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Unsent: Point—Counterpoint: The Grade Debate

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Unsent /un-sent/ 1. To have failed so badly on a route you had previously climbed that you negate your redpoint. 2. A humor column.

Is it more important for a climb to be hard or beautiful? There is only one right opinion, and you’re an idiot if you don’t agree with mine.Andrew Burr

Grades Don’t Matter

By Fern Aspenwillow

When a goat scales a cliff in search of tender grasses, does it ask, “How hard?” When a vole traverses a wall in search of a mate, does it ask, “How many pitches?” And when a bat seeks shelter in a crack, does it ask, “What size?” No. It is only humans who have inserted numbers between themselves and the sacred stone. Grades are a construct of the ego, and I am here to free you from their evil trappings. Step one: Burn your guidebook.

The less you know about a route, the purer your experience. It’s best if you don’t even know that the crag is there. Instead, wander the forest with your gear and see where whimsy takes you. If the Earth Mother brings you to a cliff, then gaze upon it in awe. Take it in. See where the rock speaks to your eyes—not with words, but with beauty. The cracks, the contours, the crimps—are you weeping? Then this is your line.

Does it go? Is it impossibly hard? Is it a death route? These things matter not. If you are meant to climb the route, then Gaia will provide safe passage. If you are not meant to climb it, then the cosmic energy of gravity will embrace you in its loving arms and clutch you to the life-giving soil. Most days I don’t get off the ground. I walk up to route after mysterious and beautiful route, only to be shut down on the starting holds by nature’s awesome forces.

I know what you’re thinking: Fern, why don’t you just climb something that looks easier? You’re missing the point. I would never lower myself to climb something less aesthetic in order to “conquer” nature—how cheap, how phallocentric! No, I’m here to commune with the Goddess, and most of the time that means walking around touching a lot of rocks without climbing any of them.

I feel sorry for all of you who look up to grade-chasers like Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra, and Alex Puccio. These “pros” suffer from the same delusion as Wall Street stock traders—the belief that numbers will make them happy. I don’t know about you, but a 7 has never given me a hug, an 8 has never sang me “Happy Birthday,” and a 49 has never assured me that I’m a good person despite once sitting on a moth. I’d rather be like John Muir. He free-spirited his way through the woods and discovered Yosemite. That’s a pretty good “send” if you ask me, and he didn’t even have to hangboard. Then, when he made the first ascent of Cathedral Peak, he declined to invent a grading system so that he could grade it. That’s class.

Take it from me: I’ve been climbing for 50 wonderful years without ever progressing, or even having a bar with which to measure my progress. But if I had to guess, I’d say I climb, like, 5.2.

Grades Are All That Matter

By Brick Hardman

Climbing is a competition. Every time I pull onto the rock, I’m showing my dominance over everyone else at the boulders, yes, but most of all the person I was yesterday. I hate him. He is weak, and he represents all of my failures. There’s only one objective way to measure how hard I’m crushing compared to that sorry, pencil-armed loser: grades.

Today I will climb harder than myself from yesterday, then tomorrow I will defeat myself from today. And so forth. And on such sad days that I lose to the former me, I’ll go to the gym and do weighted one-arms until the only thing I feel is a stale brew of exhaustion and anger, so that tomorrow’s me can then out-climb the me from what will then have been two days earlier. That’s how you improve, and improvement is all that matters.

Once I climb—I say “conquer”—a problem of a given grade, I move on to the next grade. One and done; I’m not here to tread water. I have climbed one problem each from V0 through V10, and their associated plus and minus grades. In my 20 years of climbing, I have climbed exactly 33 boulder problems.

We only have a finite amount of time to train before we reach our physical peaks and age decline sets in. Any time spent on fun, cruiser problems just lowers the ceiling on what you could achieve if you focused 100 percent on achieving your potential on every single move all the time.

Since difficulty is all that matters, every move besides the hardest one on a climb is superfluous. This means bouldering is the only worthy discipline. Sport climbers spin endurance as a positive, when it’s just an excuse for being weak. Trad climbers waste precious strength putting pretty harness jewelry into the rock. And alpine climbing is just a fancy term for hiking to a trad climb that’s covered in snow and ice.

To me, the perfect problem would be a four-foot-tall roadside boulder that’s been chipped to perfection. You would begin with a lay-down start (LDS), pull one V19 move, then flop back onto the ground because you’d be done. No finishing mantel. No BS approach climbing to get to the crux, and no 30-foot exit slab to make it sound hard just because it’s a “dangerous” highball. Just one move that takes everything you’ve got.

Notice I didn’t mention aesthetics. I’m not climbing a painting. The only aesthetics I worry about are the graphs of my sends on and the topography of my chiseled back muscles. If you truly care about the achieving your potential, I suggest you do the same.

Read more Unsent. For Kevin’s non-humor columns, see Noon Patrol.

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