Climbing Grades & Self Image

I set at the Spire Climbing Center in Bozeman, Montana. A couple years ago, Spire initiated a sliding scale grading system for boulder problems. Many gyms use a similar technique for adapting the outdoor V scale to indoor bouldering. In theory, lumping a couple of V grades into one umbrella number helps mitigate the contrivances of an artificial climb.

This system worked well for a couple years. People adapted. Gym climbers knew how to apply the S scale to their climbing routines. We began to identify with the S scale on some level: “I’m a S2 climber.” “I climbed my first S4!” And so on. 

Then one stormy, ominous day, the setters stole into the south side of the gym with malevolence—pure MALEVOLENCE!—pulsing through our veins. We stripped the wall of the soft child’s play of yesteryear and drilled in a new order. The new Spire system bumped the V scale down one number in order to better represent the difficulty of climbs on the lower and higher ends of the spectrum. (S1, for example, shifted from V0/1 to V1/2.)

Complete and utter dismay unfolded. Meanwhile, the maniacal laughter of the setters ricocheted through the gym, causing chalk to rain down from the ceiling. 

Though I’m obviously downplaying the reaction, I did hear at least a dozen times: “It’s demoralizing.” 

This word—demoralizing—had me thinking more deeply about grades in general. As climbers we talk about grades often. Grades offer many benefits: they help us navigate new crags; they can prevent injury and inspire confidence; they offer landmarks on our journeys. Climbing the first of a grade, indoor or outdoor, can be a meaningful breakthrough.

Yes, grades affect self-image, sometimes in positive ways; other times, in self-defeating ways.  

Demoralizing means to cause someone to lose confidence or hope and become dispirited. This is a very strong verb to describe one’s climbing experience. There was an experiment at play with the change in the S grade: what happens to the climber’s psyche when her identity is enmeshed in a number and that number shifts?

I’m my own best lab rat. Five years ago my now-husband and I took two climbing trips: one to Hueco Tanks and one to the Red River Gorge. At Hueco I found myself projecting grades I typically warmed up on. The same happened a few months later at the RRG.

Demoralized was a perfect word for how I felt.

Back in Montana I realized a couple things: the climbing styles at both these destinations were radically different than any I had encountered before. I decided to focus on the gratitude for having the privilege of these climbing trips in the first place. I learned new techniques. Not gracefully, mind you, but I did return home with an expanded arsenal of moments. 

More so, I learned that if I continue to invest my identity as a climber in grades, my emotional wellbeing would be subject to the fluid nature of grades, both indoor and outdoor.

While I gained this knowledge, I haven’t perfected applying it to my life. I still have moments when I feel like I should send something quicker because it’s a certain grade. I’ve also let a grade intimidate me from trying a route I found beautiful and intriguing. For many climbers, myself included, part of our journey is to move away from the control grades can have over our self-image: this includes what we expect from ourselves as well as what we view as possible.

I’ve had an opportunity to reevaluate my relationship to grades on a recent trip to Bishop. I arrived to the Buttermilks and Tablelands with a handful of problems I wanted to project. Though they are in the same grade range, they each vary in the reason why they are the grade given.

A power endurance V7 highlights fundamentally different strengths and weaknesses than a technical, single-crux V7, and yet they receive the same grade. The grade, in a way, proves irrelevant: it’s the movement I’m seeking to accomplish, not the number.

I’ve had many moments on this trip where I wondered why something was hard for me. This has happened on my projects, of course. But it’s also happened on climbs with a grade I assumed I’d climb with relative ease. 

If I’m exhausted and sore and prone to self-pity, I’ll whittle the reason down to “I’m just not good enough to do this climb.” But when I’m looking at the challenge from the vantage point of my higher self, I’ll seek to identify the particular move that’s stopping me from climbing the problem.

The opposite of demoralized is to have confidence, hope in ourselves, and a spirited, inquisitive nature. Rather than becoming demoralized with our performance, indoor or outdoor, because of a grade, the questions shifts from “Why can’t I climb this grade?” to “What do I need to learn in order to do this particular move?”

The grade itself, after all, isn’t the challenge—it’s the movements our bodies have yet to learn and execute. When we can shift our perspective away from the number and to the movement, climbing as a whole becomes less a ladder game and more a life-long process of learning.

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