Flaws in the Yosemite Decimal System

I sent a 5.12a then a 5.11d at the same crag, and the .11d seemed way harder. What’s up with the inconsistent rating of the Yosemite Decimal System?

I sent a 5.12a then a 5.11d at the same crag, and the .11d seemed way harder. What’s up with the inconsistent rating rating of the Yosemite Decimal System?

—B. Dog via rockandice.com 

You should know that .11d is harder than .12a. People who put up .11ds are afraid to take the grade to the next level, so underrate the routes. People who put up .12as are fluffers and don’t want to be thought of as weak, so they overrate. For these reasons, I avoid .11ds and make 5.12a my favorite grade.

The original Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) objectively compared the difficulty of 10 routes at Tahquitz. The grade 5.0 was the easiest and 5.9 the hardest. Simple, easy to grasp, but as flawed and inadequate as a two-party political system. Ignoring the geographically-impaired flub of calling it the Yosemite system when the routes were in Tahquitz, whoever thought that 5.9 was the maximum level of human physical and mental capacity must have worked at Taco Bell.


[Also Read Gear For Adventure: Bolting a New Route]


Unfortunately, in 85 years of use, the YDS system has only become fuzzier, less objective. I’ll explain. The Subjective Theory of Ratings states, “The rating of a route is not determined by any inherent difficulty, nor by the amount of labor required to establish the route, but instead the rating is determined by the importance the first ascentionist places on the route for the achievement of his desired ends.” In essence, people who do FAs have agendas that trump an accurate rating. Common motivators for mucking up the system are:

1. PRAISE AND AFFIRMATION. The best way to hear that your route is great is to overrate it. Success makes people happy, while failure makes them sad. When your route is underrated/sandbagged and people fail they will be angry and your climb will get one star in the guide. Over-rate a route, and people will dig it and recommend it as a climb to “piss all over.”

2. EGO. The desire to be perceived as a great climber is as irresistible as breathing. Nudge an .11d up to .12a or even b and you will be great, at least until someone “pisses all over it.” To avoid shame, save over-grading for obscure lines with long approaches that are unlikely to get repeated, or build in a long and dangerous runout that you wire on TR and “forget” to mention in the beta. Or give your route a terrible name like Suck It. Then, when someone asks what you’ve been up to you reply, “Suck it.” Your rating is safe.

3. LACK OF SELF-ESTEEM. These people were traumatized during their formative years by an older sibling. Today, when they are confronted with a 5.14a, they go, “I can’t climb that hard, I’m a loser!” and attach a lower grade to the climb they just put up. We can’t all be Tony Robbins, but falling on a Gumby’s “easier” route deflates the balloon for those of us with parental affirmation and throws the rating scale into turmoil. What are we to do? Cheer up, it could be worse. You could be trying to climb a HVS 4c, E3 5b. Gear Guy has spoken!


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 231 (January 2016).

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