The Gradient of Grading
Updated: May 5, 2020
By Mia DePaolis
As a routesetter, I hear constant feedback about grades. Everything ranging from “there is no way that’s a V5 (Font 6C+), it’s so sandbagged!” to “this climb is at least three grades easier than it says.” Of all the comments I hear about how off grades are (both indoors and outdoors), remarks about a climb being “a solid v-whatever” are few and far between. So, why is it that grades never seem to be accurate?
When it comes to grading a route there are so many factors to consider: wall angle, type of grip, depth of grip, complexity of movement, foot holds and height. These factors alone make it extremely difficult for anyone to put an accurate grade on anything. But there is one other thing that needs to be taken into consideration when grading: who set, foreran (editor's note: "forerunning" is test-climbing a route to get a feel for its grade; usually done by a group of setters or invited climbers from the community) or made the first ascent of the climb in question.
The difficult part of grading is that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. What grip type or wall angle or movement feels very easy for me, might not feel so easy for someone else. With that information alone, what feels like a V5 (6C+) to me, might feel significantly harder or easier to someone else.
The way I always thought about grades is that they are arbitrary. They don’t necessarily mean anything solid. They are an estimate on the difficulty of a climb and a suggested ball park of what a climber could be trying. But in my experience, when climbers, especially newer climbers, get too hung up on the grade, they limit themselves from trying something that might fit their style perfectly. Or they might get on something that they’re going to flail on, but have fun in the process of flailing.
Grades have a way of stopping us from just trying hard and having fun.
Frankly, this is the first bit of advice that I give to new climbers — don’t focus on the grade. Last September when I flew out to France to be a mentor for the Women’s Bouldering Festival I was assigned to a group of women who were newer to climbing. And it was perfect for me. Throughout the day that we were bouldering outdoors, I heard a few ladies saying that they didn’t think they could do a climb. It looked too hard. The moves were “impossible”. The grade didn’t match where they were at. But they worked on them anyway. Some made progress, some finished their climbs. Some got on the climbs that were “too hard” for them claiming they wouldn’t be able to pull off the ground. Only to find out, three or four moves in, that they could do it, regardless of what the grade was telling them.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I see the value in grades. They do serve as a mark of progress in our climbing. How do we know if we’re getting better without having some sort of data to support it? More often than not, that data consists of what grade we work on and what the hardest grade we’ve sent is.
I can’t deny the fact that it is an amazing feeling to finally complete a climb of a grade that I’ve never done before. But there is something incredibly satisfying about getting off of a warm-up boulder or a sport route and thinking, "woah, that was an amazing climb!"
Look, I am not a professional climber, and I am not looking to become one. I climb because it’s fun. Because it gets me outside. Because it forces me to socialize (which as an introvert, can be really hard at times).
So, when I offer to take a new climber outdoors for their first time and they tell me they are nervous to go because they don’t want to make me sit around on easy boulders all day, I tell them the same thing every time. For me, climbing is climbing. As long as everyone I’m with enjoys each other’s company and is okay with hanging out outside in the woods, then I don’t care what we get on. It’s not about the grades. No matter what grade anyone climbs, the feeling a new climber gets when they top out on their first V1 (Font 4) is the same feeling I'll get when I eventually top out my first v10 (7C+).
And that’s the feeling we’re all chasing.
About the author:
"My name is Mia DePaolis and I am from Boston, USA. I started climbing on and off when I was 11 years old, which means that I’ve been climbing for the better part of 17 years. I remember falling in love with it at first sight, but I never would have guessed that as an adult it would become my life and my career. For the past year and a half I’ve been working as a full-time routesetter for Central Rock Gym in Randolph, MA (USA) after 6 years of apprenticeship with the same gym. My whole life is now centered around climbing, setting, and being physical in general."