The Grade Debate

Posted on 03. Mar, 2010 by in News

Daniel Woods ascent of Desperanza V15 has once again brought the grade debate to the forefront. Daniel is incredible shape right now and posted a great article on his reasoning for calling the line V15 here.

David Graham responded to Daniel’s send on this site with this comment:
I think this boulder being graded v15 could be devastating to the future of the v15 grade. I have climbed esperanza, and consider it be soft 8b+, even potentially 8b. If you want to use a logical comparison, and leave hype out of the math, this boulder does not end up as v15…but future repetitions by people who have independent minds will be able to give an honest second opinions…No one likes it when people try to judge a boulders grades without making a repetition for reference, but as time goes on, we will have to find a solution of how 7a+ into 8b+ equals 8c, and further how 8b+ into 8b+, also equals 8c.
Does anyone follow me?
The history of bouldering up to this day still stands for something, especially outside of Boulder, Colorado.”

And Nalle Hukkataival added these thoughts with a great post from his blog here.

And finally here was my post regarding all of this in November.

I maintain that, with little or no incentive for taking a lower grades, has lead to grade inflation. It’s not only at the highest end either, here is a short list of problems that have been downgraded in Colorado in the last few years.

Ode to the Modern Man (V15) now low end V14
Clear Blue Skies (V13) now low end V12 or hard V11
Freaks of the Industry (V15 by some accounts) now V13
Ground Control (V13) now low end V12
Authentic Battle Damage (V13) now low end V12
Circadian Rhythm (Hard V14) now V13
Nuthin But Sunshine (V14) now V13
Surface Tension (V12) now V10
Both Sides of the Spectrum (V13) now V12
Sunspot (V12) now V10
Silverback (V11) now V10, some say even easier
Storm Shadow (V13) now low end V12
Lochness Monster (V13) now V12
Centaur (V13) now V12
Child Stars (V13) now V12

and the list goes on….

But why? are people interested in inflating their egos? Are they motivated by points on 8a? Do first ascents feel more difficult on the FA, and as beta is discovered do things naturally become easier? I think there are elements of all three that lead to high grades. I think there are several problems that should be downrated that aren’t and the only reason why is because of 8a.

It seems like a Jade V15 downrate is coming fast as well, although interestingly enough Nalle went with the accepted grade after his quick ascent. There are no answers and unless some phenomenal technological breakthroughs are made, this circular debate will continue. It would be great to see Nalle, Dave, Daniel et al. take a lead on this and really try and grade things honestly. Nalle bring up the idea of establishing The Story of Two Worlds as the benchmark of V15 and I approve of that idea. In Colorado it seems the benchmark climbs are No More Greener Grass V12, Circadian Rhythm V13, Nuthin but Sunshine V13 etc. None of this is really new, but I thought Nalle’s thoughts and Daniel’s were worth a read.

Here are links to their scorecards.

Dave Graham
Nalle Hukkataival
Daniel Woods

25 Responses to “The Grade Debate”

  1. Gabe Doliner

    03. Mar, 2010

    One more factor in these hard blocs getting “easier”. There are simply more of them to climb! Having more options gives climbers the ability to train on more variety and to get stronger. When you only have one V15 to train on, its hard to carry that over to other problems. When you are traveling the world and cranking and/or attempting lots of hard blocs, its easier to gain the physical and technical skill set necessary to climb harder.

    We see this phenomenon in roped climbing as well. As more and more upper end climbs are available, there is more opportunity to train and adapt, and to progress the sport.

    Just because it took Nalle 30 minutes or whatever to do Jade does not necessarily mean it is no longer V15. If Daniel or Paul went to repeat Jade today (or when its not buried), it probably would not take them as long as their first sends, because they are more experienced at upper grades, and have improved as climbers.

  2. Crafty

    04. Mar, 2010

    There’s also a good bit of ego involved in downgrading (in cases where climbs are borderline between one grade and the next). I know of more than one case where so and so climbs an established V12 or 13 or whatever and it quickly gets the downgrade from those who’ve previously climbed the boulder and taken the grade. You could certainly blame for this phenomena as well.

    Just one more reason to add to the list contributing to all the grading confusion…

  3. Evan

    04. Mar, 2010

    Whatever the grade may truly be, Daniel has made a great decision in calling Desperanza V15 and for one simple reason: Airtime. You can’t go to a climbing website right now and not see Daniel Woods as the headline. And when the magazines come out with the next issue who will be the big story? DW. His face is out there right now more than ever, making him ever more valuable to sponsors. And since being a “career climber” is almost a joking matter, being on the front page as often as possible greatly helps make money.
    Not that Daniel is merely grading it 15 for the exposure but it sure can’t hurt.
    Props to the man for putting in the hard work and devotion to become one of the best climbers in the world.

