What, No Grade!?!

Black Mountain Bouldering is a guide with no grades. We've had countless conversations with people, "to grade or not to grade." Six years ago, when we first began to suggest the idea, most of the feedback was negative. Recently, however, we've felt a shift, with more and more people lending support to the idea.

Here are some arguments for not having grades in the guide. Of course we'll give some guidance for difficulty, it just won't be as fine-grained as the V-scale. We find these arguments compelling. What do you think about them?

Introduction

The American V-scale and the French Font scale are the two international standards for rating the difficulty of boulder problems. This guide uses neither. Instead, we use a color system that corresponds, roughly, to a grade range. To our knowledge, this is the only modern guidebook in North America that has opted out of numerically quantifying the difficulty of boulder problems.

In place of the V-scale, we have given each problem a color. The colors act as a rough guide for the subjective feeling of difficulty in climbing a problem. You can think of it as a probability curve that maps problems to difficulty. For examples, most “yellow” problems will feel about v7, some will feel closer to v6 or v8, and there will even be some that you’d rate v5 or v9. So, some “yellow” problems might feel easy for you, others might feel hard, but really, is this any different from the V-scale?

Even this type of difficulty guidelines has its deficiencies. If you’re considerably taller or shorter than 5’10”, or you have an extreme set of strengths and weaknesses in your climbing, problems may often feel harder or easier than the grade range suggests. Thus is the nature of subjectivity, and all we can do, as guidebook authors, is gently direct you towards problems that we think you’re disposed to enjoy.

We’ve discussed grades extensively among ourselves and with dozens of climbers from various backgrounds. Out of these conversations came the decision to eschew the V-scale, a decision that has five primary reasons backing it up.

Epistemic Uncertainty

Many of the problems at Black have only been climbed by a small handful of people, mostly men, of similar skill levels and body type. For these problems, there is nothing close to a “consensus” to appeal to. There is only the subjective assessment of a few likeminded (and like sized) boulderers. In particular, we are the only ones we know to have climbed hundreds of such problems, and from experience, we have only a shaky idea of what we would grade them. When establishing a new problem, we have no idea how hard it will feel once it cleans up, new beta is discovered, and it loses the adventurism inherent in a first ascent.

To sum: we haven’t graded problems because we don’t know what grade to give them.

False Precision

Body types, skill sets, and natural abilities can make problems of the same grade feel radically different. Since the V-scale is nothing more than an ordinal representation of how hard a problem feels, there are two ways to go.

The most common response is to assume the grade is correct and tell a story for why a problem feels different to different people. You hear things like “It’s way harder cuz I can’t pinch”, or “It’s way harder cuz I’m short”. These sound like excused becuase they are, but they’re not just excuses for why someone didn’t do a problem. They’re also excuses for the V-scale itself, and attempt to explain why it often doesn’t capture the subjective expeirence of difficulty.

The other response is to side with people’s experiences and to criticize the V-scale for not being able to correctly capture them. This is how we feel. If you are going to “rate” the difficulty of problems, do it in a way that actually captures the difficulty of those problems. For example, if you were going to rate the time it takes to read certain books, you wouldn’t do it to the minute and second. How ludicrous would it be to call Harry Potter a 8:10.26? It would be better just to say it takes about eight hours to read, or better still, it usually takes five to ten hours.

The V-scale fares particularly bad on granite, where the holds are often far apart and the difference between easy and impossible can be measured in inches. For people who are too short to reach the next crimp, there is no way to synthesize their experience of difficulty with the experience of someone who can.

The point is two-fold. First, a difficulty scale for climbing should capture the subjective experiene of difficulty, not the other way around. Second, a rating scale shouldn’t have a higher level or precision than the thing it’s rating. If a climb feels radically harder for some people because of height, then it doesn’t make sense to pretend like there is one grade and that this grade is an objective fact.

History of the B-Scale

SoCal has a history of grading boulder problems on wide scales. It was never about the true difficulty here, it was about getting outside, exploring, finding new problems, and training for routes.

Grade Chasing

Anytime numbers are involved, there is the temptation to try to maximize them. You see it in the quest of corporate america to maximize profit, and you see it in the climbing community in what is commonly refered to as “grade chasing”. We don’t think that there is an inherent value in grades, or that some problems are more worthy of being climbed because they have a higher number associated with them.

Although we won't make the argument in detail here, the root cause of grade chasing can be tied to deep cultural trends such as the enlightenment conception of quantifiable progress. We don’t want to contribute to grade chasing, either actively or passively. Because we don’t have control over what people do with grades once we put them out there, the only way to opt out of grade chasing is to opt out of grades, and the V-scale, entirely.

To sum: It’s not about the numbers, dude, it’s about the rocks and movement.

[Update: removed seven words that connected climbing grades to the maximization of profit under capitalism. We decided that that idea needed way more fleshing out. Maybe we'll do it in the future, but until then, the connection is way too underdeveloped.]

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