Bouldering grades - Up-Climbing

Bouldering grades

The recent debate between Paul Robinson and Nalle Hukkataival on the grade of A simple Knowing (see the article) well reflects the ambiguity of current bouldering grades, proposed to the sponsors and the audience as a means of comparison between oneself and the others, despite their intrinsic subjectivity.
In the chase to the hardest boulder, we can frequently sense the fear to be accused – either implicitly or openly – of inflating the grade, all the more so since downgrading has become increasingly common. Seldom are the variables that make an FA harder – finding a boulder, delineating a sequence, trying without knowing if it can be climbed or not – taken into consideration.
Certainly boulderers seem more prone to correct each other’s evaluation of a problem than sport climbers, and one can be pushed to reflect whether this is the reason why the scale is not advancing.
There have been some calls to the “real” meaning of climbing, and to circumscribe the role of grades, but understandably enough, they had no impact. It is clear that a grading system is necessary, both to measure one’s own successes and to compare oneself to others, above all considering that the discipline has now become a sport by all means. Boulder will probably never be again a simple and disinterested play as it was at the start, when it was a spurious spin-off of climbing in the mountains or in the crags, but it must be reckoned that such development has probably brought more advantages than disadvantages, allowing many boulderers to pursue their passions with the support of sponsors.
But discussing the grades – or the approach to the grades and the rules that could govern the grading system – is a healthy process, that can possibly allow the community not to become too obsessed with numbers and to forsake the spirit and values of climbing (whatever they might be).
We open the discussion with Bernd Zangerl, the well known Austrian boulderer, who set up test pieces such as Memento and Anam Cara. Zangerl analyzes the pros and cons of the current grading system and its claimed objectivity, discussing the role of sponsors – and of media above all – and underscoring the need to maintain the respect for the other climbers despite one’s struggle for success.
Recently, Magnus Midtboe suggested to change the scale to a simple 1 to 5, saying that "if grades should be indicative, why should we have a system that is just confusing, with a unnatural detailed scale?"
In some respects it is not a bad idea. A simplified, less detailed scale could promote and eventually restore a more normal usage of the grading scale. In Magic Wood we used a scale for a while consisting of the grades easy – advanced – hard – very hard. However, it wasn’t enforced and the traditional grading system replaced it again.
We should debate the purpose of today´s grading system and what needs we want it to fulfill.
To me, the actual problem is not the grading per se, nor the scale or its complexity. Instead, the problem lies in the usage of the numbers and their importance for today´s community. It seems as if grades were all that matters in bouldering. The atmosphere has become so competitive. We are increasingly polarizing and provoking in order to receive more attention, i.e. hits on our webpages. By doing so, it seems we have lost the respect for one another. With the notion of “personal grading” the rating has already lost its original purpose, and serves more and more one’s egoistic self-portrayal/profiling. It is not the scale that is unnatural today, but its use.
On the advantages and disadvantages of the current grading system
It constitutes an easy reference system for the community, the media and the sponsors to judge who is the best, in particular through grading based ranking on
It’s easy use in guide books
It motivates climbers to climb up the scale
It creates a narrow and lopsided image of the sport is created in the media
Competition and its outgrowths are encouraged
Self-assessment is lost
It determines a lack of creativity: climbers follow guide book descriptions instead of their own inspiration
On the objectivity of bouldering grades
Bouldering grades were never meant to be objective and I don´t think they ever will be.
Originally stemming from alpine climbing, a grade was crucial information to know which routes one could climb safely. Falling was not an option, as it would have led to precarious situations. Translated to bouldering, a grade is a useful orientation to know what to try when visiting a new area.
Progression in the sport is resulting in more and more subjective scales, and with “personal grading” we are replacing the current grading system anyway. We all know that the grading system is subjective to some extent, but the community reacts in an ambivalent way when confronted with the topic. Depending on who is grading, or more importantly who is downgrading a problem, we accept it without any further discussions.
The achievement of 11-year old Ashima Shiraishi climbing 8B boulders seems less important for the community. Why?
Is she a special case of climber, or do her successes depend on her age or weight, her finger-size?

But Ondra or Robinson, just to name two, also have very specific physical preconditions, clearly differing from the average climber. With maybe 60kg and more than 180cm, they are perfectly fulfilling the physical requirements of certain boulder problems. I am interested in their grade suggestions but which weight should they be attributed in the public? Is the “brave” repeater’s the only voice held true?
To make an example: Anam Cara! The way I climbed it in 2007, it is one of the hardest boulder problems so far. However, if you have the physical preconditions to do the crux move with a heel hook, as was done in following ascents, the problem becomes easier. From the dirt grows the flower felt much easier to me, but it is still considered as 8C boulder, whereas Anam Cara is officially known as downgraded ! I was indicted for inflating the grade!
We are all special. In my opinion, grades cannot be objective, unless they stem from a “robot” climber. A fact which I recently criticized with The Normopath.
Grading in bouldering vs sport routes
Of course grading in bouldering is more complex! In bouldering, where it comes down to one single hard move, physical preconditions and personal style play a crucial role, much more so than in sport routes, making it more subjective.
On the trend towards inflated grades
I do not want to imply that anyone suggests an inflated grade on purpose. However, the air is getting thinner at the top, and it seems as if all means are accepted to obtain more attention from the media and sponsors. Fortunately, those cases of inflation are observed by the community, discussed and criticized.

