The Star System

The Star System

Posted on 19. Jan, 2009 by in News

In 2001 Brian Capps was in Squamish bouldering with Matt Wilder. They had scoped out an amazing project known locally as “The Room Project”. They felt that this project had all the attributes of a classic boulder problem: an obvious starting hold, a flat landing, a nice setting, excellent rock quality, an obvious line, and it was not contrived. In an attempt to standardize and objectify its quality, they decided to come up with “The Star System”.

Most guidebooks use some kind of rating system to tell the climber how good the climb is, however, the idea behind “The Star System” was that it would be like the V-scale. It was not specific to the area and it could be applied to any boulder problem, anywhere. Their original justification was to explain to someone like Fred Nicole just how good this Project was (potentially five out of five stars) so he would come and try it. Two years ago, Tim Clifford made the first ascent of this gorgeous problem calling it The Singularity. Ironically, Clifford started in a less obvious position, with only one hand on the lowest jug. Regardless, the system was born.

The Singularity, the problem that started it all.
Photo by Mike Chapman

This is roughly the same system that Wilder describes in his Hueco Tanks Bouldering Guidebook, however, Brian and I have come to understand a slightly different scale.

The idea was that the system should be rigorous and that most problems would probably get one or no stars, with a maximum of four stars. There would only be maybe a hundred or so problems in the US that would get four stars. We have also come to the consensus that a five star problem is theoretical. With entire continents virtually unexplored, it seems we have only seen a fraction of what is out there. The style of the problem is generally irrelevant. In addition to the above mentioned criteria, chipping or gluing would detract instantly. Traverses or problems that have a traversing nature would be given less stars. History could potentially add to the star rating, but lack of history would never detract. Difficulty is completely irrelevant to the System.

Often people don’t like to hear that their project or proudest send is only one star, but that’s not to say its not worth climbing on one star problems. I have had some amazing fun climbing no hands slabs in my tennis shoes, ugly moderate warmups on horrible chossy rock, or working the hard moves on a lowball V11. The Star System was not created to measure fun. There is also consensus (among Brian and I) that climbing movement is climbing movement and that it is too subjective to say that one move is “better” than another. This being said, I realize that the entire system is subjective, however, it is only an attempt to bring things closer to objectivity and so things farther away from that are discarded. It also leaves much room for debate, and what climber would complain about that!

Here are several examples to show how The Star System works. No More Greener Grasses is generally considered by most climbers to be one of the best boulder problems at Mt. Evans, if not in Colorado. When applying The Star System, it meets many of the criteria. It has a very obvious start, the line is pure and uncontrived. The rock is good, not incredible, but good. The setting is very nice, on the Dali Boulder, at the base of a 500ft cliff in the mountains. The landing is not the best but it is manageable, and this is what takes away a star. I would give this problem 4 stars.

No More Greener Grasses, Mt. Evans

Another problem that gets a lot of attention in Colorado would be the Centuar in RMNP. The Centaur is a line of crimps up the left side of the Gang Bang boulder. The start to this problem is less obvious, and the uncontrived line from the start is Handicapps V9. It has broken several times (which would indicate poor rock quality), it has a high potential for a dab (very low to the ground), the landing is poor in several places. It is sharp, and the line itself is ambiguous (especially at the end, when a specific set of holds must be followed) It also has a traversing nature. While I have projected and sent this climb, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and am psyched to have done it, I would give it zero stars.

The Centuar, RMNP

One final example I would give would be Kahuna Roof, a very popular problem at Carter Lake. While it does have one very nice hold (the sloper) on it, the rock quality is pebbly and poor. The starting hold is fairly obvious, although it is ambiguous as to whether or not a jump start is considered legitimate. At least one hold has broken on the problem that I am aware of. It has a perfectly flat landing, which was manufactured. I would give this problem 2 stars. Again, its a great problem, and one I have climbed several times, however in the grand scheme of things 2 stars is appropriate.

Perhaps no one has climbed Kahuna Roof more than Matty O!

