Grade debates are inherently pointless.
Arguments about whether something is 5.12d or 5.13a (or whatever) are as unproductive as debating what a specific color looks like. Yes, while each and every color contains an empirical, measurable reality, which is its wavelength, precisely how that wavelength is “seen” by your brain may be different from one brain to the next, especially depending on the number of hallucinogenic substances that you have ingested that day.
Perceptions of climbing difficulty are just as personal—hence, this phrase, often shouted at the end of the rope, or face-down on a crashpad:
“That move is HARD FOR ME!”
Yes, while each rock climb can be broken down into empirical measurements such as hold size, distance between each hold, and length of the route—the difficulty in moving between those points of rock is a completely subjective reality.
There’s no such thing as an objectively difficult rock climb. Rock climbs can only be difficult for you, and even that will change from day to day or year to year depending on your current waist size and shoulder mobility, to name two of the many variables that have conspired against my own climbing progression lately. Even your mood—that is to say, your motivation to climb—affects perceptions of difficulty. If you’re not psyched on climbing, better to go do something else because even the warm-up will feel like a project.
Still, there are moments in climbing when, perhaps, grades do matter. On a personal level, it’s fun to track our own progression up the YDS ladder. Reaching that next rung is immensely rewarding. The greatest feeling in the world.
Ironically, though, it’s also often true that as soon as we tick that hard climb, we’re also the first ones to recognize that that crazy thing that just happened to us, that once-in-awhile thing called sending a project, actually had nothing to do with just a number. It was about having an experience, perhaps a life-changing one.
Grades matter … and simultaneously they really don’t.
But what about when we talk about the grades at the very top of the scales—and the handful of elite climbers who are either pushing those grades, or repeating those grades to confirm their difficulties? Here, it seems, grades matter a bit more, if only because these ascents are what help our whole sport progress forward.
Top climbers also often rely on ratings to get the media attention that gets them the sponsorships deals that allows them to make livings. And today, that’s no longer just a matter of getting free shoes and a Friction Labs ambassadorship. We’re talking real money, baby.
When someone achieves a grade in climbing that gives that person the distinction of being the first—whether that’s the first ever, first female, first male, first Jamaican, youngest, oldest, whatever—that naturally bolsters the ascent’s significance, and elevates that climber’s prestige.
But one thing I’ve been wondering lately is, who is actually keeping track of these records? And what happens when the records retroactively change when a route is revealed to be either harder or easier than it was once thought?
The answer to the first question is actually easy: No one. No one is officially keeping track of the record. There is no Elizabeth Hawley of sport climbing and bouldering ( though perhaps Jens at 8a.nu is trying to be that guy). Who has done what, and What That Means, comprises a rather loose and fluid history. It begins with one climber’s subjective, potentially specious opinion about a rating, and is then crafted (increasingly) through press releases written by PR people who may or may not even be climbers themselves, then disseminated (and, perhaps, validated) by the unpaid interns working at climbing magazines and websites whose sole jobs are simply to get as many news stories online per day as possible because none of the actual editors can be bothered with that kind of savage workload.
The answer to the second question, however, is much more complicated, and worth a two-minute conversation, I hope. It’s a question that’s been on my mind recently after I broke the news for National Geographic’s audience that Ashima Shiraishi just became the first female to climb V15. This groundbreaking story came about a year after last year’s groundbreaking news, that Ashima had sent Open Your Mind Direct, which Ashima claimed as 5.15a, which would also make her the first female to climb that grade.
There’s no question that Ashima sent Open Your Mind Direct last year in just a handful of extremely impressive tries while on spring break, and there’s no question that she quickly managed to take down Horizon last week, which Dai Koyamada described as the hardest boulder problem he’s ever done and originally rated V16 before demurring to V15+. There’s also no question that no matter what either this sport climb and this boulder problem are rated, Ashima’s achievements are nothing short of extraordinary climbing performances for the history books.
The question, though, is whether Ashima was actually the first female to achieve these grades, and whether they are as hard as they’ve been reported (by writers such as me, which is of course an irony that is not lost on your boy).
Who’s keeping track of this shit, and does it even matter?
Josune Bereziartu, for one, might think it does matter. This Basque climber, who retired from the sport due to shoulder injuries, was an absolute monster on the rock when she was in her prime in the late 1990s to mid-2000s. She is recognized as the first woman to climb 5.14b, 5.14c, 5.14d, and, arguably, 5.15a. I’ve also gotten messages that she also climbed a V15, too.
Josune climbed her first 5.14d, Bain de Sang, in 2002. Also that year, she climbed a boulder problem in the Baltzola cave called La Travesia de Arriota, which is given a “traverse rating,” whatever that means, of 8c, or V15.
In 2005, she climbed another 5.14d: Logical Progression, in Japan. Then she climbed Bimbaluna, in Switzerland (next to Bain de Sang), which is given the nebulous slash rating of 5.14d/15a (9a/9a+).
