Essay: More than a Number — The Necessity of Letting Go of Grades

So you want to get into rock climbing … You head on over to your local gym, fill out the painstakingly long liability waiver, purchase your day pass, get your bouldering falling lesson, and you’re on your own.

You get on the wall (tentatively) and start to climb. Two moves in and your arms are shaking. This is way harder than you thought it would be; all your friends’ pictures on Facebook make it look easy!

After a few falls, you make it to the top of your first V0 and jump down, exhausted. You never knew your hands could feel so stiff, but you feel awesome. You know it’s one of the easiest climbs in the gym, but you still feel on top of the world. No one else, however, seems to share in your excitement. You don’t expect a parade or anything, but you also don’t expect the hard sidelong glances filled with animosity and a belittling sense of amusement. To every other climber in the gym, you’re only a pair of rental shoes probably to never grace the walls again.

Get your own pair of shoes (and not an overly aggressive shoe that screams “poser!” to anyone on a V2) and a few flappers then we’ll talk.

Most seasoned climbers are guilty of it, even though we all remember what it felt like to be that person, no matter how long ago that was. For a group that masquerades as welcoming and open, climbers are a notoriously snobby and judgmental bunch.

It probably has something to do with the inextricable connection between climbing and grades. Climbing is one of the few sports where your skill, and subsequently, your worth, can be succinctly quantified to the masses by a number. Grade easily becomes conflated with identity.

“I’m a V7 climber,” we say of ourselves. Or of others, “You know that guy we were talking to who was projecting the 8?” If it’s V6 or above, you’re worth the time, and who cares what your name is if you can climb V9? Sure, you might eventually say, “I’m Amber, by the way,” but that person will always remember you as the girl who fell off a soft V4.

So why such snobbery in a sport that began so humbly?

Perhaps it is inevitable among things that demand competition. Climbing has always been about pushing limits, setting new speed records, being the first to send new grades.

Numbers, numbers, numbers.

If dirtbagging doesn’t work out, maybe we should consider careers as mathematicians. Ultimately what do these numbers bring us other than an arbitrary sense of satisfaction and a close-mindedness to newcomers?

Like with the rest of life, it turns out, not much.

As a young climber, that obsession with grades was an easy trap in which to fall, because it was hardly the first time I had found myself consumed by grades. In school, they consumed me, from the first day of first grade when I began earning letter grades to the day I graduated high school as valedictorian.

As I worked into my college years, pursuing two degrees simultaneously in the same four-year span, I began to see the intellectual confinement and general waste of time it was to jump through the hoops of higher education. Seeing below average students go on to get successful careers reaffirmed the good old Cs get degrees, and any arbitrary assessment of pointless busy work no longer seemed to matter. And yet I virtually killed myself with 20+ credit loads, refusing to settle for anything substandard, no matter how pointless the assignment. I still calculated exact percentages I needed on midterms and finals to maintain my 4.0. But grades didn’t matter, right?

Finally, in the spring semester of my junior year, I ruined that perfect little 4.0 with a B+ while studying abroad at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious schools in the world. I’d be lying if I said I still wasn’t a little disappointed.

Ironically, I started climbing at the end of my senior year of college as an escape from the mountain pressures of graduation grades. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. In that first year, I got a larger variety of climbing experience than many climbers get their entire lives. The problem was that I wasn’t in the position to consistently train, and in order to get better, consistency is key.

After a year of dirtbagging around the western United States and backpacking from crag to crag in Central and South America, I returned to the very gym in which I began climbing … and I soon found I was beginning all over again. I didn’t expect to be great, by any means, but damn if I didn’t expect experience to earn me a little something more than struggling up a V2.

I had gone from thinking of myself as a V4 climber (a perfectly respectable grade that demonstrated a potential to one day be good) to struggling alongside newbies wearing rental shoes and fingerless leather gloves. Humbling? More like humiliating. I didn’t even realize it, but even after months of freedom from the grades climbing in areas without guidebooks, I was still a slave to the system.

My frustration mounted over the next month, as I made little progress and ended almost every bouldering session in either a huffy rage or all-out tears.

One day as I lay flat on my back, fuming at the wall above me, my boyfriend and climbing partner Chris called me over to him.

“I want you to try this green V6 here.”