Brian and I both travel and it is awesome that I can ask him about problems he has seen and I haven’t, and vice versa. Not unlike the V-scale, if he tells me a problem is 3 or 4 stars, I know that means he is talking about a really amazing problem. As long as every one has a general understanding of how things are graded, the problems seem to fall into place. Unlike the V-scale, it seems people are far less attached to their ego’s and will freely give their opinions and debate quality.

When giving out stars I tend to lean towards being conservative as a general rule. This is not my scale, just a great way to discuss the quality of the boulders we all love. I would encourage people to discuss and question what they think is good and why. Hopefully, The Star System will give those conversations some direction.
Here are some potential 4 star problems in Colorado:
No More Greener Grasses
The Nothing
Whispers of Wisdom
The Ladder

53 Responses to “The Star System”

  1. darth wader

    19. Jan, 2009

    I wanna know the Five Star Problems in Swizzy!…….

  2. Joe M.

    19. Jan, 2009

    this is cool. someone needs a website or blog to catalog the star system…

  3. tissue

    19. Jan, 2009

    really? maybe i misread this post, but does it suggest you and brain capps ‘invented’ the star system? that 2001 was the first instance of a climber transposing ‘stars’ (used to rate hotels, movies, restaurants, etc..) to qualify the aesthetics of movement? if so, the odds are clearly against it. with people having climbed for 20 years and stars being such a widely used convention it just seems a bit myopic to suggest the ‘star system’ was not only ‘born’ on a particular date but also that it emerged in a particular place. maybe you meant your particular version? i dunno.

    but nice post on qualifying quality anyways.

  4. B3

    19. Jan, 2009

    I think you misread. Obviously, this is our own version and I am describing our criteria for handing out stars. I think its a good system and one that hadn’t been applied universally to boulder problems.

  5. B3

    19. Jan, 2009

    thanks, glad you enjoyed it

  6. Narc

    19. Jan, 2009

    Knowing that a 4 star line means something from area to area would certainly be helpful as most star scales used in guidebooks are overly optimistic. Obviously getting anyone to agree on something like this is near impossible, but it is fun to speculate. It is sort of like the British E scale that takes into account several unquantifiable aspects of a climb to reach a grade.

  7. peter beal

    19. Jan, 2009

    The Ladder? Is that the V1 at Evans?

  8. eric

    19. Jan, 2009

    jamie, would a problem like slashface be considered a traverse? or litz’s warpath?

  9. Munky

    20. Jan, 2009

    The problem I see with this is the same problem we have with grades. Problems and routes are subjective. What one person’s idea of perfect rock is could be drastically different than another. The same can be said for movement, or scenery, etc I might love gneiss more than anyother kind of rock and I might think Boone gneiss in a SE hobbit-esque forest trumps all other areas. Hence when I compare boone problems to Bishop’ problems I might rate a higher percentage of Boone problems as 3 star, or 4 start, etc. With that said I think most climbers are intelligent enough to know that when someone tells them that given boulder problem is a 5 star problem, or even a 3 star problem, then it’s worth a look. We don’t need to get all crazy over this stuff. Afterall the beauty of our sport is that its gruff and unrefined, unlike NFL, where every littel statistic and percentage is critiqued. Lets keep our sport the anti-sport.

  10. Jesse

    20. Jan, 2009

    I like it – a little more specific criteria for the bouldering stars. I know a couple of folks who, heaven forbid, count traverses and sit starts as adding stars, but I personally pretty much agree with your version.

    Curious what your thoughts are on problems at Rocky like Gobot, Autobot, Skipper D, etc which don’t have flat landings, but have the traveling backstops, and aren’t too hard to keep off of for dabs (unlike something like Circadian). Still seems to me they might not get to 4 stars unless they are absolutely stellar. Thoughts?

