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Egos & Route Grades—Everyone Loses

Downgrading, Upgrading—It’s All To Make You Feel Better About Yourself. It's Time to Fight the Ego and Just Enjoy.


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This article is in the summer edition of Climbing, and is republished here for free. Sign up with an Outside+ membership and you get unlimited access to thousands of stories and articles on climbing.com and rockandice.com, plus you’ll enjoy a print subscription to Climbing and receive our annual coffee-table edition of Ascent. Outside+ members also receive other valuable benefits including a Gaia GPS Premium membership. Please join the Climbing team today. 

“You’re only as cool as your latest Mountain Project downgrade,” read a sarcastic comment in a debate at that site about the rating of the popular Annunaki—5.12 or 5.11+ or 5.11?!—in Indian Creek, Utah. If you’ve climbed at more than one crag on Planet Earth, you’ve surely noticed a discrepancy in grades between venues, and many an ambitious youth and crusty old-schooler alike have gotten fired up over downgrading the soft climbs and upgrading the sandbags.

When I sent my first 5.13, The Hurt Locker at Newhalem, Washington, on my second try, I cracked a beer and waited for a call from Reel Rock rather than face the reality that the route would be 5.12 elsewhere.

Grades are useful in that they let us measure the difficulty between climbs and crags. But they’re also problematic in that they easily attach to our egos—telling us how we’re performing relative to other climbs and climbers. By putting a numeric value on an act, we have a scale for how much to pat ourselves on the back or beat ourselves up.

The climber taking the higher grade wants to achieve, to see progress and feel rewarded. When I sent my first 5.13, The Hurt Locker at Newhalem, Washington, on my second try, I cracked a beer and waited for a call from Reel Rock rather than face the reality that the route would be 5.12 elsewhere. I wanted those 8a.nu points and the validation.

Yet the spray from the downgrader is just as ego-driven. Like many other Index, Washington, locals, after sending 5.12s at other crags I’ve been guilty of spewing, “In Index, this would only be 5.11d.” That way everyone within earshot knew I’d climbed enough 5.12s to be an authority, and that the stiff grades at my local crag made me tough.

After grade-chasing for years, I asked myself why.

The problem is that, as Arno Ilgner writes in The Rock Warrior’s Way, “Comparison leaves us feeling better or worse than, but not equal to, others.” The more we debate grades, the more we get sucked into an ego trap. Ilgner continues, “If you want a more consistent and authentic source from which to draw a sense of self-worth and personal power, you will eventually need to reject external factors such as comparison and achievement. You must look inside and embrace learning.” That could mean learning to take bigger falls, or balance up a slippery slab, or puzzle out that tricky crux—whatever grade the route is given—rather than just focusing on ticking the pitch.

So the next time you find yourself eight pages deep in a Mountain Project grade debate or selecting the obnoxious “Soft, second go” option on 8a.nu, ask yourself if putting the emphasis on the grade will make you a better climber or just appease that hungry, hungry ego. Instead of letting Anonymous Coward tell you that your project is light, and you should reappraise your value as a climber—and human being—go outside and decide for yourself. That anon spraylord is probably just me trying to stop people from downgrading my sends. Fighting the ego has been my own longest-term project.

Brittany Goris is a nomadic professional climber with almost 20 years of experience in competition, bouldering, sport, and traditional climbing.