Friday, December 17, 2010

The Trip Of Northern Aggression - Grades

Oh yes. Grades. Numbers. Sickyillgnar sends of the highest degree.

Not quite.

Katie did accumulate some great numbers(5,5,6,7, plus a couple punts on another 7 and an 8) but I did not. Happily though, I climbed a shitload of easy stuff and did Slush Puppy once again bringing that total up to maybe 30 laps on the rig. I really enjoy that boulder problem. One of my all time favs. No question.


As you all know, grades suck. Adam Henry does one thing right telling you to get the white out and pen ready just in case you disagree with a grade. Who cares, really?

They can be fun to talk about though and Katie and I chatted about them enough to get my head around what I want to say here. Bear with me. I may have had a beer or two at this point. Heh.

What I'm gonna make an attempt to do here is compare 3 different areas. Should be a fun time.

Disclaimer - I absolutely hate grades and abhor what they do to the climbing community. That said, I see their relevance.

Little Rock City - This is without a doubt the softest of the three areas that I'll talk about. Grades don't seem hard here, but it's not soft in the grand scheme of the world. They seem right on par with what standards should at least start at. Possibly it's the type of problems or the kind of holds but people generally climb rather well here.

Common consensus is that grades are solid and the problems themselves are fun. The nice thing about it all is that grades seem the least talked about topic here. No one seems to care. Some stuff is hard. Some is soft. Most importantly people seem to talk about quality here and that's one of the endearing factors about the boulderfield. The climbing is just plain good and that's what people care about.

The other cool thing is that it's a very historic area dating back 30-40 years. It's got a ton of history and as you walk through the field you find yourself over and over again smiling to yourself at how good you have it.

Flat landings. Comfy holds. Friendly locals.

In many ways I find this area the most enjoyable climbing I've ever encountered. I truly love it here.

HP40 - Oh Horse Pens. What can I say about you. I really do love you. Your atmosphere is perfect and I truly love being able to stay in your campground for days on end without having to leave. You're a rare gem and you'll always hold a special place in my heart.

You try so hard though.

Inevitably grades come up when you talk about HP40. The new guide only made that type of talk more prevalent and it's entertaining to me.

For those that don't know, the latest guide downgraded many problems almost randomly. There seem to be very few "testpiece" problems there and it makes the grades even more confuzzled than you'd imagine. Random downgrading seems to be the motive and it's pretty fun to watch as an outsider. Even some of the locals seem salty.

The most entertaining part of this is that HP40 is the youngest area that I'll talk about and the downgrading seems to come almost 100% ego driven. HP wants to be the hardest area. It wants to be the most sandbagged. It wants people leaving beaten, bruised and battered.

It's just not THAT stiff though.

More than anything it's a style thing(much like the next area I'll talk about). You get it or you don't. If you get good conditions and the problem suits you, then things feel rather easy. In the guide Adam states that problems are based on someone doing the problem many times in perfect conditions and knowing the optimal beta.

I can oddly understand that to a certain point. I've done Slush Puppy many, many times and it feels absolutely piss easy now. Like warm up easy. I would never grade it based on that though. It just fits me. It clicks.

That's how it happens sometimes.

HP is an interesting one to me partly because the comps continue to drive the grades down further and further as locals get the place even more wired.

I'll end HP on a funny note. Katie and I went across the 4X4 road to Suspicion and Wrist Distentia on one of our days there. The comp tags were still up so we had a look around. What made me laugh is that the guide came out earlier this year, 8-10 months ago. Wrist Distentia had already been downgraded from the guidebook from a V8 to a V7.

They try so hard.

Devil's Lake, WI - Yep. I'm bringing DL into this. We all know why. DL is old school. The grades are stiff, the rock is solid and very slick, the approaches tend to suck and the landings are brutal. All of it brings a certain experience to a day at the boulders.

What's striking to me about the grades at DL though is that ego isn't really there. We don't try to grade stuff hard, it's just how it's been done for decades before us. I can't count how many times I've heard the phrase "it'd be V7 at any other area.....but it's soft V6 here. It's the lake.".

When you come here you just learn to get over it. The grades don't matter. You can do a problem with a certain number attached to it but when you get done you aren't happy cause you climbed a V7. Or a V10. Or a V4. You're happy that you climbed a beautiful problem over a shit landing with far too few pads and far too many confused spotters shuffling pads over different levels of talus.

One of the endearing things about the lake is that grades lose meaning very quickly. It's not that you go there wanting to pad your scorecard with sick sends and high numbers. It's not that you bring someone there hoping they get shutdown on grades they can normally do.

Grades just don't matter that much there. Grades lose their focus and the problems take center stage. The movement takes over and conversations about grading come about so little that you don't even think about it. It's just a fact of life. You deal with it and move on. The climbing is too good not to.

You stop thinking about how Jenga could be a V6 or a V7 and you keep reminding yourself how good of a climb it is. Alpine Club doesn't register as a V9 but rather an absolutely perfect boulder problem with an obvious 'sit your ass on the ground start' and amazing movement. Flatiron doesn't come to life as this brutally hard V4 but instead a John Gill problem. A problem with such history that you can't help but ignore the history of the chipped hold that no one seems to be able to point out.

Problems like Big Bud Arete and Smooth Operator lose the fact that they're moderates and instead morph into beautiful, hair raising highballs that keep your attention until the walk off.

So often when we go on trips we get so attached to a number. We get so convinced that our trip won't be successful unless we climb something hard. Something at our top level. We seem to forget the basics of why we do this. We forget that it all comes down to enjoying yourself on a given problem or route. Enjoying the movement and the experience we ignore all too often.

Too often we need to reevaluate our climbing and our motivations. It's times like these that I enjoy having an area like the lake nearby. It keeps me honest.

Enjoy some of the other pictures from our trip. It's been fun recapping it for anyone paying attention.


  1. Did you put like fifty million pictures just to make it hard to get to the bottom of the post and find the comments button? I don't want to see any pictures, I just want the opportunity to spew some hate. Don't make it hard on me.

    Just a few indirect comments about grades:

    1. Slope of Dadaism felt like the hardest problem I have ever done.

    2. Melin still hasn't done Pete's pebble.

    3. Every area that I have ever climbed (not many, but still) has had problems rated below V3 that shut me down.

    4. I like sandbagging, but not when it's being done to leave people bruised and defeated (unless said people are on my top 10 people I hate list).

    Unrelated but people might find it amusing. At the plastic climbatorium today, group of yuppy wives walks in. Walks past the bouldering cave of doom and goes `Is this the easy kiddie area? Oh this is where I am going to be whole day.'

  2. "...and look, the easy kiddie area comes with it's own brown pool boy."

    Yeah, climb more and think about how you fit into the difficulty/I-am-a-badass-scheme less.

    Great post. ce

  3. Nice post Steve, I have to agree with the HP40 vs LRC grading. Love the photos!