    Thinking about a list of problems, I have a hard time NOT thinking about the fun movement problems – and it is very subjective. I concur on your list of 4 star CO problems, having a hard time thinking of others. How about these for star ratings:

    4 star
    Seurat, Evans (4 stars for a crack problem)

    3 star
    Mental Standard, Rotary
    Pinch, Rotary
    Autobot from Jug, RMNP
    Gobot, RMNP (not that I can move it)
    Pat’s Arete, Evans

    2 star
    Bush Pilot (landing, start? 2.5 stars?)
    Canopener, Poudre
    Dali (start issues)
    Perch, Poudre

  11. B3

    20. Jan, 2009

    That is the V1 at Mt. Evans, yes Peter.

  12. B3

    20. Jan, 2009

    The Gobot is a fairly obvious start, it is contrived, it has broken several times. While the landing makes it more convenient to climb on, I think it woud be a better problem if it were a grassy meadow. I would give the Gobot two stars. Again, a four star problem is the best of the best. Chaos Canyon is an area I have very fond memories of and I look forward to climbing there again this summer. That being said, the Star System is harsh on the area and that’s ok.
    I wouldn’t give Seurat 4 stars because I think the landing detracts from the problem and the start is very inobvious. The line and the rock quality are outstanding but this is probably two stars, possibly three. Sounds like the rest of the problems you list are about in line with where I would put them, except Pat’s Arete. Poor rock, and a wierd landing would bump that one down to two or one stars. I try to always be conservative.

  13. B3

    20. Jan, 2009

    This is simply a tool to give direction to intelligent conversations about the quality of the problems we climb on. Like I said, what climber doesn’t like to debate about ethics, grades, problems etc? That is all this is and nothing more.

  14. B3

    20. Jan, 2009

    I would consider Slashface to have a traversing nature, the rock at the end is very chossy, and a hold has broken. I would give Slashface two stars. Litz’s Warpath is contrived, has a fairly inobvious start, has immaculate rock. I’m not sure if this would be a traverse or not. It always gets a little tricky with roof climbing. Good problems to bring up as examples. Both are great problems and really fun to climb on.

  15. ed

    20. Jan, 2009

    Applying stars to problems or routes is nothing new (take a look at any number of guidebooks) and has been in practice for years. Your interpretation might be new but any statement at inventing this is akin to Mr Gore’s invention of the internet. Regardless, an interesting read on your method for handing out stars. -Ed

  16. B3

    20. Jan, 2009

    Again, I am clearly not claiming to have invented anything. This is merely our interpretation. And this isn’t about me at all, it really comes down to the problems themselves.

  17. campusmang

    20. Jan, 2009

    we can view things as a wholearchy.

    with the wholearchy system everything is viewed as equal

    Spiral Dynamics and Buddhism can into detail with this.

    i think we jump back and forth with viewing things equally and hierarchically.

  18. mack

    20. Jan, 2009

    Dont think a sitstart would ever be worth anything more than 2 stars on a 5 star scale.

  19. Josh

    20. Jan, 2009

    Here’s what I see. 5 categories for 5 stars.
    Positives aspects (with negatives in parens)
    No aspect for movement or difficulty.

    1. Obvious Start / Finish (not traverseing)
    2. Obvious Line (not contrived)
    3. Great rock / Setting (sharp/painful)
    4. Flat / Safe landing (no dab)
    5. Aesthetics / History (no chip/glue)

  20. Matt

    21. Jan, 2009

    Funny I remember talking to Matt Wilder about this back in the day and he talked about there being only one known 5 star boulder in the world. And he had only ever seen a picture of said boulder.

    Ammagamma in Australia.

    2 years ago I visited Australia and got a good look at it.

    Perfect. Hard but perfect.

