TNB: Eliminated

Bouldering was climbing's highest art form. Then it was regimented. Can the pure experience be reclaimed?

By Rock and Ice | December 15th, 2012

  Now is a pivotal, degrading and confusing time to be a boulderer in America. Last year top climbers committed themselves to seeing the sport progress. Because we’re American. It’s what we do. The time turned out to be right and our country got its first V16. Then, right away, almost uncannily, we got another. As if the V16 barrier was made of eggshell.
The sport had jumped to a new level, yet questions remained about what V16 was and what it even meant. V15s—the same ones that we made a huge deal about in 2009—were downgraded. In Colorado especially, many new problems were established and a lot of old ones were flashed, sometimes with the beta used by the first ascentionist, sometimes not. New solutions were discovered, then deemed eliminates. Apparently, this was problematic for the record-book keepers. Does that count? What’s on? What’s off? Where’s the line between highball and soloing? And who’s to say what’s a dab?

The momentous year ended with no satisfying answer about what bouldering is.

Grades are stupid. This is a fact that everyone can agree upon in theory, but almost no one can get behind in practice. You’d have to be on some kind of Dalai Lama higher plane to be immune to the power and ubiquity of grades. The notion of bouldering without the V-scale is as unrealistic as getting through 2011 without a smart phone. Technically, it can be done, but inevitably everyone with a smart phone begins to think that you are just trying to prove an annoying point by not having one, meanwhile inconveniencing them for directions, weather and Pandora streams.

Chris Sharma pulled it off for a while with the whole I don’t grade anything thing. That was when he was primarily bouldering, however, and it’s a little-known fact that this mantra was specific to bouldering. Now that he’s a sport climber again, Chris grades his routes. Are grades more appropriate for sport climbs than boulder problems? Yes.

Once in the near-distant past, I wandered the beige washes of Joe’s Valley, half disconsolate over a twinge in my neck and the Atlas burden of a Mondo crash pad, half discombobulated by the erratically graded erratics. That morning I had flashed a number of V7s, while other V6s handed me my ass in a paper bag. None of it made sense. I wondered if I was having a good day. Well, was I climbing well or not? My happiness completely depended on knowing this answer.

At Fingerhut, climbers and pads abounded. I scooched a pad beneath the sit-start, but eventually, awkwardly, was informed that doing the first move doesn’t count if you have three inches of foam under your ass. Fine. I scooched the pad back, then curled my tips upon the small, sharp razors.

Every climber knows that Newton got it wrong: Gravity is not a constant, but a variable force susceptible to luck, coincidence and how much training we’ve done. For me, gravity was ferocious in that moment, similar to the way the wind can whip off the ocean and produce magnificent waves, and then suddenly disappear, leaving the sea as still as glass. I landed squat on my tailbone on the compacted earth and thought, This problem sucks.

A single move cannot be graded. Well, it can. But I find this silly, like how all dunks in a basketball game are given two points. There is a difference between Shaq standing on his tippy-toes and plonking the ball through the hoop, and the graceful flight of Michael Jordan swooping in from the free-throw line.

Style matters. There is a climber and a path up a piece of stone. The path chosen, and the style in which it is climbed, says everything about the person climbing.

On the cutting-edge first ascent of Ambrosia in the Buttermilks, Kevin Jorgeson used beta that clocked in around V14. On the second ascent, Alex Honnold found a sequence that bumped the problem down to V11. Recently, a foothold broke, and now the sequence is more like easy V12.

Interesting, but the number crunching masks a greater truth. These guys are climbing the plumb black water-streak up an unrelenting 60-foot granite egg. So freaking rad.

Highballing has become the most cumbersome endeavor in bouldering. The standard for many cutting-edge highballs nowadays is to round up between 10 and 15 pads, and have about that number of people—aka the spotters—carry the pads and spot the project. That sounds fun.

Livin’ Large (V15), Nalle Hukkataival’s amazing highball first ascent in South Africa’s Rocklands, is over a 45-minute hike uphill. The sheer logistics of just getting all those pads and people to the base of the climb almost make it seem not worth the effort, like the difference between expedition and alpine-style mountaineering, albeit on a smaller scale.

The simplicity of the latter is what is so righteous and alluring. Fun arises out of the relative ease.

Boone Speed’s prediction is that highballing, burdened by this unwieldiness of a dozen pads and spotters, would one day undergo a renaissance, and boulderers would begin to employ British headpoint tactics on the house-sized blocks of Bishop and Hueco. Two climbers, a rope and a small rack. It’s all you’d need.

Have you ever tried Millipede, the devious V6 in Horsepens 40? This problem requires a very specific strength, one that perhaps can only be gained by squeezing the sides of a refrigerator and lifting it. Of Millipede, Paul Robinson said, “It is humbling to know that some of the easiest climbs can thwart some of the best climbers. How can someone who climbs V15 not be able to climb this?”


How do you grade something? Take 10 suggestions and throw out the highest and lowest grades. Average the rest. After arriving at your answer, take it with a grain of salt, which ironically renders the whole exercise moot to begin with. Says the 6’5”, plus-3 ape-indexed Pete Ward, “As an outlier on the bell curve of body size, I can tell you how truly ridiculous grades are. I have technically done V11 the same day I couldn’t do a V7 in the same style. What does it say when a random tall dude could accidentally climb at such a high level on a given day?”

