, but maybe you get lucky with conditions, you get through the crux unexpectedly, and then you’re in the right mindset to just fight. … I feel that way a little bit about Flex Luthor. I feel like I did it a little bit prematurely.”
The grading system might be linear, but perception is a whole other thing. Consideration of exertion really matters when it comes to proposing a grade. Siegrist told me about making the first ascent of Pure Imagination at the Red River Gorge, in November 2010. He had put down a solid handful of 14c’s in the Red the year prior. Drawing from that experience, and recognizing that Pure Imagination had taken that much more effort, he felt the higher letter grade was warranted. “I think it was the beginning of an understanding that something can actually feel quite a bit harder and still be the same grade. And I still have to learn that lesson all the time.”
The Impact of Historical Precedence and Time
How have grades changed over time? Most climbers will have noticed this trend: old-school crags tend to be harder than modern ones. Naturally, the question is, have we all gone soft?
Siegrist thinks it’s the opposite: we’ve all gotten stronger. He used the word “ubiquitous” to describe the trends of more climbers sending higher-end routes. Thirty years ago, 5.14 was a rarity. Now, the grade is everywhere, and climbers everywhere can pull it off. “I think that harder grades start to feel more attainable, which is a really good thing. It motivates people. But I do think that it can kind of drive and inform opinions about grades that might not be totally accurate.” It’s a sheer numbers game: As more climbers put up more climbs at higher and higher levels, people are putting less stock into hard grades because they mean a lot less.
Ondra talked about stylistic changes that have occurred over time. Up until the ‘90s, most routes were vertical, thin, and crimpy. Technology plays a role here, because while the era’s stiff, board-lasted climbing shoes were actually fairly decent for the technical stuff, they weren’t nearly as good for overhung climbs. Climbers couldn’t dig in with their toes. Heel hooking and toe hooking was harder. After observing this, Ondra said something surprising:
“I believe that we should consider that maybe upgrading some of these routes might make sense to make the grades a little bit more even for, let’s say, a modern climber. … You know, if you’re an averagely talented climber, which is of course something that is really difficult to define, and you spend the same amount of time climbing slabs and climbing overhangs, in my point of view, it should take you the same effort to climb 8a on a slab as an overhang.”
Then he reconsidered and backtracked a little, because he wasn’t in favor of upgrading all routes, especially not historical ones. He settled on a feeling we all can relate to: “It’s complicated.”
As Bridwell noted, climbs mostly haven’t changed. But climbers and their techniques and gear have, all making the upper echelons that much easier to obtain, and, at times warranting reevaluation of grades that don’t quite make sense anymore. “At times” being the key phrase.
Who Gets a Say?
You could make the argument (and some have) that only climbers who have sent the route in question, have climbed extensively at the crag, and have climbed multiple routes at, above, and below the route’s grade, are truly equipped to weigh in.
But Ondra was a strong believer that everyone who sends a climb should feel able to contribute their opinions on the grade. “You know, taking for granted a guidebook grade is taking us nowhere—it doesn’t make sense,” he said. Only with true democracy do grades even out in the end.
That fact that grades eventually can—and do—even out in the end was something Siegrist stressed: “I think ultimately, there’s this idea that every route is only one grade, and I just don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I think it could be one grade for a short climber who’s using kneepads and one grade for someone who’s taller or somebody who’s better at this style or whatever.
“But I think that if you climb enough routes, it’s all going to come out in the wash, right?… And I think that if your goal is to improve and to be challenged, at the end of the day obsessing over the soft ones, or the hard ones, or you know, always trying to move grades up or down—it’s probably not worth your energy, your energy is better spent just seeking that next challenge.”
The Comparison Game
There are formulas that climbers can use as tools when thinking about grades. For example, here’s a common one: if a route breaks down into two sections, say 5.12a and 5.12a, average the two sections (making 5.12a) and then add two letter grades. So the end result should be 5.12c. If there are more than two sections, then, after averaging them, add by the number of sections you averaged.
For route to bouldering conversions, Wheel of Life, a 68-move roof traverse in the Hollow Mountain Cave in the Grampians, Victoria, comes to mind. It’s commonly rated both V15 and 5.15a. It can serve as the basis for a conversion rate:
These conversions can be great tools for thought or comparisons, but it can be the small differences in difficulty that bump a grade up or down.
“Let’s say it’s 13c, followed by good rest, then 13c,” says Siegrist. “Generally speaking, I like to think that that equates to a 14a, on average, but that can also easily be 14b. And the reason I say that is because if you have a 13c section that’s particularly low percentage or that’s really bouldery, the difference between having that 13c section right off the ground or having it at like the 20-meter mark could change the grade again.”
Siegrist says that for him, a bouldery 5.14a feels like a V10. And he mentioned a route in Wild Iris that he thinks of—National Finals Rodeo—rated 5.13d. That one, he says, is about V9. These conversions are not exact, but they’re helpful to understand.
Grades Are Not Dumb
At the end of the day, grades are something we made up. They are only meaningful in as much as we give them value. First and foremost, they are meant to convey difficulty, but for so many of us, grades signal self-growth, something to strive for, and they even serve as important tools for safety, so that climbers know what they are getting into before they get into it. Grades also demarcate the progression of our sport through the passing of generations.
“Most climbers are trying to get better at some point,” says Ruana. “And, you know, it’s a lot more fun to do an activity if you can feel yourself progressing. Grades, while they’re not perfect, are the best way to measure that and to track progress over time.”
Regardless of your motivations for climbing, we all use and rely on the grading system. Therefore, these conversations do matter. Ondra said it best: “There are people who don’t want to discuss grading and who really hate the discussion. They end up saying ‘I climb for fun.’ But I mean, that is pointless. If we use the grading system, we should just try to be as objective as possible, and that’s all. And if you’re not willing to be as objective as possible, I think I think that’s a problem.”
As daunting and messy as the grade discussion can be, climbers should not be afraid to voice their opinions and contribute, so long as they can likewise set their egos aside.