hard or easy for the grade?

what makes a route hard or easy for its specified grade? how can one route rated 5.10d (just as an example) be so much easier or harder than another route also rated 5.10d?

unfortunately, the answer is not simple.  many factors contribute to a route’s difficulty, and many of these factors can combine in odd and unique ways.  let’s list some of these factors:

  1. hold size: obviously, the smaller the hold, whether for hand or foot, the harder it will be to use.
  2. hold type: jugs, crimps, slopers, pinches
  3. hold orientation: in order of easiest to use…straight down pull, side pull, undercling, gaston (reverse side pull).
  4. wall angle: this one is subjective.  the angle can range from slab (less than vertical), to vertical, to overhanging, and depending on your specific physical strengths and weaknesses, any of these could be harder than the other.
  5. distance between holds: the farther apart they are, typically the harder the move.

once you start looking at combinations of these factors, things get complicated.  so when evaluating the grade of a route, it is extremely important to think about and consider all of these factors, especially as they relate to what your own strengths and weaknesses are.  i will use myself as an example.

i am not a very good ‘technical’ climber.  when things get less vertical and the holds get small, i tend to climb quite poorly.  i started climbing at the red river gorge, in southeastern kentucky.  for those of you that have climbed there, ‘technical’ is not really the name of the game.  techniques such as ‘grip it and rip it’ or ‘yank and yard’ are much more suitable.  so when more than that is required, things get difficult for me.  but i know this about myself.

so, in rifle, where the lines are steep and powerful, i have redpointed 5.13c.  in shelf, however, where the lines are vertical or slabby, and the holds are thin, requiring delicate balance and movement, i have only redpointed 5.12b.  quite a disparity! but i adjust my expectations accordingly.  in rifle, if i don’t on-sight or flash 5.12a, i’m upset.  but when in shelf, i shift my expectations, and am happy just to do 5.12a.  and believe me, it doesn’t happen often! to be such a talented climber as to be good at all styles, i believe, is a bit of a rare thing, especially as the climbing gets more difficult and the grades increase.

“how does this relate to what happens at the gym,” you might ask.  well first and foremost, it is important to remember that grades are very subjective.  there are so many climbers of differing sizes and strengths.  if the routes in the gym were to stay up for a really long time, we would eventually get a true consensus on what the grade actually is.  much like long-standing routes outside, that have become ‘benchmark’ routes of their respective grades.  but, we don’t have that luxury inside.  you, our customers, would get bored with the routes and all the holds would be really greasy.  plus, we (the routesetters) would be out of jobs!

the second thing to take away from this is that with many different setters, we have many different setting styles.  sometimes there are very straight-forward climbs, and sometimes there are more technical and devious climbs.  sometimes you’re making big moves on big holds, other times you might have to trust bad foot smears with small hand holds.  one setter’s style might be typically hard for you, while another setter’s style might just suit you to a ‘t’.  different strokes for different folks.

the third thing to take away from this is that if a route isn’t ‘straight-forward,’ perhaps it can teach you something.  i think this point is extremely important.  this is up for debate, but i believe that by the time you hit 5.12c, perhaps 5.12d, you have seen all the different types of moves you will encounter while climbing.  as the grades get harder, you will see more difficult combinations of these moves, and the holds will most likely get smaller and/or farther apart.  to me, this means that even if you have redpointed up to 5.12a or 5.12b, you can probably still learn a thing or two (or more).

with that in mind, some routes that we set might have movement that is either completely foreign to you or seems to be really difficult for your typical style of climbing.  it doesn’t necessarily mean that the route is harder than the suggested grade.  it could be perfectly reasonable movement for the grade, and this could be an opportunity for you to get introduced to it.  these situations can prove that grading something at or above ones limit is really difficult.  realize that as you get more acquainted with a certain grade (read: climb that grade A LOT), you can more accurately assess the grades around it.  this, of course, takes time.  and if you think about it in simple terms, who is more ‘qualified’ to comment on something graded 5.10d: someone who has climbed over 100 5.10d’s in different areas and gyms *or* someone who has climbed 5 5.10d’s at one area or gym.

so before you mark a certain grade on the customer rating sheets, think about all of the factors touched on above.  doing so can help the grades in the gym be a little bit more consistent.  of course, we (as setters) aren’t perfect.  but we don’t miss and/or sandbag our grades ALL the time…