Who needs grades!

Michiel Hennevelt, Dutch route setter shared his opinion on so called circus boulders in his previous article. A topic that is even more susceptible to lively discussions are grades. Are these even useful in indoor gyms?

If there’s one single subject that causes controversy and discussion in the climbing world, it has to be the grading of boulder problems and routes. This combination of a number and a letter, sometimes with a plus added, can skyrocket emotions instantly. Just have a look on to find an infinite amount of fine examples. One recent case is the send of Open Your Mind Direct by the young prodigy Ashima Shiraishi: was the route 9a+ or still 9a after a hold broke? Is all this discussion justified? It depends. I believe, just like in the case of circus boulders, the answer is in the separation of outdoor and indoor climbing.

Starting our analysis with outdoor climbing, grades serve two purposes. Grades enable climbers to compare their accomplishments with those of other climbers and show the progression of the sport on a larger level. This system works perfectly, especially for the average level problems ranging from about 6A to 8A. Naturally, one can argue that grades are subjective. It’s hard to assign one single level to a problem, let alone compare two different routes. And don’t even get me started on comparing two different climbing areas.

It’s hard to deny the legitimacy of these arguments. However, I feel it’s not as bad as it seems. The great thing about outdoor climbing is that routes and boulders aren’t replaced. The best problems are tried and topped by thousands of climbers annually. A fair portion of these climbers shares their opinion on the problem, be it locally or online. Even the number of ascents can be an indicator for the grade of the problem. By not just referring to the guidebook but also talking with other climbers and checking online grading websites, one can obtain a fairly good impression of the grade of a problem.

For indoor climbing, this system is broken. The main reason problems are graded indoors is to allow the climber – customer, that is – to quickly see whether or not he can attempt a problem without injuring himself or spontaneously falling asleep. Focusing on the grade not just runs you the risk of fooling yourself, it also totally neglects the main reason indoor climbing is so awesome: it allows you to expand your limits in an infinite number of ways. Why measure this using an arbitrary score, assigned by a setter whose perception of what’s difficult or not may be entirely different from yours, and may not even realize it is. You are the only person capable of judging whether or not you’re expanding your own limits.


For these reasons, grades are far less useful on plastic than for climbing outdoors. Some gyms acknowledge this difference and use their own system. For instance, they opt to use only three to five difficulty levels: easy, average and hard. Many European gyms utilize a circuit system where each circuits consists of problems of comparable difficulty, set in a single color. The grades and any comments for individual problems are found on a list published at a central location in the gym. This system is perfect for grading problems in a different manner. Gym owners can choose to retain the circuits, each color representing a different level of general difficulty. Climbers can instantly judge which problems are most challenging for them, while discussions on the exact grade of the problem will be a thing of the past.

So the next time you find nearly yourself in a physical confrontation with a fellow climber about whether or not that yellow problem is 7A, just remember this grade is only determined by one or two persons. Setters do not spend too long thinking about whether a problem is 7A or 7A+, they generally prefer to focus their attention on the quality of the problems themselves. And so they should. A good boulder problem isn’t enjoyed by climbers for the 1000 points they can claim on, but because it’s a great boulder!

Tekst: Michiel Hennevelt

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Bram Berkien

Mede-oprichter van Siked! Verzorgt fotografie en een artikel hier en daar. Daarnaast ook zelfstandig werkzaam als active lifestyle fotograaf. Na een begin als boulderaar kan hij nu ook de lokroep van het sportklimmen niet weerstaan.