I think that John Gill had it right with the B Scale. Three levels: easy (B1), hard (B2), impossible (B3). That’s sort of what it feels like, anyway: there are problems you can warm up on, problems that take effort, and problems that you’ll never do. When you realize that it really is this simple, then you can just go bouldering and not worry about what something is rated.

Part of me wants to get on and register all the insignificant problems and routes that I send as V14 or 5.15a with the comment “Hard … for me. Second try.” It’s not untruthful. Why not? It really did feel hard. For me. This would make a small point. Grades are subjective. Hardly original or provocative. At least it would be exciting to be the number-one-ranked climber in the absurd world of for a minute. I’d never actually do that, of course, because then I’d be like the guy who gets on climbing forums and posts about how stupid climbing forums are. That was I once. Not anymore.

I’ve ceased trying to reconcile the vibrant, nuanced reality of my life—a world filled with real climbers; the friends and people who matter—with the virtual realities of online climbing avatars.

Climbing shouldn’t be defined in a forum. You must experience it firsthand, over many years, to begin to understand it. This sport is too full-scale. Not even the Internet is large enough to contain it.

The first V7 I ever climbed is now rated V6, according to the area’s brand-new guidebook. That was 10 years ago, when I ditched French class every Friday morning and made the bleary drive—a medium Dunkin’ Donuts, one cream, nestled between my legs—from Boston down to the urban forest of Lincoln Woods an hour south. I was with the two Daves; occasionally we’d throw in a Jon or an Al, but never Jack because screw Jack. I couldn’t have told you the problem’s name. The only thing that mattered was the grade, which shimmered in my mind like a motivational beacon.

Over a dozen autumn days, I worked that V7 until one day I scraped up it. I recall my right shoulder nearly giving out, a sickening sensation of bone, tendon and muscle moving incongruously for one sharp, near-fatal moment, as if an arbiter of injury had stood in judgment over a physique it deemed not yet ready to bear a full-body-weight gaston. But through something like beginner’s luck, the rotator cuff realigned, and I got away with it. Does it now bother me that one memorable success in bouldering has been downgraded? Not at all.

OK, well maybe a little. Egos are funny that way, which is the heart of the matter. Yet when I reflect about bouldering and what it should be, I always return to the idea that it shouldn’t be anything.

Bouldering surpasses all other climbing endeavors in its simplicity. There’s beauty and meaning in this ease. No gear is needed to boulder, though a pair of shoes, a little chalk and a pad greatly enhance the experience. In surfing, there is no proper way to catch or ride waves; the only rule is really more of a belief: that because there are waves, they ought be surfed.

There are amazing rocks with incredibly cool holds everywhere. I believe they should be climbed. Acknowledging these rocks as open canvases elevates the experience to an art form, and the climber to an artist. Time well spent. This is all climbing was ever meant to be. The climbers who understand that rules are meant to be broken, and do so with good style, will be the ones who truly help the sport progress.

But bouldering has been sliced, diced, organized and structured to the point that the very thing that makes bouldering beautiful—its simplicity—has been lost. Extreme reductionism, taken too far. In our effort to define and understand bouldering, we’ve abandoned the best thing about it. We’ve appropriated boulder problems as opportunities to measure ourselves against others, instead of the rock itself.

It’s not the aesthetic arete—it’s “the V8,” but it’s only V8 if you climb it exactly like the first ascentionist, and if you don’t, then somehow what you’ve done is less valuable and even wrong.

I think bouldering could benefit if climbers once again thought of the rock as a naturally occurring test that allows you to fully express yourself. The first step is to be free to choose your own path and find your own beta. The second step is to forget about using rock climbing as a way to be seen, gain fame, or determine how you stack up against your climbing partner. The third step is not to allow what others do take away from your sense of achievement, and the lessons learned from following your own path.

As Paul Robinson says, “I love the pursuit of climbing hard established problems, mainly for the struggle it takes to figure out the movements. There is still joy in this, but when it comes to the finite details of whether starting two inches higher with one hand changes the grade of the climb, it makes me want to go off and establish my own climbs where there are no rules.”

These ideals sound nice but I find them nearly impossible to put into practice. I’m no different than anyone else. I want to know how to start a problem, what holds are on or off, where it finishes and what its grade is because those elements add to the enjoyment I derive from properly completing a well-defined test.

Jamie Emerson, who has led the way in defining the rules of bouldering on his blog, writes convincingly on this subject: “If you want to make the claim that you have climbed, for example, Slashface, in Hueco Tanks, then you should define what Slashface is, where it starts, where it finishes, and what techniques are acceptable to constitute an ascent. What really degrades climbing is when climbers take advantage of the inherent trust built into the sport and climb less than what they say they’ve climbed. I think bouldering is amazingly challenging. When people claim to have achieved the same [as I], but perhaps started higher than I did, then I feel that diminishes not only my effort, but more importantly, the efforts of every climber who is honestly doing what they say they are doing.”

A balance can allow for well-defined grades and demarcated rules to exist in tandem with aesthetics and simplicity. If there were no rules or grades, then we might as well just walk to the top of the boulder via the back side. And what fun would that be?

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