I looked at him like he was crazy. He had just watched me fall miserably off the crux move of an overhanging V3 over and over again. “Very funny. I can’t even climb that V3. What makes you think I can even start a six?”

“Humor me.” I sighed, knowing that when Chris went into coach mode, it was easiest to just play along. I positioned myself on the start holds and looked up at the daunting line above me, scrawling up a dihedral then cutting sharply left onto an overhanging wall, my weakest type of climbing.

“I don’t want you to think too much and burn out. Just do something, even if you get stuck,” he told me.

I reached out with my left hand onto a crimp, then crossed over onto a slopey pinch. My weight swayed away from the wall, cutting my feet from under me, and I recovered with a clumsy high heel hook. I reached a flat green ledge, slapping desperately for it only to find it was worse than it looked and I crashed down onto the mat. Chris was standing over me grinning.

“What?” I snapped angrily. “I told you I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“I never said you could send it, but you just climbed half of a V6 when you couldn’t climb half that V3. Do you really think you should put any stock in what number the setters slap on the wall?”

Suddenly, I understood the point he had been trying to make.

Grades are entirely subjective. Some gyms happen to somehow be better at setting them; others are completely off the wall (pun intended). Not only do gyms differ from each other, but gyms differ vastly from outdoor crags, and even crags of certain rock differ from others.

It all boils down to one simple fact: grades mean nothing.

A lot of factors contribute to being a good climber, so the notion of calling oneself a climber of one specific grade is both limiting and reductive of the complex title of “climber”. Every climber develops an affinity for a particular style of climbing based and part of the great process of self-discovery in the sport is finding exactly where one’s strength lies.

I’ve seen bodybuilders in rental shoes muscle their way up powerful overhanging climbs on nothing but strength, only to fall off technical V1s. Equally surprising, I’ve seen incredibly talented V10 climbers who’d been in sport for years, fall off a reachy V7 because they physically couldn’t make a move.

Personally, I struggle with grades because of my body type. As a 5’5” woman with a -3 ape index climbing in a world set by 6’+ route setters, a V5 for everybody else might not necessarily be a V5 for me. Stick me on a vertical wall with gnarly small crimps and balance intensive static movement and I’ll project V7 and V8 all day. Give me a juggy V5 on a steep overhang and I’ll struggle. I’m not a powerhouse climber and I dislike overly dynamic movement. It leaves me in an awkward place … Am I a V5 climber or a V7 climber? Should I take the average of the two?

At best, grades are to be used as general guidelines, or a distant goal post, not a hard and fast rule. Goals are good, and grades can often provide general benchmarks for these goals, but I’ve learned the grade can’t be the goal in and of itself.

I still have to remind myself of what’s important. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t nail the end of that V7; it matters that I managed to lock in a successful bicycle move on a steep overhang, my most hated climbing move on my weakest type of wall. Successes in climbing are self-defined, not measured.

Still, the impulse is almost irresistible. To complete a climb of a higher number than any you have in the past creates an instinctive feeling of elation. While I widely consider my BA in psychology useless, it did teach me nothing if not that positive feelings reinforce the actions that brought them. Big numbers equal happy, low numbers equal mediocrity. There’s a reason capitalism works. It’s simple neuroscience, and how can we override human nature?

Well, we prioritize, we relapse, and we grow. Finding satisfaction in something elusive is a never-ending process. We strive for objective concretions when we should be satisfied with the abstract, like the elating feeling of completing a route you worked hard on, no matter the grade.

Today, I put those two college degrees and prestigious academic accolades (and all the tears and stress that went along with them) to use by ignoring them completely. I coach at a rock gym and work part-time at a little gear shop. I don’t make much money, and I’m sure not winning any Nobel Prizes, but I couldn’t be happier. I get to spend my days doing what I love and watching my progress as a climber. I’m not the best climber in the gym, but I’m immensely proud of my progress and I take the time to celebrate small victories. I even fall off the occasional V3 once in a while. And you know what? That’s okay because I’m not out to prove anything.

While there are climbing competitions, climbing itself is not one. It’s a lot like life, in that regard. You have to love it—for the pure sake of it—or else what’s the point?


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  • Oz Davis

    Huge fan of this essay. Kudos!

  • Spencer Jones

    Wow. This essay is what I needed to hear. Thanks for writing it!