27 July 2014

The Ever-Overly Discussed Topic of Grades

Since the dawn of time, grades in climbing have always been a hot topic, and that, I expect, will never change. In your personal assessment of ability, they’re a great way to scale where you’re at and where you want to be. It’s always exciting to reach or exceed a certain benchmark, and feel accomplished.

I cannot express how intensely I feel that, although they are completely necessary, grades in climbing should be more personal. I most certainly am not saying that they shouldn’t hold as much weight as they do, because obviously they’re important in the growth of not only the sport, but the climber themselves, and seeing progression in any one climber in our sport is motivating.

But we take grades too seriously. I’m just as guilty as the next person. My desire is that we look at them a little more subjectively.

In this situation, for example, I’m thinking specifically of a great line in Red Rocks called Lethal Design.

I climbed Lethal Design back in 2012, and was awarded the coveted "first female ascent." Being that it was a relatively new climb when I did it, although it had been established for a while it didn’t seem to get much traffic, perhaps a consensus on the grade hadn’t yet been established. Since then a handful of girls and women have done it, and there have been murmurs of “soft” and “downgrade.”  Seeing that it got a bunch of traffic this past fall and winter, and expecting it will see even more traffic this coming fall and winter, I’d like to point out my thoughts on this climb specifically, while hopefully simultaneously covering most climbs in general.

The grade of a climb, in my opinion, is what you think it should be, based on your previous climbing experiences and style, your specific strengths and weaknesses. (If you're a great crimper, you will excel on crimp lines. That doesn't mean that they are "easier.") Although there is frequently a standard grade that goes along with any given climb, someone’s opinion on that grade could vary drastically. I still whole-heartedly agree that climbs need a consensus grade, but to what strict extent? I don’t agree with the trend of one person suggesting a downgrade, and everyone else immediately following suit, even, and especially, those who had previously done the climb and taken the initial grade it was given. “Oh, yes, it must be soft now, given that so-and-so thinks so.” Could it not be that people are just getting stronger?? Climbing is growing and the more people who participate the more mutant Chris and Daniels we’re going to have. Twenty years ago nobody could fathom 5.15a, and now look we’re up to 5.15c!!! And V16? Fred Nicole would have laughed in your face if you’d proposed such a preposterous number. Open your eyes. Climbs aren’t getting easier. We are getting stronger! Remember when V12 was the new V10? Well V14 is the new V12. For guys AND girls it seems.

I only implore everyone to be honest with themselves on what they think in their heart the grade of a climb could be. Whether it’s “soft,” “standard,” or “hard.” Or downgraded or upgraded. I’m also curious as to when upgrading became so shameful? There have been quite a few climbs I would've liked to upgrade, only to have been "guilted," so-to-speak, into conforming to the downgrading craze, for fear of being publicly scrutinized. It's happened before, trust me. 

Anyway, back to Lethal. My long-standing stance on grades in general has been that I don't understand them. I've often said that if I had to wipe the numbers clean my "hardest" sends (Clear Blue Skies V12, A Maze of Death V12) would no longer be at the top. But again--this is about Lethal. Like I said, this climb couldn’t have been more my style, so naturally I did it a little faster than other ascents around difficulty. Now foreigners have done it, dudes have flashed it, and like clockwork, the murmur of The Downgrade commences. I believe that this instance purely comes down to style. Perhaps, since the holds are thin and the line is crimpy, it is indeed suited for female hands. That doesn’t mean that the movements aren’t difficult or make the line itself easier. Just style-dependent.

Take, for another example, Lethal’s sister line on the boulder, Book of Nightmares, just thirty-odd feet to the right, to date, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Thuggy and powerful, but also finicky and technical, this climb to me couldn’t be more V12. Yet quite a few logged ascents online call it “soft” or V11. Get ready for the big reveal: These comments mean absolutely NOTHING to me. I no longer bow to the downgrading kings. Book of Nightmares is the hardest thing I’ve ever climbed and to me it’s the difficulty of V12. Lethal Design is the hardest thing someone else has ever climbed, and to them it’s V12. While on the same difficulty plane, they could not be more different. (This could all be solved by over-complicating the grading scale by adding styles into the mix; Crimpy V12, Compression V12, Roof V12, Dyno V12, etc., but who wants to deal with all of that?!)

Anyway, all I’m saying is that next time you feel like following the cool-kid crowd by jumping on the downgrading bandwagon, consider what you truly think the grade of that climb really is, based on your style and experiences, not just because everyone else is doing it. Also think about if it’s really that important to take it from a “V12a” to a "V11d." Because to someone, that line could be the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and they could have worked their ass off for it.

Lethal Design in Red Rock Canyon. Photo by Ben Spannuth.


  1. Excellent explanation. I've always hated how the words "soft" or "featherweighted" are used to make others to feel less about their accomplishments. Letting the grade stand and being honest with yourself is the way to go.

  2. You didn't mention that in many cases, new beta is discovered that really does make a climb easier. If you send it with the "wrong" beta, does that mean you get to call the boulder "harder"?

    1. Thanks for your comment! I definitely know my argument isn't without its holes, and you bring up a really good point. With new beta or new/broken holds I absolutely agree that grades can be altered. I think that the grade scale leaves room for interpretation, for example on 8a.nu when you have the option to call something "soft" or "hard." Or when a first ascentionist suggests a grade for a climb, that number can go up or down after a few more people do the climb and throw their opinions in. I don't think that grades should never change, I just think people are too trigger happy with downgrading sometimes. But of course, always a time and a place. Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Hi Alex, with Lethal Design I believe the downgrading is coming from the use of the hold out left. The hardest move on the climb for me used to be going to the slot with the left hand from the undercling but now the sequence through that section utilizing that "new" hold seems to eliminate that crux completely. Just my two cents.

    1. Hi! Thanks for your comment! That makes sense, thanks for the clarification. New beta and new holds can totally alter the way a climb is graded, and I don't disagree with that whatsoever. A great climb, nonetheless!

  4. Alex, having worked on LD a bit last winter, I could see how it might get downgraded. I think sharp continuous crimpy lines are vulnerable to downgrading because of the specific abilities required. There are no moves on LD nearly as hard as on No More Greener Grasses or European Human Being for example. So if you have some endurance and a tolerance for sharp crimps, there is nothing to stop you from linking it quickly.

  5. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Squamish. Add to the mix the condition-dependent nature of some, but not all, of the climbing here, and you've got V4's that I bet even you couldn't do. No offense. They're just motherf*#%ing hard.