  4. Don

    04. Mar, 2010

    Mr. Woods –

    You are sick strong, but:

    Your thoughts don’t flow nearly as well as you think. Your conversational tone leads to run on sentences. These detract from the point you are trying to make.

    In the face of Mr. Hukkataival’s well put together piece, your post looks childish.

    Do us all a favor – have someone proofread your shit before every climber in the world sees it, or you maybe just read it twice. Oh, and take down that blogsite man. You’re embarrassing yourself and your sponsors.

  5. Brian

    04. Mar, 2010

    Grades are a matter of consensus. That’s hard to find at the very high end, where there are only a few capable climbers in the world.

    What the mutant freaks need to do is repeat each others V15’s until a quorum is achieved, and until then I won’t really believe in the grade. In the meantime, I’ll continue referring to these climbs as “impossible”.

  6. Frank

    04. Mar, 2010

    It is plain silly to think that we can know the real grade of a boulder problem after one ascent. These are proposed grades. That is all. Once more people climb a problem then we know the real grade. If Nalle and Dave are unhappy with the grade of this problem then on their next trip to Hueco they can climb it and downgrade it. This is how it works (keep in mind that I do not know any of these people personally I am only using them as examples of the personalities I have seen). You have sand-baggers like Dave and Nalle and you have inflaters like Daniel and Fred Nicole. Both archetypes care about grades and use grades to make themselves feel good. Sand-baggers seem to do so by making others feel bad. The inflaters try to hype themselves up by inflating their accomplishments. It has been this way forever. It will be this way forever. Arguing about it is pointless. Just accept that the grade of a problem that has less than 20 ascent is provisional. It is not perfect, but it seems unlikely that it will change. All these arguments do is create bitterness.

  7. […] (04.03.10): Und die Diskussion geht in eine neue Runde auf Jamie Emersons Website.   Nach der Diskussion, die um Daniel Woods Erstbegehung “Desperanza […]

  8. Fowls

    04. Mar, 2010

    “As for a grade with Desperanza, it could be v13-15”

    -taken directly from daniel woods’ post.

    as the fa’ist of a climb, it takes a lot of guts to suggest a grade for a problem–especially when it is one that will receive so much attention on so many fronts. yes, perhaps the logic of 7A+ into 8B+ to arrive at 8C may seem at fault–based exclusively on numbers. however at the end of the day, there is no actual evidence (other than subjectively-based consensus) that any climb is the grade it is proposed to be. in grading, there is no provable objectivity at work.

    further, such theory based solely on numbers does not account for the style found in a given climb, and its compatibility with the climber. some climbs are going to be harder/easier than others for different climbers. for instance, many of the world’s strongest flailed on jade in RMNP for a long time. then nalle hukkataival came up and did it in under 10 tries–and in the rain! such a repeat doesn’t _necessarily_ warrant any kind of downgrade. rather, a quick ascent like this may just be due to a high compatibility between the climb and the style of the one doing it. a parallel could be drawn between this and dave graham’s quick ascent of esperanza.

    i guess the overall point is this: the 8C proposal may seem a little far fetched. however with all of this attention, it will not be long before some one tries it and gives their input. also, it is not like daniel woods is a weak guy. while the difference between 8B and 8C is significant, the climb has only seen one ascent–not for lack of effort–and is still hard either way.

  9. Climbing Is Love

    04. Mar, 2010

    The focus here is on the higher-end of the scale, which makes sense because that’s where “fresher” grades reside, and thus less consolidation.

    A critical point not to get lost here though is how the recent (past ten years or so) top-end action and grade proposing is affecting the grades all down the scale–all the way down to the bottom of the V-scale.

    Unfortunately, the grades of newer “moderate” problems, from V0 to V8 let’s say, are going completely soft and unstable. The continual rise at the top-end of the scale creates a perception that the bottom rungs of the V-ladder should be “easy.”

    Besides consolidating to the top-end of the scale, the bigger point then is to make sure every level is–and remains–solid. A solid grade at EVERY level, not just the top-end, is the only way to keep V-grades meaningful.

