Thursday, May 17, 2007

I Have To Stop Chasing Grades At The Gym

If you have read my entire blog, you will have noticed that I have spent a lot of time talking about getting better and climbing harder grades. I've linked the topic of grades to such things as weight, practice, technique and strength. Certainly skill and talent either would have or should have been factored in as well, but the truth of the matter is that, as I learned last night, grades are very, very subjective.

Of course, I've known this for a long time. I mean, the topic is practically sprayed across the pages of Climbing and Rock and Ice. One elite climber does such-and-such route and sets the grade. Then another comes along, gets the second ascent and downgrades it. Of course, at the elite level, which I am clearly not at, the difference between grades is substantial (e.g. - the difference between 14a and 14b is probably greater than the difference between 10a and 10c, maybe even 11a), and it is often not coincidental that one climber finds a route at that level to be easier because of the particular talents or climbing style that climber possesses.

But this isn't the entire point. The point is that even between locations, grades are notoriously different. A 5.9 at Rumney is probably a 5.8- in the Gunks and a 5.10- at Red River Gorge. Now, a lot of this has to do with who put up the routes at these locations. Some of the grading, I'm sure, is similar to a housing assessor's job: a house is assessed based on what condition it is in versus the condition of the houses that immediately surround it, thus making different neighborhoods within the same city priced differently for what can seem to be the same apartment. I'm sure the folks who set the grades at Rumney were influenced by the grades put up in North Conway twenty years before. And I'm not saying the grades aren't honest (because who can tell in all honesty). What I am saying is that people have graded over time according what they honestly feel is the grade. Sure, there are sandbaggers out there trying to feed their ego, but they will almost always be taken care of by better climbers who will come around and call them out if the grade is unrealistic.

But not at the gym. Simply put, ego reigns supreme at the gym. One person's 5.11 is another's 5.10b and vice-versa. My case in point was I almost flashed my first 5.11 last night on a great, pink route at my local gym. Every move was so smooth, so easy to read and get through; I really should have done it clean. I didn't because I couldn't see a key foot hold. Had I remembered it from when I could see it from below, I would have sent the route pretty easily. Two climbs later, however, I flailed and flailed on a stiff, green 5.10c/d. In my mind, there was now way the green route was easier than the pink route. Now, to be fair, the green route was bouldery in nature and I'm not a particularly strong boulderer. So that is a factor, but to come as close to climbing a 5.11 cleanly the first time and then really struggling on a route two grades lower is foolish. The grades really should be switched, and I can only believe the reason why the grades are so different is that one of route setters (I don't know which one) is wrong - either they are sandbagging routes or calling them soft.

Why is this a problem? Well, I had a discussion with a couple of prominent route setters / volunteers at the gym recently and I disagreed with their assessment that the grades at the gym are harder than the grades outside, in general. They were appropriate in saying the mental factor outside is probably more prominent in me than I'm giving it credit for, but if their assessment is true then I should be able to climb 5.11 easily outside, and I don't. In fact, I don't even climb 5.10 easily outside and I can get on 5.12s in the gym (albeit, not gracefully). This is important to me because I think it poses an issue while climbing outside. Firstly, I think it's a safety issue - if I get on a 5.11 outside and it turns out to be much harder than realized then I could be putting myself or other in a difficult position. Knowing that, I tend to stay well below my indoor grade while outside. This is mainly out of the fear that I don't really know what constitutes a 5.11 anywhere, especially if I can't figure out what a 5.11 is in my own, damn gym where I'm a route setter.

I know this is sort of a hot topic for some folks, but I'm wondering if I am taking the right approach by being cautious or if I should just go for it. Thoughts?

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