Essay: What’s in a Grade? — How to Approach Climbing Difficulty

Like most people, I try to improve in both climbing and in life. I’m a pretty good guy, but I want to be an all-around great guy. I think I’m a pretty good climber, but I want to be a better climber. And this is where numbers come in.

Numbers help us track our progress, whether it be in terms of a deliverable at our job, a fitness or weight loss program, or an attempt to describe your “onsight level.”

It’s those last ones that are a bit sticky. I mean, is Twinkie at the Red River Gorge the same difficulty as Dream On in Squamish? They’re both 5.12a, but one is a 50-foot horizontal roof full of grippy sandstone jugs and the other is a blank, low-angle horror show of granite smearing. Is Robinson Rubber Tester exactly as hard as Buttermilk Stem? Bowling Pin vs. Ironman Traverse?

Ask the above questions, or a similar one, at any campfire and watch the sparks fly. But even if you hate grades, I think you’ll admit that it’s not only fun to try and parse what makes a climb hard, but also instructive. You may find yourself identifying a common theme in what you find hard.

Spenser Tang-Smith
Photo: Courtesy of Spenser Tang-Smith

My personal approach with regards to grades is to first take them with many, many shakers full of salt. Having been around the country (twice) and climbed hundreds of problems in dozens of areas, I can attest to the fact that grades mean next to nothing in any universal sense.

Pick any of the following reasons: rock type, climbing style, local traditions, first ascentionists, climate.

The guidebook for Horse Pens 40 states in the introduction that the listed grades are:

  • Not based on an onsight attempt
  • Based on perfect conditions
  • [Based on] having intimate knowledge of the line based on previous ascents
  • The suggestion from individuals who prefer the particular style (crimps, slopers, power endurance, etc.)

And it’s appropriate to quote the father of bouldering grades himself here:

Every rating in this guide is guaranteed to be 100% accurate as of the time of writing. If you feel you have been sandbagged, just return the unused portion of the guide … Some restrictions do apply …

… V ratings are only guaranteed at 55°F, 20% humidity, for 6 foot 1 1/2 inch tall climbers weighing 160 pounds with below average flexibility, above average strength, minor finger arthritis, a bad left hip, size 10 1/2 feet crammed into size 8 Fires, perfectly even ape index, a hand size that precisely matches the author’s and no beta.

– John Sherman

Once I’ve salted my grades, I’ll give them a taste test. While warming up to an area, I’ll take note of how the conditions are, how my body feels, and how the style of an area suits me. I particularly like to pay attention to how hard something looks versus how hard it feels. If a warmup feels much harder than it looks, I’m either climbing on the wrong day, or I’m climbing it the wrong way. Further warming up will shed some light on which of the two it is.

A photo posted by @thervproject on

With enough climbing under your belt, you’ll start to get an idea of grade translation. You may have used or heard a phrase like

I had to try V4-hard to send that V2.

This is exactly what I’m talking about! If V5 is your limit, that means you had to try pretty hard on that V2, and if you’re looking to try a problem that’s going to be hard for you, you may want to seek out an inspiring V3 or V4.

Now, you might be in a place that suits you well or is softly graded. Either way, your ego is in luck! Feel free to hop on anything. You may catch a beatdown, but you just might find yourself on top of something you wouldn’t have even tried because it came with a high number. Maybe trying “V4-hard” will be enough to snag a V6.

I’ve heard the argument that there ought to be no grades at all, and that we should just climb what looks cool. I understand where this sentiment comes from and I even agree to a certain extent. But, I for one like to be able to choose a list of problems to try based on how hard I want to push myself on a given day. If I’m not feeling amazing, I’ll go after some classics a few grades below what I’m projecting.

Now that I’ve said all of the above, I think the ultimate climbing experience has to be exploring a newly discovered area, scrubbing some boulders, and putting up first ascents. In this case, there are no grades. You will climb on things that look climb-able and pleasant (hopefully), and when the climbing’s done, you can debate about how hard they were. Or, you know, not. It’s up to you!

This piece was originally published on December 17, 2014.


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