In­flat­ing Grades and Egos

With the world’s first pro­posed V17, is climb­ing reach­ing a new level or be­com­ing a num­bers game?



2016, Fin­nish pro climber Nalle Hukkataival walked to his three-year boul­der­ing project in Lapp­nor, Fin­land. Dis­cov­ered by Marko Si­ivi­nen, the prob­lem fol­lows five hand moves on a series of crimps over four me­ters on a 45-de­gree gran­ite wall. The prob­lem rep­re­sented the up­per lim­its of hard boul­der­ing. That day, Hukkataival linked the small holds and dubbed it Bur­den of

Dreams. Hukkataival, who has climbed at least one V15/16, sug­gested that the prob­lem opened a new do­main of dif­fi­culty.

“Hav­ing achieved the first as­cent of Bur­den

of Dreams marks a new level in my climb­ing,” Hukkataival wrote on his In­sta­gram. “With a hand­ful of ex­ist­ing 8c+ [V16] boul­ders in the world, propos­ing 9a [V17] is the log­i­cal step.” This grade jump was a bold move that sparked con­ver­sa­tion about the cur­rent sta­tus of boul­der­ing grades.

IN THE EARLY 1990s, boul­der­ing pi­o­neer John Sher­man au­thored an up­dated climb­ing guide to Hueco Tanks State Park, Texas. He al­most printed the book with­out boul­der­ing grades, but the pub­lisher, Ge­orge Mey­ers of Chock­stone Press, thought it wouldn’t sell with­out rat­ings. He asked Sher­man to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the dif­fi­culty of the climbs. Pre­vi­ously, boul­der­ers used ei­ther the Yosemite Dec­i­mal Sys­tem, mean­ing prob­lems had con­fus­ing route grades, or John Gill’s B-sys­tem, pro­posed in his 1969 Amer­i­can Alpine Jour­nal ar­ti­cle “The Art of Boul­der­ing.” Gill’s slid­ing scale sug­gested that B1 was a climb at the high­est level of tra­di­tional roped climb­ing, B2 sig­ni­fied a boul­der­ing level harder than 5.10, and B3 was “very rarely re­peated, al­though

fre­quently tried with­out success.” Re­peats of B3 prob­lems meant they were au­to­mat­i­cally down­graded to B2. The con­stant down­grad­ing was not pop­u­lar.

The ini­tial con­cept be­hind boul­der­ing grades was so that climbers knew roughly what they were get­ting into, partly for safety pur­poses. For his Hueco Tanks book, Sher­man de­vised the open-ended “V” scale, short for his nick­name, Ver­min, com­pil­ing a list of the park’s prob­lems ac­cord­ing to dif­fi­culty that he had other lo­cal climbers re­view. He ad­justed the scale so V0 would be in­tro­duc­tory and V9 would be the hard­est prob­lems es­tab­lished. “As soon as the book came out, the race was on for some­body to do the first V10 in Hueco,” Sher­man says. “Now the race is on to do the first V18—or at least down­grade that V17.”

The process of es­tab­lish­ing new hard prob­lems or down­grad­ing the most dif­fi­cult ones is noth­ing new. Jim Brid­well dis­cussed down­grad­ing when he in­tro­duced the Yosemite Dec­i­mal Sys­tem in his ar­ti­cle “The In­no­cent, the Ig­no­rant, and the In­se­cure” in As­cent, July 1973. Brid­well sug­gested that Yosemite climbers had be­come stuck at 5.9 be­cause they were ei­ther in­no­cent (a rar­ity), ig­no­rant (solved by ed­u­ca­tion), or in­se­cure (in­her­ent in in­di­vid­u­als and dif­fi­cult to rem­edy). “Fair rat­ing of a climb im­plies a moral obli­ga­tion, on the part of the climber, to con­sciously be as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble,” Brid­well wrote. He then sug­gested bench­mark climbs in a va­ri­ety of styles to so­lid­ify the climb­ing grades.

AT THE UP­PER END of the boul­der­ing scale, there have been a few bench­mark climbs. In 2000, Fred Ni­cole com­pleted the first as­cent of Dream­time in Cres­ciano, Switzer­land, propos­ing V15. In the past 16 years, more than 20 peo­ple have re­peated the prob­lem, with over half call­ing it V14. In 2004, Dave Gra­ham sug­gested that The Story

of Two Worlds, a prob­lem he put up in Cres­ciano, be the bench­mark for V15. Th­ese climbs as stan­dards for the grade have fluc­tu­ated, mean­ing new beta, bro­ken holds, and im­proved gear—like bet­ter crash­pads, shoes, and kneepads—have made them “eas­ier.” A dozen peo­ple have re­peated Story, re­se­quenc­ing many of Gra­ham’s orig­i­nal moves and us­ing bet­ter toe-hook rub­ber on their rock shoes. “It might be V14 now,” Gra­ham says. Most of the dozen re­peaters call it V15, mak­ing it one of more than a hun­dred V15s in the world, ac­cord­ing to a thor­ough list on 99boul­

“I do be­lieve V15 is so­lid­i­fied at this point,” says Daniel Woods, who has climbed and es­tab­lished 22 prob­lems of the grade. With so many prob­lems given V15, a num­ber of them have reached a con­sen­sus rat­ing. Cer­tainly some will be easy for the grade, some dif­fi­cult, and some ac­cu­rate, but is­sues arise be­cause there have been so few re­peat as­cents.

