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boulders in Fontainebleau


To explain the climbing grades, I'll tell a situation that I have witnessed in a wonderful winter day at the climbing crag. The sun warmed the rock to the right temperature and I enjoyed a quiet climbing day in the nature, however some screams has distracted me: there was a climber who send an overhang, grade 5.13b. Later the same climber decided to climb another route, grade 5.10b. While preparing, he has explained to his companion that this'll be a much easier route, comparing to the one he had just climbed, so also suitable for her.

Unfortunately, however, the ascent looked far from easy, the feet of the climber was sliding, he climbed with appalling technique and has taken more than half an hour to understand how to get trough. I couldn't believe it was the same person, I look under the overhang expecting to see his twin brother, but just the rope was hanging there. When he finally finished the climb, he said: "It was easy; I haven't seen a hold." The girl was worried, because obviously, to see our climber, the easy climb seemed harder than the hard climb, but thanks to some of my suggestions, she went up the route with much more ease and elegance than his climbing partner. This is just the last example of a climber with appalling technique but a lot of strength that I have witnessed. Similar situations are becoming more and more frequent.

On the crags you can increasingly often see strong and trained climbers failing on far too much easy climbs for their physical potential. Usually this occurs when people who are exercising a lot, moves from overhangs to vertical climbs, or when the climb requires a strong technical creativity. These climbers can have in their curriculum a number of climbs with very high grades even without having learned the basics of climbing. This contrast becomes even more evident, when you move from low crags to the mountains with trad climbing: try to ask some mountaineer and he will tell you about sport climbers with very high grades in their curriculum, which turned out to be very bad climbing companions, sometimes even worse than a beginner.

What is your climbing grade? The quality of a climber is based on how hard they climb?

The climbing grade helps us to know the difficulty that we can find on a climb, but it is also a way to create a hierarchy. It is, actually, a very indirect way to compare. The competitions are a direct way: at the end there are those who come first, second, and those who come third. When you ask someone the climbing grade he can climb, you would like to know if he climbs better or worse than you, but you are making the question in an indirect way, you make the way around. So if he will respond with a higher grade to your own, you will not feel inferior, because he will not say it directly: I am better than you. If your grade will be higher you can feel superior without being worrying to appear vain. It's just a way not to be direct, not to express clearly. So if you do not like direct confrontation, such as that of the competitions, but you are still a competitive person, you can choose this alternative competition: the competition to those who make the highest grade. It's a more comfortable competition, you can find many excuses if you fail, many arguments. This competition is generating many debates, and not only between top climbers; elation and misery while discussing climbing grades are present in climbers at all grades.

In 1945, Pierre Allain, a high level climber and creator of many boulder problems in Fontainebleau, founded a strongly hierarchical group: The Cuvier Academic Club. When they had to determine who climbed better they did not mince words or lists of climbs with grades, the hierarchy was simply the following:

Grade 0 : Beginner
Grade 1 : Scrap Whiner
Grade 2 : Poor Idiot
Grade 3 : Tender Promise
Grade 4 : Honorable Climber
Grade 5 : Powerful Lord of the Small Holds
Grade 6 : Venerable Master and Pure Light of the Rocks

I'm not a fan of the grades race, as I'm not of a scale to determine the hierarchy of the climbers, but the scale invented by Pierre Allain can help us to understand how grades are imprecise. Now let's try to assign a Pierre Allain's scale grade, to the climber described above; which can climb an overhang of 5.13b and at the same time is in serious difficulties on a plate of a considerably lower grade. Let's start from the top and go for exclusion. The Grade 6 or 5 can be too much: he has shown very low mastery and skills on small footholds (but we have to mention, that the translation from the French of gratton is very inaccurate: gratton in fact indicate small footholds and holds on which you need to practice precise and elegant climbing). The obvious difficulty of understanding the primary element, on which he was moving, makes impossible to assign even the Grade 4, Honorable Climber. Tender Promise means a hope, yet tender, soft, ready to accommodate and shape itself to improve. Since the softness here has been sold out in order to get the strength, the Grade 3 does not seem appropriate. Grade 2, Poor Imbecile, it just seems to fit perfectly.

