I can clearly remember my first year of climbing, which mainly took place in a bouldering gym. As I slowly and clumsily progressed and honed my skills, I constantly looked forward to conquering the next grade. I would set my sights on completing any climb that had the next higher number on it, and not be satisfied until I got it. Shortly after, I would be daydreaming of finishing a route of an even harder difficulty. I was a full on grade-chaser, wholly focused on that number that represented how tough and cool I was. Fortunately for me, wiser and more experienced climbers shared with me that the number attached to the climb was not everything. Today we take a look at the benefits and disadvantages to grading climbs, as well as how you can use them to improve as a climber as well as maximize your enjoyment of the sport.
Before moving on, I want to recognize the overall importance of a grading system (whichever of the many systems you may use). These numeric guides serve many purposes such as helping climbers of different levels find climbs safe and suitable for their abilities, alerting climbers on multi-pitch routes how difficult an upcoming section may be, and providing a way for climbers to have somewhat measurable progress. So, as we move forward remember there are key reasons for using the grades provided, but they are not everything to the climb.
A Matter of Perspective
Have you ever been frustrated by a climb that was way too easy or overly difficult? Take each route’s grade with a grain of salt. The grand caveat of climbing grades is that they are, by their very nature, quite subjective; and this ought to be the first stop for any discussion on the matter. Every route will be completely unique, no matter where you climb, be it inside a rock gym, in the great valley of Yosemite, or maybe even one day on the moon. While route bolters or gym setters take great care to ensure that their climbs are graded similarly to others of the same difficulty, there are just too many factors to make this truly possible.
Height, reach, body size, and a host of other variables all can make a certain route seem too easy or too difficult. Not to mention, the style of climbing or the type of rock may play into the difficulty of a climb. Keep this in mind as you climb. My first time sport climbing on granite slab was terrifying and I barely managed to finish a “beginner” route, even though I had climbed much “harder” routes on different rock type and climbing style. Don’t be discouraged when you fall off an “easier” problem, or too timid to try a seemingly doable “difficult” problem.
It is undeniable that climbing grades are useful for showing progress. New and experienced climbers alike can use the numbered rating to have a tangible goal to work towards, as well as a reference point of what level they can train at. However, there is a danger in letting a grade become your “identity”. While living in Spain I heard many climbers talk to each other and refer to themselves as “having a certain grade”. This wasn’t an arrogant statement, just the way it was worded in Spanish to reference the hardest climb they had done. It did, however, call my attention to the innumerable times I have heard someone in the gym or at the boulder pile haughtily boasting “I’m a (insert climbing grade) climber.” For some people, the number at the bottom of a route is their identity, and a means to be superior or accomplished. Don’t be tempted to do the same and put your climbing identity in a number, nor to allow comparisons to creep in and ruin the fun of climbing.
Focus On Getting Good
Like with any sport, it is more important that you practice good techniques and build your skills in order to see improvements in the long run. The same goes for rock climbing. It is more important to master skills than to chase after reaching the next grade. Build the skills that will make you an excellent climber and the grades will follow. In addition, you will be much more likely to avoid injuries in the process.
Ultimately, find your identity in being a good climber, practice the correct techniques to see improvements, and most of all have fun on the wall!