  10. sock hands

    04. Mar, 2010

    i’m not intending these thoughts to sum up to a singular, cohesive point, so chill.

    i think it is pretty interesting that daniel was called a grade inflator. it seems pretty clear that daniel regularly pisses on established lines of the highest grades. then, he sometimes struggles while projecting a soon-to-be FA…. objectively putting much more effort into his FAs. we all understand this feeling at our individual levels, but at least in my eyes it is ignorant to think that daniel suggests lofty grades purely for headlines.

    his friends have hounded him to actually push himself on projects, because he never really has to try much on established lines. he just crushes them. then, when he puts a bit of effort into a project, he is condemned for thinking it is a higher level?


    when i have given an honest opinion of grade on my own FAs, sometimes they hold solid, and sometimes new beta is found to shave off a number or 8.

    whenever i have graded an FA with cynical introspection, it seems that the grade has been unfairly low and usually comes up in time.

    what is the better practice? if anything, it seems that the chance of ticking a soft grade gets people way more psyched to climb a line than if it is known as unreasonably sandbagged.

    if climbers really do feel that daniel’s conception of FA grades is inflated compared to their own, perhaps they should quietly thank him for giving them the psych and energy to go and piss on ‘his’ creations.

    i think jamie’s point that everyone is compelled to comment in this grade debate thread is indicative of a general STRONG negative energy in climbing.

    omg how dare someone thing that their FA is hard! raise a posse! let’s go kill it!

    the power of negativity in climbing is undeniable and to some degree or another, we are all guilty.

    if this negativity becomes consuming, all is lost. if the negativity is kept contained, it’s benefit is that it fuels the sport… for better or worse.

    so, if desperanza took daniel effort commensurate with that he put forth on terremer, then so be it. the grade stands until the locusts descend to send and downrate.

    also, i do disagree that is a root cause of “soft” grades. if anything, the incentive seems to be to avoid italics well more than to take a higher grade when everyone else is taking a lower one. having a spraysheet full of italics is considered embarrasing and seems to lead to the downration of many older lines as much as newer lines.

    as a counterpoint, i usually hear the higher grades when climbing outside, only to see lower grades online…

    but around again, there does seem to be a desire to be listed on the sidebar, so it does seem that soft 10s are given the 11 for sidebar recognition….

    who knows.

    regardless, i would argue that as a line is repeated, 8a certainly has an effect of stablilizing grades rather than inflating them. it is merely a process that takes time.

  11. Pat

    04. Mar, 2010

    Uh, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but The Story of Two Worlds should be in the same boat as Desperanza. It can’t really be used as a standard if it hasn’t been repeated. Like Desperanza, it has been tried extensively by the world’s best climbers, and still only has one ascent. The idea of using an unrepeated boulder as a standard is nonsensical.

  12. toothbrush

    04. Mar, 2010

    I find this fascinating. I’d also stress that it’s likely not someone trying to boost their ego but rather trying to show some sense of progression in bouldering. Anyone at the top level of bouldering has a right to make suggestions on the grades. Media pressure, sponsor pressure must be a factor and I think we can agree it must add fluff to this convoluted system that’s come about.

    I think in order to settle a debate like this it’s should be mandated that a wider variety of pro climbers attempt these said V15’s in order to create a more formal consensus. This would mean that climbers would actually have to compare themselves to one and other which is what everyone is trying to avoid. Do we want to take that step…

    Maybe there is an aspect of fear for some pro climbers not wanting to get shut down on a problem and lose sponsorship, credibility and the fear of the comparison of “so and so did it why can’t you” . There’s always the…”it doesn’t suite my style” comment as a means to dismiss this – but it’s entirely true, not a cop-out.

    But wouldn’t this be a major factor in deciding who is “better”, or at least give us another factor to apply to the grade equation – if this is what we want. Would those more willing to climb outside of their style and succeed would mean one is better than the other? Why not further classify problems to a style and grade, then let the data of each climber depict what their style is compared to the level of grade they climb. This data is all compiled at and can be expanded upon and averaged. This will show an obvious difference between climbers and we can then get a better consensus on their opinions of the grade. Who care’s if one says it’s V16, and one say’s its V15…allow the data (or the average) to speak for it’s self so that the climbers don’t have to be the deciding factor, just the test pieces. It means more failures for some climbers, and failures should count towards the grades depending on if it suits the climbers style or not. Factors can be applied, and compiled to create a grade based upon style and estimated individuals grades that stands alone based on the whole consensus.