Why Poor Imbecile (Grade 2) sounds worse than Whiner Scrap (Grade 1)? It looks even worse than beginner (Grade 0), but the grade is higher! Pierre Allain was an experienced climber, he knew very well that there may be an apparent progression, a forced progression, but it does not necessary translate into art. This is the progression of the poor imbecile; it helps to remember that you are on the wrong path, on the path of the effort, why get stronger when you can just become better? Become better means to understand the difficulty of a route by simply looking at the crag, it means well knowing how to interpret the rock and find the easiest way to climb (see the article on climbing on-sight.)

What are the criteria for grading a climbing route?

Essentially the difficulty of a route is composed by two elements: the physical effort and motor skills (other elements like the hazard are considered only in some scale of difficulty). The first key element, physical effort includes endurance, strength, etc., while the motor skills including technical skills, balance, and coordination. The first thing to understand is that these two elements are almost never balanced. Usually one side dominates the other, for example, there are climbs that require a lot of physical skills and less physical exertion, or otherwise. The ratio of these two elements is also very variable and can reach extreme limits, where there will be climbs that require intense physical effort and no motor skills.

The specialization

Many climbers specialize in climbs on long overhangs, where the motor skills are not crucial and where they can put into practice the many hours spent in the gym. Today's fashion leads to enhance these climbs on long and steep cliffs, where the motor skill matters much less. When I started climbing in the late '80, fashion dictated otherwise: fashion tended to diminish the worth of the routes that required only intense physical effort. This was just a fashion like now the fashion is the specialization on the overhangs. Rock thankfully did not know what fashion is, and offers some nice surprises to the "specialists". The specialization sounds like something positive, but in reality the specialists are horses with blinders: they have a very narrow vision. Specialization means becoming blind to everything else.

I will tell you a story:
An ancient time in a distant country of Arabia ruled a Caliph, he was rich and well-liked because he was wise. He was open-minded and did not stop to the appearance of things. Before he made judgments he always struggled to understand the relationships and bonds that exist between the facts even if, at first glance, might appear isolated and different.
He was so saddened by the small-mindedness of his ministers who could not see beyond their nose.
"Travel all around my kingdom," he said one day to a trusted servant "and find, if you can, all of the unfortunate men who have never been able to see from birth and who have never heard of elephants."
The faithful servant carried out the order and after some time came back with some blind man from birth. They had grown up in small remote villages in the mountains so they had never heard of the elephants and do not even supposed their existence.
The caliph had a great party with all his ministers and at the end of the banquet did get a big elephant trough a bronze door and the blind people trough another smaller door.
"Could you tell me what is an elephant?" asked the Caliph.
"No, I never heard this word," replied one blind man.
"Well, there's an elephant in front of you: touch it, try to understand what it is. One who will give the correct answer will win 100 gold coins."
Blind people crowded around the animal and began to touch it with attention focusing on the sensations they received. A blind man was stroking from top to bottom a foot, hard skin and wrinkled seemed stone and the shape was a long and thick cylinder.
"The elephant is a pillar!" exclaimed satisfied.
"No, it's a trumpet! "The blind man said that he had only touched the trunk.
"Not at all, it's a rope!" cried the blind man who touched the tail.
"But no, it is a big fan," said one who had touched his ear.
"You are all wrong: it is an air balloon! "Cried the blind man had touched her belly.
Among them was the greatest confusion and disagreement because each, while touching only one part thought he knew the whole elephant.
The caliph, satisfied, he turned to his ministers:
"Who does not strive to have a broader view of reality as possible, but are satisfied with the separate and partial aspects without relating them to each other, it acts like these blinds.
He will get to know all the lines of the leg of the elephant, but will never see the whole animal, in fact, will never know that there is such an animal. "

If you specialize, you will lose the large vision. All the best climbers have climbed on very different rocks, with different styles, have experimented and developed a personal style that suits to them.

