Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Grade Debate

After my recent project was radically downgraded I have decided to take a second look at grades. Obviously bouldering is ridiculously subjective as conditions and height can play a massive role in altering one's perceptions. But there are other subjective factors that cannot be ignored such as tradition, reputation of an area, and reputation of a climber that cause people to accept a consensus. I based my grade of There Will be Blood on my perceptions of two local problems that are similar in style and which I did recently. These are 606 in Eldorado Canyon which has long been regarded as solid V10 and the Left Graham Arete which also has been graded V11 very consistently. 606 took me about 6 tries in a couple of hours while LGA took a few sessions and maybe 10 tries over all. So I was baffled to see grades like V10 for TWBB from the low start, which took me well over two weeks to complete the whole version, and have a couple of ideas.

One is that height played a huge role on two moves that I found particularly hard. Moving to the crimp I found I had to keep my feet low and really stretch for the hold, meaning that taller climbers would easily do the move without feeling crunched and then not be so extended for the throw to the lip. The other possibility, and this may be way off base, is that the key crimp was exfoliating allowing better purchase for later ascents. Each dyno for the lip pulled it out a bit more, making it better, until finally it snapped. The sad part about Flagstaff is that holds are fragile and violent moves on flakes tend to break them. My sequence was much more static and I believe much harder, but also more likely to extend the life of the now-departed crimp. The new hold is far, far smaller than it was and while the problem might still go, the remaining flake, if not handled with great care, will quickly disintegrate to nothing.

In any event, when putting up new problems in a hypercompetitive scene like Boulder you always run a risk of seeming too ambitious or even pretentious in giving problems a grade. I try to seriously compare my experiences at other areas and on other problems before I make a decision to rate a problem. I want to thank the people that wrote their comments on this blog in a spirit of understanding and generosity. I appreciate it.


Seth said...

Peter you forgot the third possibility.... which is that climbers on the front range "get off" on downgrading other's problems. Sad, but most certainly true.

Peter Beal said...

There is that possibility but since I know the people who repeated the problem I don't want to assume that was the case.

Julian said...

I've thought about this kind of thing a lot, and it's just really complicated. I even find it difficult to compare things I've done with other things I've done because I'm getting stronger or weaker, feeling bad or good, etc.

I don't do any FAs, so I can't empathize precisely, but I take all grades with a major pile of salt, and just use them as a rough gauge of the effort I will need to expend to climb the line.

Dan Levison said...

Many of my FA sport routes have been downgraded (usually only one letter grade); usually the routes clean up, the beta is out, and that alone can make a difference of a letter grade. A downgrade from V12 to V10 is significant. Also, as you know, downgrading can be the ultimate ego stroke for many (not in this case since you know the people) but in many other circumstances though.

Chubblez said...

Peter, I think it's good you threw a grade out right away, saying that since this is the hardest thing you felt you've done, it seemed like a V12. Why not, right?

The downrating games around Boulder are probably as old as the rocks - not much to be done there, but I think even in an atmosphere thick with alpha dogs, you can still get a pretty good idea of some consensus after about a year. Enough climbers with different body types and sizes will have tried the climb for a broader-spectrum rating to emerge, or at least some sort of average people can reference.

For years in the 1990s, the downrating was usually so instantaneous out bouldering (even from lookers-on/wannabes who might not have sent the problem) that I think everyone around here became hesitant to call anything harder than V9. You remember the era... "V9" was the ceiling, much like 5.9 had been in the 1960s, and the grade compression was heinous. I think some of that, too, had to do with the first Hueco book, which pegged the ceiling then (at Hueco) as V9. As such, many climbers (me included) had trouble imagining that anything we did off in the trees in the Boulder Mountains, much less at a bouldering epicenter like Hueco, could surpass the then top grade. I remember grading things that felt very hard at the time V6 or V7, because to even mention V9 was to be mocked.

Anyway...just some thoughts. I think the modern tools of communication have democratized the grade debate a bit more, which is ultimately for the better. So why not throw out a number and see if it sticks?

Anonymous said...

Peter, good post. Often times I have found that when I do an FA, there are three numbers that pop in my head. One number is how hard I want it to be, the next number is how hard I think it probably is and the last number is how hard it will end up being, after new beta is found and everyone comes and tries it. The three numbers would be eg 12,11,10 respectively. The more FAs I do the better I get a targeting a grade it seems, but it is so hard. It is helpful to climb on the problem with other climbers and get their opinions as well. FAs almost always feel harder than they are, and I think that instead of comparing things on the lower end, I compare them to things on the upper end. For example, instead of comparing TWBB to 606 or TLGA, compare it to Trice, or NMGG. Generally, I try to be conservative. Problems are very rarely uprated and almost always downrated. It is also interesting that in today's day and age, the instantaneous nature of the way information appears on the internet leads to people running home to announce to the world what they have done and assign a grade to it, for which I would be public enemy number one. Pre-internet, the FAist would suggest a grade, perhaps, and it may get climbed 10,20 or 50 times before it shows up in a guide book. By that time a consensus would have been reached and no one's feelings are hurt. Either way, I see this as all part of the game now. I commend your commitment to hard climbing and would encourage you to repeat as many benchmark problems as you can and continue putting up new ones for slackers like me to go repeat.
Opening thoughtful conversation like you have is a great way the internet can be used for the never ending grade debate. Cheers

sock hands said...

for the record, i cut against the grain... despite jamie's point about how problems always go down, i, on the other hand, up-rate the heck out of a lot of problems.

thusly, i am the biggest man that walks this land. a true renegade. bow to me and call me your leader. perhaps send me growlers of specialty brews from new belgium and avery as offerings. suffer my dogs. thank me for my mercy.

Matt Battaglia said...

Hey Peter,
I'm psyched to try your line out whatever the grade cause I friggin suck at crimps, will fell like v12 to me (i.e can barely touch it) I'm sure. I put up a line within spitting distance of TWBB called Dungeon Master. Give're a whirl and tell me what you think, I'm thinkin v8ish. See my blog post for directions and beta.
I also here you on the bouldering difficulty variation, sometimes drives me nuts what some call easy, but then I just figure I suck at some things and others dont and pick the old ego up off the floor and head back to the gym ta get stronger.

Todd F said...

Yo Peter, I like your post... I too have had many of my FA's downgraded in my lifetime. Simply put grading is subjective!!! I thought TWBB was a good line, probably not exfoliating but more suited to my reachy and dynamic climbing style. The funny thing about that crimp was if you made a fist and readjusted on it, it would flex and get a bit easier to hold. (thats how i broke it) As with sock hands comments I think maybe 20% of the lines I climbed in CO I thought should be upgraded especially if they are easy to get to. I just wanted to throw my opinion out there for the concensus. Keep up the good work and please never stop posting about new problems. I love finding and trying these climbs.

Anonymous said...

Goodness, does there seem to be just a tad bit too much obsession over grades?

It seems as though the actual climbing has become secondary....