When I was 11 or 12 years old, I cared a lot more about grades than I do now. I was more (outwardly) competitive, especially around other strong kids my age. I think I said some pretty stupid and egotistical things back then. Luckily I can’t remember what they were.
Not that I don’t care at all about grades now. I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about the number/letter combination attached to a difficult piece of rock I want to climb. That’s why I sometimes like to avoid using a guidebook when I go to a new area and just get on whatever looks cool. That way, I bring fewer expectations to the climbs.
The silly thing about grades in climbing is that every climber is different, every piece of rock is different, and conditions are a little different every day -- with this in mind, it seems futile to attach a specific rating to piece of stone… but still, we persist. We argue and bicker and insult each other’s opinions -- most often on anonymous Internet forums -- over these things that don’t really even exist. I mean, a boulder could give a rat’s ass if it’s an 11 or a 12 or a 16!
I recently spent some time in a wonderful Australian climbing area called the Grampians. For three weeks I mostly bouldered in the various areas in the northern Grampians, testing myself on some of the hardest problems the place had to offer. The one “problem” I wanted to complete more than any other was The Wheel of Life (WOL). The Japanese bouldering powerhouse Dai Koyamada made the first ascent in 2004, giving WOL a rating of V16… to this day, a grade applied to only a few other problems in the world (and surely none that are more than 10 moves long). There are about 60 moves of hard horizontal roof climbing on WOL, there are good rests on the climb, and there isn’t a section harder than about V10, so it’s hard to assign a bouldering grade to it. But it is on a boulder (of sorts) after all, and so it should be given a V grade, right? Well, I dunno.
After my first day on WOL, and after sending the final problem in the sequence, Dead Can’t Dance, given a grade of V11 on its own, I knew I could send and I hoped I could finish it before I left Australia. After my second day working on the climb, I thought I could do it with a couple more days of effort. When we hiked up to the Hollow Mountain Cave (HMC) on the third day, we were greeted by a host of local bouldering strongmen from Melbourne who were generally nice and seemed pleased that some international climbers had showed up at their “local” crag. One of the Melbourne locals that day was James Kassay, a wickedly strong and technical boulderer who had previously done Sleepy Rave which is WOL, minus the first V9 section -- it’s given V15. Mike, Mark and I, along with the rest of the people bouldering at the cave that day watched in amazement as James hiked the second half of WOL, a section of climbing given V12/13 on its own, like it was V2. As he topped out the problem, Mark, Mike and I turned to each other with mouths agape, as we had never seen such a huge, steaming pile of dung dropped on V12 before.
A few minutes after the dust had settled, I asked James if he was going to go for it from the bottom. He said something like, “Naw, just came up here for a little play.” My mind was boggled. All he would have to do is make it from the start of WOL to the section he’d just climbed; once there, it would take an earthquake to shake him off. As James packed up to leave, I asked him if he had considered using a kneepad for the various knee bars on the route, including one slammer one that was only about 15 feet before the redpoint crux. A friend of his interjected -- “Now that’d be cheating, wouldn’t it?” he said in a semi-sarcastic manner. Mark, Mike and I gave each other sideways glances about the cheating I’d be doing once the Aussies left the cave. James said he used the knee bar that separated the first problem, Extreme Cool, from the second problem Sleepy Rave, but didn’t hang out there too long. And after that, he didn’t hang out anywhere long enough to want to use one. I knew James had been working on WOL for a few years and still had motivation to do it, but it seemed that he wanted to do it on his own terms, with a method he’d set for himself, even if it took him a little more time to do it that way. At first I was confused that he wouldn’t want to use easier beta, but after a while, I accepted it. Or I just no longer cared… one of the two.
After James and crew departed, I started giving some goes from the Sleepy Rave start, but felt terrible. The humidity was up and I was flailing, slipping off moves that had felt easy before. On the next cold, windy, dry day at the HMC, after one warm-up burn, I finished off Sleepy Rave, and then did WOL on my first real attempt from the very bottom of the cave. When I did it, it felt easy -- how you'd expect a route to feel when you have it wired. I was pleased to have completed WOL from the start, but I knew I hadn’t done a V16. By using the knee bar rest three-fourths of the way through, and by using beta that was much easier for me at the redpoint crux, it felt more like a 5.14c or d route. If I hadn’t have used that knee bar and that easier beta, the climb would probably have felt like one of the hardest boulders in the world, and I surely would not have completed it in the time I had… and probably not ever.
Even though WOL didn’t feel like a V16 to me, I was still just as psyched to have climbed the thing, and psyched to have that project pressure relieved, to feel free to go climb on other things (that’s always the best part).
So what am I trying to say here? What’s the moral to this almost meaningless rant? Maybe it’s that there’s always easier beta, climbs can always be whittled down to a manageable level, and grades are pretty much meaningless numbers that shouldn’t be given too much emphasis.
That’s my opinion, at least.
I think the less you worry about what others are doing or what they think of your methods, and just climb for yourself and your own enjoyment, the better. Just get out there and have fun, dag-namit... and every once in a while leave the guidebook in your pack and just climb whatever looks good.