The illusion created by the rock climbing grades

Why some climbers can do very high grades, but they keep away from certain routes? Certain routes might shake their illusions. They are so attached to their illusions that they don't want to lose them, now they have reached a certain grade on the rock, and for them it is convenient to maintain this belief. It's definitely very convenient, comfortable, but at the same time they have stopped to become better in climbing, they can just become stronger.

How to measure your progression and what can make the difference between a good climber and a mediocre?

Many climbers are certain that in rock climbing, the meter is the climbing grade, as time is for running. Unfortunately, the comparison does not make sense. Climbing is an activity related to variability: in nature you can't find two climbs exactly alike. On a different route with the same grade, you will always find some unknown factor: if you've climbed a certain grade, you can't be sure that you can repeat the same performance on a different route. The grade as a measure to evaluate a rock climber is absolutely inadequate.

In climbing the improvements occur in a discontinuous way, a non-linear way: when you understand a certain topic (in climbing there are many factors involved, strength is just one of them an is actually much less important), such as breathing or the interpretation of the rock this becomes part of you and your way of climbing, you can play with it, experiment. Just the breathing practice can completely change your climbing. Then you will need to make another big step, and many others, that will lead you to new discoveries. In short, the progression is not linear as on a ladder, but it's pretty with big jumps. Every great jump is an adventure, a jump in the void, you have to experiment, do not hang on to what you've already discovered. Each discovery makes you most complete, but this completeness can't be reduced to a grade.

It 'easy to see if you are improving, just be honest with yourself, do not always look for excuses, you do not need to climb hard routes, improvements are seen especially on easy climbs, when you feel that your safety and familiarity with the rock is increasing. Sometimes you can advance without making grades, or the opposite is also possible: you can regress even while climbing higher grades. Where to check if you are improving? Try to think when you feel that you have a good day, when you feel that you are climbing well? Usually is on the worm-up climbs! On the easy climbs you'll see your progress, if you'll feel that you are more secure, that you are in tune with the rock.

How to use the rock climbing grades?

There are websites where you can look for climbing mates according to the grade, but it is a normal practice, to ask someone the grade he can climb, in order to find out if he could be the right rope mate.

Unfortunately, choosing your climbing partner according to the grades he does, is not a good idea and will lead to many surprises. You will have surprises on the crags where it is required a bit of fantasy, but especially in the mountains. I've known people who climb a lot better in the mountains than on the smaller crags and I have seen people climbing very high grades on smaller crags, but when they tried to do a classic route in the mountains they retreated after a pitch. The danger is taken into account only in some scales of difficulty. This means that the difficulty does not change if the climb has long distances between protections or can be dangerous in the event of a fall. So often you can see the usual frequenters of extreme grads, in big difficulty, hesitant and insecure on very low grades when protection is several meters below your feet. While on the other hand you can see climbers with confidence and fluency, even when a fall may be long or dangerous, but you know that they can't climb very high grades.

First of all the people with who you climb together should to be in tune, in order to create a pleasant and creative environment. So rather than degree is advisable to seek common goals. The routes are selected for their beauty and not for their grade! Surely, if you know the grade, this will help you to choose the climb in order to enjoy climbing and to avoid getting hung up on the rope. In the mountains knowing the difficulties you can encounter in a climb, will help you find your way, you'll avoid some unexpected bivouac or other unpleasant surprises. The grade is a tool, a very inaccurate tool, that's all. By the way here is one of the many definitions of the climbing grade that you can find on internet: Climbing grade is intended as an objective measure of the difficulty of a particular climb or bouldering problem; more often is highly subjective, however.

Ivo Buda