Southern Smoke Direct (5.14d) for Woods, Lachat and the Issue of Downgrading

posted by dpm on 11/02/2012


Somehow lost in the shuffle of Ondramania was news that both Daniel Woods and Cedric Lachat have repeated Southern Smoke Direct (5.14d) at the Red River Gorge. Lachat, from France, is having an outstanding trip. Earlier in his stay he made quick work of Pure Imagination (2nd go)and the Golden Ticket (both proposed 5.14d's) as well as Southern Smoke and Fifty Words for Pump (5.14c's), the latter two in a single day.

Cedric Lachat boulders out the V12 start of Southern Smoke Direct (5.14d). Photo: 8a.nu

After the recent hard route rampage at the Red, the buzz in the forums these days is all about the downgrading. Both Pure Imagination and Golden Ticket have been suggested at 5.14c instead of 5.14d, while Adam Taylor's Southern Smoke Direct has dropped from 5.15a to 5.14d. With regards to personal interpretations of difficulty there are a few points worth discussing.

Firstly, it's very difficult for a first ascentionist to propose an accurate grade. The first person to climb something generally has to work out the sequences and overcome the notion that the route actually is possible to climb. Issues of body size and personal strengths and weaknesses also come into play. It's only after a few climbers repeat a route that a consensus can be found.

Secondly, when Adam Taylor established the Golden Ticket, he proposed a grade of 5.14c. Subsequent climbers suggested an upgrade to 5.14d. Regarding the grade of Southern Smoke Direct, Taylor originally thought 5.14d but since he knew that it was a full step harder than Golden Ticket he tentatively proposed 5.15a. In addition, a few things may have changed on Golden Ticket. After Taylor's ascent, a new resting hold 'appeared.' It's unclear if maybe a rock got wiggled out of a crack or maybe Taylor missed seeing it entirely! It's also worth noting that just days before Ondra's onsight, Nick Duttle broke a hold and posted on Facebook, "True to form. I broke a hold on the The Golden Ticket. Ethan Pringle, Ben Spannuth, Adam Taylor. Sorry guys." Ondra's onsight ascent of the route likely required a new sequence to deal with this section, though it didn't seem to slow him down.  

In the case of Pure Imagination, Siegrist originally proposed a grade of 5.14d. Just yesterday on DPM, he chimed in stating, "YES. Very stoked for Adam. This is super impressive, and while he may be too strong to really know (probably), I think a little grade correction is long overdue in the Red - even if it is one of my routes getting downgraded... Nice work man."  Siegrist's proposal of the 5.14d grade was based on his other experiences at the Red. Jonathan put down Lucifer (now confirmed at 5.14c) in 5 tries after a 20 hour drive from Colorado on his first trip to the Red. He spent much more time and effort on Pure Imagination. He likely found Pure Imagination to be a step above Lucifer, a big enough step to propose the next level of difficulty. Meanwhile, Ondra took four tries on Lucifer but as we know, onsighted Pure Imagination. Ondra reportedly stated that PI felt easier for him. Perhaps conditions played a role for both climbers?

Despite Ondra's statement on the Entreprises blog that, "humidity doesn't seem to be an issue in RRG," Daniel Woods countered on his 8a scorecard regarding Southern Smoke Direct, "felt like a different route in perfect conditions." Daniel's ascent of SSD was the same day that Ondra was at the Chocolate Factory onsighting both of the Red's proposed 5.14d's. Do conditions matter?

Returning to Siegrist's comment that Ondra might be "too strong to really know," it's worth addressing the very unique climbing style found at the Red. Succeeding at the Red is almost purely based on one's ability to hang on. Routes like the famous Omaha Beach (5.14a) barely have a hard move on them (relatively speaking of course). The Red is an onsight climbers dream with generally easy to read sequences and well-featured rock with plenty of options. The result is an area where climbers can onsight much closer to their maximum redpoint level than they can at other areas. The endurance-oriented nature of the climbing also creates a playing field where routes that are well below a climbers ability level feel quite 'soft' or easy for the grade. For example, a 5.13a climber will be able to easily onsight 5.12a without getting very pumped. In Ondra's case, he's proposed a personal grade of 5.13d for Omaha Beach, a route with many ascents that has been confirmed at 5.14a. It probably felt quite easy for him but someone that maxes out at 5.13d will likely whip off repeatedly with flamed forearms. Will his suggested downgrade stick for that route in particular?

It's an interesting subject and one that has been entertaining to see play out. Regardless, affixing a letter grade to a route accurately is splitting hairs. Ondra's flash of Southern Smoke Direct was remarkable, whether it's 'hard 5.14d' or 'easy 5.15a' barely matters. It was still the first flash of a European 9th grade route and the hardest flash in the history of sport climbing. What we've seen this year at the Red is all a part of the ongoing progression of sport climbing. Everyone seems to be climbing harder and with more climbers edging into the upper realms of difficulty there are more opinions available to create a consensus. Please share your thoughts in the comment field on Red River grades, why they matter, why they don't, or why I'm a delinquent ass for even addressing the issue.  

Note to Adam Ondra, you've had your fun and your time is running short. Go get on something hard!