Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Grade Debate (Again)

My good friend and fellow blogger Jamie Emerson has written a lengthy piece about the legitimacy of the V16 grade, a post that has garnered much response and debate. In essence, Jamie is pushing back against Paul Robinson's view that “We need to progress the sport of bouldering and not get stuck in this v15 rut and never move forward.”

While Jamie's reputation as the grading sheriff of the Front Range might prejudice any informed reader towards his remarks, they have some merit but also some potential flaws. I have also (and in a completely hypothetical fashion) proposed that Jade will be downgraded to V14 and am well aware of Paul's struggle to do Suspension in Eldo. However I am not convinced that these comparisons with past boulder problems are really relevant anymore to the discussion at hand. I am generally more impressed by the finished product as it stands more or less in the present in comparison with other things done in the present, i.e. Daniel on the Game. The reason I say this is that climbs have a peculiar way of getting much easier without their justifying a lower grade. Climbers are now onsighting legitimate 5.14b and possible 14c. Adam Ondra flashed hard V13 in SA and he is not a superhuman strength mutant.

Noah Kaufman in his comments to Jamie's post quoted/paraphrased Tony Lamiche saying "Tony believes that individual moves are maxing out at about V13 and that there are probably not moves much harder than this since they are limited by span/Ultimate Human Potential Strength (UHPS) and hold size (ie. there needs to be a hold.)" This is an interesting thought but also problematical, the concept of UHPS. This is because yes, strength does matter but in climbing it matters in a peculiar way, in an often subtle and hard to read manner, where small changes in its application make a huge difference in terms of success. It is not about raw strength or other "objective" measures. Bouldering could be made objective but only by forcing it indoors on uniform holds but even there, differences in the body size, type etc. make it impossible to say for sure. So if Paul says he thinks Lucid is V16, why not try it out, kick it around a bit? If it goes down because,as Noah proposes, everyone repeats it quickly, no harm done. There are leaders and there are followers and Paul will already be on to another project.

Dave Graham's fear that grades are being diluted is overblown in my view and the proposal that the media and sponsored climbers are somehow cashing in on all this is risible by any measure. The naysayers and commentators should, as they usually do anyway, sit back and see what happens next.


Frixtion said...

I know I'm probably weird and one of the only ones who thinks this way--but who cares? Grades will always be on the rise as people and technology improve to match the challenges--5.15 used to be a theoretical grade, right? It's just cool to see people out there pulling down ridiculously hard and moving the sport forward by opening new lines, regardless of the grade. We should appreciate the act on its own terms and not the artificial framework of grading imposed on the achievement.

A grade is just a reference for comparison--so who cares what that number is? If other people can or can't repeat the climb is what's most telling about its difficulty.

Sebastian said...

I agree. Let the first ascentionist propose a grade and subsequent successful climbers downgrade it if necessary. It's not unreasonable to assume that there is an upper limit to human ability, and maybe it's V15, and any problem graded V16 for the next 100 years will get downgraded to V15, or maybe we aren't near the limits of human ability. At the upper end of the scale there's bound to be wild fluctuations due to the small sample size, but in the long run, repeat ascents will lead to consensus which will buffer it out.