  21. grant

    21. Jan, 2009

    Judging by your system there are going to be few high star problems in areas such as rocky but large amounts of problems in areas such as bishop or yosemite. Mostly i’d say that because of the setting and indipendent lines in many of those areas. Anyway with that in mind i’ll throw out a few problems in colorado that might be three or four stars and see what you think. 3/4 star= the stupa and small axe
    3 =pinch overhang, maybe tommys arete,simple. I completely agree with you on the system. It takes out how much fun you might of had on the problems and thinks about the line and rock indescriminitly. with that in mind i’ve never seen it in person but rules of chaos might be up there along with the new zero. Grant

  22. B3

    21. Jan, 2009

    I think the rock quality in Bishop is generally poor, in light of other granite areas like those in Switzerland, so that knocks off stars immediately. The Mandala, for instance, has a flat landing, a very inobvious start, it is sharp, its broken several times. It also has some great history, even though its a fairly new problem. I would give this two stars. The start of the Stupa is inobvious and it doesn’t follow the obvious line in the dihedral. It also requires a stacked pad for a shorter climber. The rock is pretty good granite and the landing is relatively flat. I would give this problem one or maybe two stars. Small Axe is a great line but the rock is marginal, even when compared to other lines in the Poudre. The landing was built up by climbers and even so it requires alot of pads to fill out it’s inconsistancies. The start is obvious, although it maybe contrived as you could head left from the good left hand hold. I can’t remember. I would give this problem two stars. There are my thoughts on those problems. As far as I can tell, off the top of my head, there are no four star problems in the Poudre Canyon.

  23. andy

    21. Jan, 2009

    Excellent post. It’s a discussion all climbers can add input, rather than a select few.
    I have to add another element to discussion of stars, and that would be movement. For example, the movement on Whispers of Wisdom is unique and pleasing in my opinion, whereas the movement on, say, the gobot is a bit painful and not as enjoyable. If all other elements were the same on the two problems (which they are not, i know, bad example) then Whispers would deserve more stars.
    In regards to Hueco, it seems an unusually high number of traverses acheive three or four stars. Lead belly, The Bathtub, burn baby burn, etc. Just some thoughts…

  24. z

    21. Jan, 2009

    so vechia leone a potential 5 star problem? watcha think

  25. campusmang

    21. Jan, 2009

    I have done the star system before, and when I did it I mostly thought okay? hmm, what would others think? ** ? So i guestimated.

    After thinking about it more, I would give ***** to every climb I have done.

    Its like you said, you cant really rate movement and I liked all the rocks

  26. B3

    21. Jan, 2009

    Andy, I think this is where our system differs from the one Wilder describes in his guidebook. I wouldn’t give the Bathtub or Mother Earth four stars.
    In regards to your comments about movement, I would find the opposite to be true, where I think the Gobot climbs better than Whispers. Again, its so subjective that movement is thrown out of the discussion. But good input, for sure. thanks, and again, just another topic for discussion.

  27. andy

    21. Jan, 2009

    Agreed. Movement, or quality thereof, is highly subjective. But I would offer up that any moves that require some level of pain (ie sharp crimps or tweaky drop knees) are not as high on the star system as comfortable climbs. That’s why I offered that Whispers moved better than Gobot. I would also suggest that Full Service is than therefore more worthy of four stars than Power of Silence, all other elements equal. But again, entirely subjective.
    This is where the discussions become less and less about climbing in a mathematical sense and more about climbing in an artistic sense. Its as if we are now comparing different pieces in an art gallery rather than two opposing theories on physics.

  28. campusmang

    22. Jan, 2009

    and now by saying the gobot climbs better than whispers of wisdom, it does seem like u give stars to movement

  29. Trent

    22. Jan, 2009

    I think that this is, likely, a difficult goal to attain. For example, climbers from France might (theoretically) rate many Font problems as worthy of many stars, while considering all Colorado sandstone chossy and painful – and thus star-less. Difficulty ratings can be made somewhat objectively, but quality will, ultimately, remain subjective.

    Why not just use a scoring system? Score each problem on each of five criteria (from 0 to 1).
    1) Purity of line (not contrived)
    2) Holds (not painful, interesting, aesthetic)
    3) Landing (ideally flat, spacious)
    4) Movement (interesting, intellectual, stimulating)
    5) The boulder (obvious start / finish / good height)

    Or something like that.