Another cause leading to grade inflation is the fact that grading is a delicate issue. If a climber has repeated one 8B boulder and then feels that the first ascent of his own problem is more difficult, it doesn’t mean that this problem is 8B+. I think it’s important to try other test pieces to get a feeling for a grade and to check how much space lies in between grades. Personally, I have tried to include this in my grading and, in addition, have always discussed my grading with other climbers and asked them for their suggestions.
Grade inflation becomes more apparent when looking at the number of repeats of certain boulder problems: there are especially popular 8Bs known to be easy for this grade. For instance, in Magic Wood and Chironico we have 8B boulder problems with more than 20 ascents, as well as others with less than three.
On the role of sponsors and fame in the inflation trend
They play a role, absolutely. But besides fame and sponsors, the media is probably the most important factor in this game. Smart use of various media channels, particularly web 2.0, enables almost everyone to reach a certain reputation by merely spending a few hours per day on the web. Today, this reputation can already be enough to obtain gear and sponsoring contracts. This was definitely not the case ten years ago. It’s a great opportunity, especially for the young generation, to reach media exposure and thus satisfy their sponsors; however, when the only message conveyed is the grade of difficulty and the time spent on a boulder, news become boring and in turn, the pressure increases to report even more outstanding performances. No wonder, that the community has become so competitive and is more prone to use inflated grades.
On the possibility to have a scale based on the number of ascents, where the grade is a function of how many people do that problem
In theory, this could be a good idea, but I doubt it can work. How do you get a person to repeat a boulder, if his own ascension will automatically downgrade the problem?
John Gill`s B-scale would be the “best” solution.
“My idea was to promote this new sport by challenging climbers to improve their technical skills to the point they were capable of  "bouldering level" difficulty, but discourage the degeneration of bouldering itself into a numbers-chase.”
(John Gill; The Origins of Bouldering; 2008)
Increasing difficulty in bouldering, what will it require? Smaller holds, higher risks, increased number of moves?
Yes, I think there is space for increasing the difficulty. The sport is relatively young, and a new generation is on its way. The kids have way better opportunities for training and start very early with climbing. We can see a trend towards longer boulders, i.e. sequences of multiple hard moves and combinations of existing problems. In parallel, single moves can still get more difficult. This is where my personal focus lies and I am working on a few lines at the moment, of which I have to date only climbed single moves.
I think the size of the holds will play a minor role here, whereas body tension and acrobatics will be more important. The holds can’t get much smaller, but the walls can still get steeper.
On why so many boulders have been (and are being) downgraded
Some reasons are logical and easy to describe, others are more complex and related to one’s individual approach to the sport, but here’s a few:
– More climbers, more opinions: 10 years ago the bouldering scene was smaller, and thus more easily observable. There were also less possibilities for comparisons. More strong climbers with different preferred styles imply more different points of view
– I think that accomplishing a first ascent always “feels” harder. It needs much more energy and motivation to decode a piece of rock, trying different methods, changing methods and to finally succeed. Repeating a problem, knowing the beta and (even downloading the sequence on the i-Phone) feels always easier.
– rades were inflated in the first place
– Competitiveness in the scene: the person downgrading will be perceived as the stronger climber
– Desire for self-expression, and reluctance to accept each other´s achievements
– Certain boulder problems are climbed with a different sequence or a “trick”, such as a hook or a knee-pad at the crux move. It would be fair, to show respect for the achievement of the opener, and to allow a direct comparison, if we were honest about this by announcing the specific sequence climbed. For instance, Radja (Wallis, 1st. 8B+) can be climbed the way Fred Nicole opened it or not. If you want to compare Fred Nicole´s ascent to yours, than I think you have to do it the way Fred did it.
– Progression: boulder problems have become more difficult, with certain movement patterns, such as small crimps which were something special years ago, being now standard movements. Despite this, grades have not risen, but existing problems were downgraded.
– Use of two Mondo pads for a sit start ;)
To conclude
The transformation of bouldering from a formerly marginal sport to a popular sport – you can also say “mainstream sport” – naturally affected it, and entailed different views and opinions. But the comparison of achievements has always been a part of bouldering. While this comparison could manifest itself in honest discussions, it seems today that the respect towards each other’s achievements and the tolerance in the community have been partly lost.
To me, today we are seeing the changes that occur in a community when numbers becomes more important than an idea. The whole scenario is portraying a sad image of a sport which used to be characterized by individualism, creativity, freedom, exploratory spirit, pioneer-ism, and so on. In the end it all comes down to one’s personal approach. Each of us should reflect what her/his reasons are to climb up those boulders. Some will find it is the sport that has much to offer, for others it’s a way to compete.
For me, bouldering is about creativity and pushing my own limits. It’s about discovering new places, searching the perfect line and decoding a piece of rock. It’s about nature, being in the outdoors, meeting friends and enjoying my time while respecting our natural environment and the people in it. It’s about visiting other countries and seeing different cultures. It’s my way of life. I opened probably 600 boulders all over the world. Some of  my FA’s are considered hard for the grade, and haven’t seen many repeats, while others have been downgraded. However,  it wasn’t because of the grades that my friends and I spent days, weeks, brushing rocks! Nowadays I see people passing by the greatest lines, following their guide books, and only discuss if the grade is right or not. Put your guide book away! Maybe you can find something different! Grades are important if we consider climbing a sport, and for our ego. But if we consider climbing  to be our passion, our affection, grades lose their significance.What becomes essential instead is what you experience while bouldering, or climbing, being outdoors.
We will always have our individual physical preconditions, our own style, preferences and strengths. So, either we change the grading system, or the idea of grading. Until then, we just can try to make the grades as good as possible, as fair as possible, as honest as possible.
I don’t give a  sh*t, if the “+” behind the 8a is justified or not, because nobody can really tell.

Bernd Zangerl
July 2012