Grades Are Guidelines, Not Gospel

Grades Are Guidelines, Not Gospel

  • Posted by kaleigh
  • On December 28, 2019
  • Comments

Every year you hear stories of the local strongman who comes back to the States from Fontainebleau with a nagging 6C (V5 or so here in America) on their mind. These climbs were often some of the first to be established well before the days of Vibram rubber and Friction Labs. Even after watching a grey-haired Bleausard dance up it in leather boots with a cigarette in his mouth, Mr. V13 still found his feet frustratingly on the ground. No amount of liquid chalk or antihydral summoning the necessary friction to reach the top.

One of my first experiences climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon was on the classic 5.7 Crescent Crack. As someone who primarily boulders and sport climbs, I knew I would be a bit out of my element, but 5.7 is 5.7, right? Where I grew up climbing, 5.7 felt more like hiking than rock climbing. An easy first pitch buoyed my confidence, but I soon found myself pumped and trembling a few feet above a questionably placed #3 protecting the crux offwidth section of this supposed beginner’s climb. I was pulling all the moves out of my climbing repertoire, but nothing seemed to provide any upward progress. Finally, in a desperate attempt to avoid testing out how well I knew how to use trad gear (not well), I shoved my right shoulder into the rock. I felt my body settle between the opposing walls of the crack and let out a sigh of relief as the pump began to drain from my forearms. I finally made my way through that section and thoroughly enjoyed the exceptional smeary lie-backing to the chains thinking “5.7 my ass” the whole way.

I share these anecdotes to illustrate the point that grades are an entirely subjective estimation of difficulty and one that varies greatly between countries, states, areas, crags, gyms, disciplines and individual climbs. The number of factors that influence your perceived difficulty of a climb on a given day are endless. What you ate for lunch, how may beers you had the night before, how well you slept, how stressed you are, how many times you’ve attempted the route, how tall you are, the beta you’re using, how many knee bars you find (you know who you are), your personal climbing experience and countless others all play a part in the internal calculus that leads to your perceived grade of a route. Not to mention climbing specific strengths or weaknesses. Send me up a line of crimps and I’ll call it 5.11 any day but throw a couple slopers at me and its 5.13 for sure!

As route setters, our job is to provide everyone with a wide range of climbs of all difficulties across various terrain, styles and hold types. If you’re a technical slab master with fingers of steel you might flash all the pink dots on the vert wall but find yourself projecting the steep, powerful green dots in the caves. This does not mean that the green dots are necessarily sandbagged. When you look at the dot at the base of a route or boulder, think of this as a general guideline for what to expect. The Front’s grading system is intentionally vague to try to compensate for the individuality of climbing grades and can help identify aspects of your climbing that could use some work.

None of this is to deny that some climbs in the gym are completely sandbagged or baby-bottom soft. I’ll be the first to admit that we sometimes miss the mark. The point is that the route setters are a group of humans who pull from diverse climbing backgrounds and experiences to put forward our best estimate of difficulty for a diverse population of Front climbers. Just like you, we have those days where we feel like we’re floating up the wall. Other times, the setting load of the week catches up to us and we barely make it to the chains. Once the new gym opens, we will be responsible for bringing you about 40 new routes and 100 new boulder problems a week across three unique facilities. Each of which will be climbed numerous times by several setters to get as close as we can to an accurate consensus on the grade in the few short hours we have before the evening hordes descend on the gym. Keep in mind that the grades you see printed in guidebooks are often different than the first ascensionist proposed and were reached by consensus after hundreds of ascents over years or decades. Even today, grades of many classic climbs are still in dispute.

So next time you disagree with the color of the dot on the start hold talk about it with your partner, leave us a comment or tell a setter personally. But also reflect on what made it feel easy or difficult for you. I promise it is never our intention to attack your ego or flaunt our own. The dots are there to help guide your session in the gym, not impose a judgement of your climbing ability. And if you think that .11a is really .12a, well, that’s just your opinion, man.