The Never Ending Story... of Grades.

posted by dpm on 05/06/2011


It is safe to say that most people don’t understand our grading system.  Who would?  The system is created by numerous levels that are based upon “personal” biases that can not account for the various heights, methodologies, strengths, and motivations of climbers.  I think it is safe to say it was born broken.  Sure, it lasted us this long, but how do we move forward?  We can’t simply keep jumping into the same 8-mpg gas guzzler and complain about the cost of filling up at the pump.  We need to offer an alternative solution and put an end to this vicious circle.


Jade: solid V14c/d.  Photo courtesy of Dan Beall


Most boulderers fluctuate between the V-scale and the Font scale.  Both systems operate on nearly the same premise and have their pros and cons.  For many, the Font scale has become the leading grade converter as it offers a bit more flexibility between the grade ceilings then the V-scale.  The challenge for both of these systems is that they are unable to take into account the numerous variables that can create a “crux” for a climber and affect the grading of the problem.  Stated simply is that they are too rigid.


The main issue, for the everyday 8a user, seems to lie at the bottom and top of a grade.  For example, there are numerous V12’s in the world (some even called V15).  As you have seen on hundreds of score cards there are soft V12’s (even if it takes the climber 3 weeks to send), hard V12’s, and solid V12’s.  It is confusing and the truth is; everyone is right and at the polar end of that everyone is wrong.  So how do we fix this problem and lend our sport some credibility?  Wisdom has poured out by the great thinkers of our time and everyone has tried to offer a solution Gill, Verm, Carlo, but they have only created band-aids when the solution was right in front of their faces.  Don’t grade the problem like a boulder problem; grade it like a sport route.


Rarely do you see sport climbers participate in the back and forth that boulderers do when the topic of grades is brought up.  Why?  Perhaps they truly know whose is bigger and don’t have to inflate or deflate the grade to surf through the testosterone chest-thumping world of the boulderer or, perhaps they have simply inherited a system that allows for more flexibility.  So in order to bridge the gap we should introduce a new system.  This new scale will combine North America’s climbing meccas and grading systems to form one grading amalgamation dubbed “Yosve”…the name is a work in progress.


Practice of the Wild.  Grade?  Sharma thought it was hard; isn't that enough? 

Photo: DPM


If you hadn’t guessed yet it is a splice of the Yosemite decimal system and Vermin’s V-scale, combining everything that might deflate the back and forth about a problem’s grade.  The scale will retain the letter “V” and the grades 1-16.  However, from the Yosemite decimal system we will add an addendum and tag on the letters a-d.  The sub letter grades that are imposed on sport climbs will now help boulderers refine their definitions and come closer to the “true” grade of a problem, before it is downgraded.  


Take The Game as an example.  First put up by Daniel Woods it was given the grade of V16.  Seasons later, after repelling several ascentionists and enduring massive attention, the problem received its second ascent by Carlo Traversi and was downgraded to V15.  With new beta and muscle memory, new solutions are presented and the downgrade reflected that.  But, instead of knocking it down a full grade lets introduce the new system and boom you get V15c/d.  The problem moves down in a grade, but also retains its dignity and offers the community a more accurate average.


The Never Ending Story:  a reference to downgrading hard boulder problems.



It is not perfect, but neither are the other two systems.  We can’t go as far as the Brits and attempt to classify fear and exposure.  There have been several 5.8’s that caused me to “shite” myself.  However, how much urine lets loose down one’s leg may differ from person to person along with the exposure rating.  (Yes, I understand there is more to the E-grade than that).  With this new system we can introduce new flexibility into our grading system, lessen the social fluffing that is found on, and bridge the gap between the pad people and the rope climbers.  This seems to be a system that can at least offer our community a new hope and if anyone has a better name for the system please feel free to write in.

-Anthony Lapomardo


The Story of Two Worlds: V15 for sure.  Photo: Marc Stellbogen


Ed’s Note:  The above piece is obviously a humorous take on a debate and topic of conversation that seems to have no end.  Top-shelf boulderers all seem to have their own take on grades and most of them are willing to give their opinion on it.  Most of the debate happens right around the very top of the scale which, for those attempting to push the sport, seems to matter the most.  What is the benchmark for V15?  What about V16? 


Both Daniel Woods and Paul Robinson have recently retracted their claims to V16.  And both offer good explanations for why (see below).  Way back in 2002, Bernd Zangerl established New Base Line and called it V15.  The name alluded to the problem’s stature as the benchmark for the V15 grade.  It’s since seen nearly a dozen ascents and has been thoroughly downgraded to V14.  Dave Graham called it ‘normal V14’.  Perhaps it’s the baseline for V14 then?    


Looking back at the list of problems considered the hardest in the world and then soon after downgraded is starting to get humorous;  Slashface, Dreamtime, New Base Line, Never Ending Story, Jade, Terremer,The Game, Lucid Dreaming….and on and on we go. 


From the perspective of this armchair bouldering enthusiast, it seems that through the murk there is one boulder that is emerging as the benchmark for the V15 grade; The Story of Two Worlds.  And it begs the question; ‘When will someone think it’s easy and call it V14?’ 


Here’s a few links to top climbers’ efforts at putting high end boulder grades in perspective for us and themselves.  Leave your personal thoughts in the comment field if you want to offer some insight.


Paul Robinson: blog post itemizing every V14 and harder he’s done.  


Daniel Woods:  Video interview discussing The Game and its grade.  


Nalle Hukkataival:  Is downgrading detrimental?  


Carlo Traversi:  Video interview regarding Jade.  The 37 comments are interesting as well.  


Dave Graham:  An old article from 8anu about downgrading.  Dave Graham’s time in Europe could be considered ‘Where it all began.’  


Max Zolotukhin:  The equation.  Can math help us in our quest?


Jamie Emerson:  On The Game downgrade and a list of America’s hardest boulder problems.