There are only five V16s com­pared to the hun­dred-odd V15s. A num­ber of sug­gested V16s have been down­graded, cre­at­ing an even wider base of V15s. When Woods made the first as­cent of The Game in Boulder Canyon in 2012, he sug­gested V16, break­ing the grade ceil­ing. The prob­lem has since seen three re­peats and was down­graded to V15 by all three climbers, who used new beta. In 2010, Woods es­tab­lished Hyp­no­tized Minds in Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park (RMNP) and gave it V15. After six years of re­peat at­tempts by some of the world’s strong­est climbers, Woods up­rated the prob­lem. The Rus­sian climber Rus­tam Gel­manov re­peated the route in sum­mer 2016, tak­ing only a few days. Uprat­ing tends to be less com­mon than down­grad­ing. “No­body wants to up­grade boul­ders,” Hukkataival says. “It makes them look weaker in other peo­ple eyes.”

IN LATE SEPTEM­BER 2016, Woods com­pleted the first as­cent of Crea­ture from the Black La­goon, also in RMNP. Gra­ham re­peated it shortly there­after. While work­ing the prob­lem, the pair dis­cussed one of the larger ques­tions about boul­der­ing grades. “We are left dumb­founded to re­al­ize that the same level in boul­der­ing has been main­tained from Fred Ni­cole, Bernd Zangerl, and Klem Loskot a decade ago un­til now,” Woods wrote in an In­sta­gram post. “We can ei­ther ac­knowl­edge what is a level up from the stan­dard of 15 (based off of con­sen­sus over the years) or con­tinue climb­ing V15 for an­other decade.” Woods and Gra­ham both rated Crea­ture V16, mak­ing it just one of a few re­peated boulder prob­lems at the grade.

In 2011, Adam On­dra com­pleted the first as­cent of Ter­ra­nova in the Czech Rebpub­lic, sug­gest­ing 8c+/V16. He re­peated Chris­tian Core’s Gioia (8c/V15) in Italy shortly there­after. Com­par­ing the two, he be­lieved Gioia should be up­rated. “If you were to give this 8c, then boul­der­ing grades wouldn’t make much sense any­more. You’d have to down­grade all the 8b+’s (V14s) and most of the 8c’s (V13s) as well,” On­dra said. He be­lieved Core rated the route 8c to “play things safe.” On­dra then sug­gested Gioia was V16. “If we ad­mit that some of the cur­rent test­pieces are V16 and not V15, I think it is bet­ter for the whole scale,” On­dra said.

“We’ve been climb­ing V16 a long time,” Hukkataival says. He re­peated Gioia but de­clined to grade it. “Every­thing has not been the same dif­fi­culty, but every­thing has been the same num­ber.” Hukkataival sug­gested that be­cause of grade stag­na­tion, climbers be­gan re­port­ing how many days, how many hours, how many at­tempts it took to climb V15. “It was like V15 was the V and the time was the num­ber,” he says, sug­gest­ing that com­monly ac­cepted grades failed to con­vey the phys­i­cal dif­fi­culty.

After try­ing up­per-limit prob­lems and send­ing prob­lems that he be­lieved were harder than their given grade—like Gioia and Livin’

Large, his high­ball FA (which he rated V15) in South Africa’s Rock­lands—Hukkataival felt com­fort­able sug­gest­ing V17 for Bur­den. “I think Bur­den of Dreams is harder than the V16s that I know,” he says.

“The hard­est climbs in the world will never have an ac­cu­rate grade,” Hukkataival says. “To have an ac­cu­rate grade, you need mul­ti­ple peo­ple’s opin­ion, and once mul­ti­ple peo­ple re­peat a grade, it’s not the hard­est climb in the world.” Hukkataival sug­gested that grad­ing be­comes dif­fi­cult par­tic­u­larly on cut­ting-edge first as­cents be­cause so much of the bat­tle is fig­ur­ing out if a prob­lem is even pos­si­ble. The first as­cen­sion­ist must then give a rat­ing based purely on phys­i­cal fac­tors and ig­nore the chal­lenges posed by con­di­tions, fall po­ten­tial, and the men­tal dif­fi­culty of mak­ing the first as­cent. Sub­se­quent as­cents re­veal the reality of how dif­fi­cult a climb is, un­bi­ased by the emo­tions in­volved in the FA.

There are few peo­ple climb­ing at the up­per lim­its of boul­der­ing. While the num­ber of climbers who have sent V15 has in­creased, most lack a di­verse ré­sumé at the range. “How can you know such a grade with so few par­tic­i­pants?” Gra­ham says of rat­ing high-end prob­lems. “It’s like an ex­per­i­ment with six con­trol sub­jects.” Fur­ther­more, new grade lev­els are es­tab­lished by first as­cents since up­grad­ing es­tab­lished prob­lems is a rar­ity. In the next few years, grades will most likely con­tinue to in­crease. In­di­vid­ual climbers may be­come “stuck” on a grade for years, and un­doubt­edly the grade de­bate will con­tinue. Since all grades are sub­jec­tive, noth­ing will ever be V16 for every­one. As Woods puts it, “We’re not math­e­ma­ti­cians over here.”


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