    Taking a Squamish example, Golden Boy (V7)
    1) A little contrived, a bit traversey = 0.5
    2) Great holds, good diversity, not painful = 0.9
    3) OK landing, has a block = 0.5
    4) Great, interesting movement! = 1.0
    5) Obvious start and end, but a bit short = 0.8

    Total = 3.7 STARS

    Seems logical, repeatable, defensible

  30. Mike

    22. Jan, 2009

    Great topic JE. Got me thinking but i rarely ever reply. Rereading and catching up today, Im seeing that people are raving about certain problems and submitting there own favorites. This seems to support counting fun in on your discussion of star merit. I have always felt the a problem itself can have a way of commanding respect from those who have had some kind of experience with it, an aura if you will. Whether a favorite at your local spot or one you only had a short time with on a visit elsewhere, you make your connection with certain problems. This is the cummulative result of all your criteria, movement, setting, history, rock/hold quality, purity of line and landing coming together to make the experience. Now subjective to each individual as this may be, it is something we all seem to feel, its what pushes us to find the next great problem. When many climbers tend to agree on overall quality in a problem other merits or lack thereof can get overlooked, and elevate the number of stars nontheless.

  31. Mike McClure

    22. Jan, 2009

    Seems like a lot of people are mentioning a scoring system. In the wine world there is a similar scoring system (the quality of a wine is just as, if not more, subjective than a boulder problem) called the Davis 20 Point Scale. It is very similar to the one that Trent and Josh proposed but differs in the weighting of the different variables. For instance, the color of a wine isn’t as important as the aroma or mouthfeel. Personally I view movement as a more determining factor in overall quality than the landing. Therefore (for my personal Ultimate Quality Rating System, UQRS) I think the landing should be worth 0.5 stars while the movement worth 2.0 stars. Just as the color of a wine is worth only 2 points while the aroma is worth 4 points. On the other hand even the weighting of the different factors is highly subjective, just like the Davis Scale for wine (I think color should be 1 point and aroma 5). So I guess I just refuted myself!?! Or maybe just proved that a quality rating is way to subjective, really just a guideline and does not really matter…unless it’s a wine, then it can help sales.

    ps. drink indian creek wine

  32. campusman

    22. Jan, 2009

    oh u were sayin its subjective i didnt read the whole comment

  33. campusman

    22. Jan, 2009

    alcohol is the poison
    -bob marley

  34. camper8000

    22. Jan, 2009

    As far as I can tell, off the top of my head, there are no four star problems in the Poudre Canyon.

    Against Humanity?

  35. mick

    22. Jan, 2009

    so what are potential 5 star problems worldwide?


    doesnt seem like many..

  36. Mke

    23. Jan, 2009

    So Mick your list only included the harhdest problems on the planet. Wheres my 5 star V1 or insert single digit V-grade here climb? Difficulty can’t play this game.

  37. Mike

    23. Jan, 2009

    It just seems a shame that with a 5 star system most really good problems end up 1 or 2 stars. It all seems to make it just a little to exclusive. I think more really agreed upon good problems need to recieve more stars. These are the smilers, the ones that just feel good climbing on. We all know what the turds feel like, there is defintely a bottom. The problems that most people generally dig aren’t always the ones that meet all the quantifiable statistics. To have the pretty damn good problems lumped so close to the turds doesn’t feel right. Perhaps the Emerson/Capps system should stretch up al little to allow its girth to fill out. Lets complicate things even more and give those dozen globe classic 5 star problems a plus and really shake things up. Ha

  38. someone

    23. Jan, 2009

    midnight lightning is a 5 star problem. ammagamma is amazing but doesnt get 5 stars because of the very low, not very obvious dabby start. dreamtime is too much of a traverse to get 5 stars. black lung looks like a contender for 5 stars, and so does god module.

  39. B3

    23. Jan, 2009

    The five star problem is theoretical. There is so much yet to be seen, maybe all of the bouldering around in Asia will put what we have seen already to shame. Har to put God Module as one of the best problems in the world when whole continents have et to be explored.