    This also could be good for sponsership to put a bit more demand on where and what a climber climbs. It creates hype, which is a necessary evil, and also creates a less random system of people climbing just what they want to climb. Then we ask this question…is this what we want? Cause that’s where this leads…

  13. sidepull

    04. Mar, 2010

    Excellent post Jamie.

    I strongly agree with several of your points: 8a has fueled inflation for years and only recently – seemingly talking out of both sides of its virtual mouth – is trying to curb the practice, ego inflation has always been a part of the issue (but perhaps not as big as people assume – again, the internet might make that seem like more of a problem than it is), and people discount the mental barrier that a climber has to break to achieve a first ascent. In my mind, on average, this final element is one of the biggest in generating initially inflated grades that, later, settle into their proper place. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with this if you view as a natural part of the psychology of hard climbing. I think there are two aspects of this that make it dodgy: 1) the “brave and humble” argument and 2) the silence of high end climbers.

    The brave and humble argument confuses things because people will sandbag their own climbs and by giving their efforts a lower grade implicitly make themselves seem stronger compared to others. This is very different than someone saying, “it felt hard to me – perhaps just because I was the first person to do it. I’ll suggest V+n for the grade but other people will have to say what it is.” In this case, the FAist is acknowledging the psychological challenge and noting that because of this, the grade can only be a suggestion. In contrast, saying, “yeah, I it’s only V12” when the climber knows that it likely is in the V13 range might get humility points on 8a, but everyone knows it’s false humility because the intent is to look strong compared to others.

    I think the problem described above is compounded by the modern proclivity of most high end climbers to remain aloof of these discussions. It used to be that cutting edge climbers felt a sense of stewardship for the sport. Nowadays it doesn’t feel like that. This is somewhat paradoxical because many are willing to post their ascents in a public forum, but they rarely, rarely, RARELY, offer their opinions about issues important to the community at large. They rarely show any cultural leadership. Ascents by themselves don’t mean anything. They come to mean things because of stories and opinions. It seems bizarre to me that so many top end climbers are willing to get a “score” but they aren’t will to tell a “story.” That leaves a huge vacuum of ambiguity that invites people to make assumptions about motive (eg., brave and humble), relative difficulty, and direction of the sport. It’s sad really. I’d love to see more high end climbers step up on this point and have a voice rather than assuming their actions have so much meaning.

  14. sock hands

    04. Mar, 2010

    speaking of the ‘story’ of an ascent, i’d like to point out that whether you like him or do not, ty landman vowed to publish his sends in story format on the moon blog rather than mantaining his activity on hat’s off. in fact, many climbers supplement their hatespray.spew cards with blogs, which often also tell the tales of fail that help set the stage for the importance of certain sends to a particular climber.

    next, can someone who has a higher level sponsorship actually chime in and set the story straight on whether sponsors are actually pulling the strings and ‘demanding’ high level sends?

    my understanding of most climbing companies is that they are more interested in a climber’s mileage rather than single achievements.

    daniel, for instance, is not sponsored because he claimed a couple v15 FAs. that’s just adding on to his general, wide-scale domination of high end boulder problems across the world.

    sometimes all the commentary about the sponsors being the root of this grade inflation evil (pffft) seems very misinformed and misguided. but i suppose i’m as ignorant as the rest.

    so, on that note, someone who actually knows, please lay it out for the rest of us.

  15. LOLer

    04. Mar, 2010

    It really doesn’t matter – just a jug dropoff anyway.

  16. AB

    04. Mar, 2010

    The idea that there should be “standards” in bouldering is where people are going wrong … in my opinion. Bouldering is non-standardized … it shouldn’t fit into a mold: not the grades, not the problems, not the participants. It’s a free-thinking, free-wheelin’ activity … in theory

    Besides, aren’t grades in bouldering just sort of not serious? Show me one problem that is a “standard” for the grade, and I’ll find 10 different climbers who find it easier or harder than that grade based on their own strengths or weaknesses.

    What is the REAL issue here?

  17. B3

    05. Mar, 2010

    @Crafty almost always those problems remain downgraded, and it’s only because someone was personally attached to themselves climbing a certain number, and took offense, that that was even an issue.

  18. Steve W

    05. Mar, 2010

    Something to keep in mind with a problem like Jade is that it is a “one move wonder”. The stand is “only” V11. There is the probability of sending it much quicker than an 8 move V15.

    I have to agree with Pat on the qualification for a “standard problem”. A standard can only definitively be called a standard by concensus. Can an unclimbed problem be accurately graded by those attempting it unsuccessfully? Usually a “suggested grade” is given. When climbed, a “proposed grade” is given. When repeated, a “consensus grade” is given. When repeated by n number of climbers, a “standard grade” can be established.