Ashima’s 5.15a, Open Your Mind Direct, was also at the time given the same 9a/9a+ slashy grade. However, due to a recently broken hold, some climbers in Santa Linya had been speculating that OYMD had graduated to a full-fledged five-fifteen-fuckin’-a-right. Which, of course, is where Ashima got the idea that OYMD is, in fact, 5.15a.
Writing to me last year just after Ashima’s ascent, Ex-pat Brit-turned-Santa-Linya-uber-local Tom Bolger answered my question and clarified the grade confusion with OYMD:
“Yeah, Open Your Mind Direct is a funny one as the broken hold element has left the route without the long-move, good-hold-to-good-hold sequence, but it has left the more crimpy shorter-move sequence that people had previously used. So it’s very debatable whether the top is significantly harder, as some people preferred that crimpy, shorter-move sequence anyway. You know how it is, different styles and heights, people find what suits them. Interestingly the upper section, when Dani Andrada first did it, was way harder but another hold broke to leave a better hold behind.
Amazing effort from Ashima, truly incredible!!! If she is capable of doing hard 9a that quick, I’m sure she will go on to climb 9a+ with no problems! Personally, I thought Open Your Mind Direct was and is a hard 9a, but it is definitely easier than the other 9a+ routes that I have tried!”
Also, Daniel Woods recently climbed Open Your Mind Direct quickly, and confirmed that in his subjective opinion, the route is “only” 9a.
Had a nice double cliff session the other day. Sent Open Your Mind direct (9a) (pictured here) in Santa Linya then headed to Oliana and did Fisheye (8c). It’s awesome how easy it is here to hit up two world class areas in a day. I am currently in Finland with @dave_graham_ @jwebxl @nalle_hukkataival @andygullsten for the Sisu Masters comp. ? by @kaiwebs @thenorthface @sanukfootwear @lasportivana @petzl_official @organicclimbing @gnarlynutrition @island_io
So, perhaps Ashima hasn’t climbed a true 9a+ … yet, because clearly she is more than capable of doing so. But perhaps she is the first American woman to climb 9a … which brings up another point about whether the record books should get changed, or not, when routes are downgraded.
Currently, Sasha Digiulian’s Wikipedia page lists her as the first North American woman to climb 9a, a distinction she earned when she climbed Jonathan Siegrist’s Pure Imagination in the Red River Gorge in 2011. Then, in 2012, she nabbed the first female ascent of Era Vella, a Chris Sharma 9a at Margalef.
Downgrades for both of those routes, however, have since been suggested by a number of folks. Pure Imagination has been onsighted twice. Most recently, it was redpointed by America’s awesome new sport-climbing champ, Margo Hayes, and Michaela Kirsch, both of whom took 8c+.
Era Vella was cast into the spotlight of online grade debates when J-Star climbed it third try, then wrote that there was no crux harder than V7, and stated that he can think number of 8c routes that are much harder than Era Vella.
Changing grades that change the record books don’t always work when something is downgraded. In 2008, Adam Ondra climbed the second ascent of Open Air at Schleier Wasserfall, Austria, more than a decade after Alex Huber’s first ascent. Back in 1995, Huber proposed 9a for Open Air, making it one of the earliest routes of that grade. Ondra, however, with nothing to prove, gave some serious props to the younger half of the Huberbaum by saying that Open Air was a full-fledged 9a+.
Unless Ondra is wrong about the grade—maybe he was having a “fat day”—this would retroactively make Alex Huber the first person in the world to climb 5.15—not this guy.
The other interesting point about Open Air that’s worth mentioning is that the route reportedly contains some rather flaky holds that have broken off over the years. So was the Open Air that Ondra climbed the exact same route that Alex Huber climbed? Maybe, but probably not.
I have to admit, there’s a part of me that’s nostalgic for that year, 2001, when Sharma climbed Realization and the whole climbing world stopped, put down the joint, turned down the dub reggae music, and went, “Whoa.” Would Sharma’s ascent have been as big of deal had Huber thrown down the 9a+ rating six years earlier? Maybe, maybe not. The climbing fan-boy in me doesn’t necessarily want to see those good memories retroactively taken away, but the climbing journalist part of me wonders how to write and re-write history, or whether any of this matters. Based on the number of annoying and irate letters I’ve gotten over the years clarifying something I’ve written—which go something like, “Megos was the first to onsight 9a, not Ondra, you fucking dumb idiot!” only usually much less nice—other people care about getting the record straight, too.
By the way, Megos is currently credited with the first 9a onsight for Estado Critico. However, after a broken hold began forcing people to climb up and around the original sequence, many climbers began to regard this new variation as 8c+, something Megos didn’t know necessarily when he walked up to the base, then walked up the climb. It’s possible, in fact, that Ondra was actually the first to onsight a real 9a, with Il Domani.
Ironically, there was a time when Chris Sharma never rated his routes. The Mandala, Realization, and many other climbs were simply left un-rated. Perhaps it’s an approach that’s worth revisiting as we on the sidelines continue to juggle other climbers’ grades around like hot potatoes. After all, a route can only be hard … for you. And for most of us, all of these routes are.