  40. B3

    23. Jan, 2009

    Mike, it is not a shame that most problems don’t get a lot of stars, because it makes a four star problem that much more special.

  41. B3

    23. Jan, 2009

    Camper8000, Against Humanity has a low start and while it is the line of least resistance out the over hang, and the rock is pretty good. It also shares the start with two other problems and a project. It does have a fairly flat landing but it slopes away and climbers often hit a tree when the fall off the end. I would give that problem two stars. nice try.

  42. B3

    23. Jan, 2009

    Again, Mike McClure, I view movement as an important factor as to why I climb on problems. However, movement is as subjectie as it gets and see when trying to describe the quality of a problem objectively, there is no point in involving moevment. An amazing move for me might be “awkward” for you and so if I am describing a problem to you, that you havent seen, better that I don’t try to impose my own views about how it climbs into a quality rating system. I often tell Brian, “it probably gets two stars, but it has a really nice dyno, and its worth doing.” It hard to argue that a prefect problem wouldn’t have a flat landing, I think.

  43. B3

    23. Jan, 2009

    Trent, rock quality is only one quality and I think that most climbers can come to consensus about quality, from my experience of talking about stars. Colorado is mostly chossy so even though I live here and I love it, I would agree with you imaginary Bleusards. I think your system is more specific, which when dealing with something that is admittedly so subjective complicates things unnessecarily. Ask Ryan Olson about it if you seen him around, I think he thoroughly understands it.

  44. Narc

    23. Jan, 2009

    I wonder where a problem like Midnight Lightning would fall on the scale. Does its historic nature outweigh the incredible polish on all the holds? Does the small rock in the key landing zone detract a star?

  45. camper8000

    23. Jan, 2009

    better landing and rock than greener grass. not any lower than the greener grass start but the boulder does have many lines on it. ***. just standing up for the poudre. we could destroy the puffing stone and then the poudre will have a four star boulder.

  46. sock hands

    23. Jan, 2009

    my lenghty comment was deleted because i forgot to put an email address, but suffice to say:

    v7: 5 stars
    not v7: zero stars; wash vigorously afterwards, sinner.

    ^^undeniable truth

  47. B3

    24. Jan, 2009

    Camp, chipping other boulders to improve dab potential would def. take away stars. You should ask Capps, but Against Humanity is two stars.

  48. Alex

    26. Jan, 2009

    I totally agree with being strict about giving out stars. If you browse 8A, it appears most people don’t know what a quality problem is. There are a lot of folks who hand out 3 stars to most of the lines they do.
    I would agree that just because a problem only has 1 or no stars doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

    I would disagree however, on your point about movement. I think movement is a very important factor. If you look at a climb such as Checkerboard, beyond it being a beautiful wall with incredible rock, I think the movement is fantastic. And I think the movement is excellent for most body types, tall & short etc. Some climbs might have great rock etc, but they just don’t flow well. And that is a critical aspect of a classic problem, in my opinion.

    In regards to the Mandala, even though holds have broken, I still feel it deserves at least 3 stars. The wall is just beautiful and it is a totally pure line. You’re right it doesn’t start on a jug but it does seem like an obvious place to start the line.

    I guess my take is that stars should be subjective, I don’t think you can calculate a problems’ stars based on a set of criteria. But if you’re writing a guidebook you should definitely get a consensus, rather than solely using your own opinion about a climb.

  49. campusman

    13. Feb, 2009

    dont be discouraged je

    you are around the best athletes in the world

    you are very psyched, and focussing on time off

    the proper ammount of time off (not more than 12 days)
    you will succeed more. try resting more, you will notice your muscles recovering and feeling like they are fresh and ready to pull very hard every time.

  50. cardboard_dog

    13. Feb, 2009

    It seems to me that some guidebook authors give stars to problems based solely on the their level of difficulty. Like, “Yo this shit is HARD!” 4 stars. Even though it’s pile.

    Anyone else notice this odd trend or am I just a guidebook pessimist?

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