  19. Matt

    05. Mar, 2010

    I have no real opinions on the grade debate but I do want to give Daniel props on keeping the project name….. Desperanza what a classic name love it

  20. Crafty

    06. Mar, 2010

    Jamie, I agree. But who isn’t attached to themselves climbing a certain number?

  21. leukaria

    06. Mar, 2010

    hmmm, i have to agree with Frank. this is a silly debate. that being said, i understand that pushing the envelope (of standards) is what sells. given that climbers aspire to “make a living” out of the sport they love, pushing the grade is a necessary evil. nalle’s insightful and detailed analysis of this trend clearly demonstrates this reality. are all “professional” climbers egomaniacs, inflating the grade for self-aggrandizement? i have known a few in my day and can comfortably state that they aren’t all a-holes. so the predominant tendency that nalle meticulously identifies, to inflate rather than sandbag, is more than likely a product of external pressures on their performances.

    in a past dialogue about the subject, however, i communicated that there are certain practical matters that outweigh these pointless debates. anybody is certainly free to try to climb anything they like, but having a grade to guide us in the selection of our choice of problems is obviously necessary. i would (and have been) very disappointed and shocked to discover myself ass-over-tea-kettle on terrifying problems with bad landings that i had anticipated being easier than it turned out to be. accordingly there may be some logic to the inflated grade. better to be safe than sorry. i suppose this is an inane point to an experienced climber, but i still think it a worthy one.

    so i repeat my previous point. the grade is just a guide. it can never be more than that. unless a sufficient sample of short and tall, powerful and technical, male and female climbers have all successfully ticked said problem and confirmed the grade, it will continue to be nothing more than a tentative reference point.

    so until a scientifically robust sample of climbers have achieved consensus, let’s all take a pill. the chalk stains left behind may outlast our FA’s, but the grade is never written in stone.

  22. martin

    06. Mar, 2010

    @ AB: PERFECT thats THE point, you can discuss GRADES forever in this style – there will be NO end.

    if you want to know who’s the very best at the very moment – go to a competition – thats the ONLY way.

    ever tried to go out bouldering with no topo, no video, no grades, no… MUCH more FUN than trying to solve a puzzle again and again, that just never will be properly solved…

  23. campusman

    07. Mar, 2010

    rock climbing, its all the humanity.

  24. Hoff

    07. Mar, 2010

    After reading this post and Nalle’s, I wonder if the reason problems are getting downgraded is because of climbers reaching the limits of what the human body can do. As people climb harder and harder problems and the limits of the human body are approached, adding new grades to the spectrum would naturally get harder and harder to do. This makes me think that maybe we’re closing in on that threshold.
    That’s my two cents on the subject.
    Great post Jamie, keep up the good work!!

  25. gian

    08. Mar, 2010

    i really liked sidepull’s post.

    just to give some real-world insight, i’ll tell a story…about a semi-sponsored Climber, two FA boulder problems he’s put up, and the grades he’s proposed.

    The day i first met Climber, i witnessed him on FA#1
    Short roof-arete-and-mantle problem in a sandstone area.
    The mantle is what looks hard : desperate full hand featureless slopers on top of a vertical face, absolutely no feet, some rand smearing is possible for the fancier…in the end, just a matter of cranking, slapping hard in the middle of nowhere, and somehow make it up the thing as fast as possible…strong arms, belief and rage needed…
    Climber proposes V11.
    The line in itself might not be very inspiring, but the aleatory yet “raw” nature of the topout makes it a classic in its style, imho.

    One year and some later, no repeats, despite abundance of strong climbers in the area (both visitors and locals). It’s not clear if anyone has actually tried it.

    At this time i witness FA#2
    We are a few steps away from FA#1.
    This problem looks much nicer, even though it is a bit of an eliminate.
    Climber has been working it on and off since before FA#1, but suspects that much better beta is possible for the tall.
    He goes for a consciously inflated V13, saying openly that he expects a downgrade and he goes for a soft touch hoping that people will come and offer him some feedback.

    In a matter of weeks, the two problems suddenly experience a lot of attention from very strong boulderers.
    Both problems are tried.
    FA#2 is suggested for V10 with much different beta.
    FA#1 sees one repetition confirming the grade and several failing climbers suggesting V12 or even V13 could be appropriate. Some local legend openly congratulates with Climber.

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