Monday, November 16, 2009


And now, let's delve into something far more sinister: GRADES.

Up to this point, general discussion on grades in the climbing blogosphere has been fairly limited. Jamie has opened the conversation up several times here and here, and while many interesting opinions were voiced, little consensus was reached. I have two things to contribute to this discussion that will hopefully add a little more objectivity (not to be confused with OBJECTIVISM) to the topic of bouldering grades. READ ON.

For the past 7 and half years, I have kept an scorecard. Like many others, I have found the tracking of my progression to be quite fascinating. In a sport where there are no winners and losers (comps excluded), grades provide a paradigm for measuring one's success and seem to feed the innate competitiveness in many of us. While for most of us grades are not the biggest motivating factor, it's hard to deny the enjoyment one gets from breaking into the next grade or flashing a problem near your limit. Whether or not they dilute the climbing experience seems to be an irrelevant discussion to me; you may choose to care about them or not, but grades are certainly here to stay.

Recently my personal view on grades has evolved quite a bit. In the past I often chose to take the higher of two proposed grades when logging a boulder problem. Over the past two years i have more and more found myself downrating old ascents and taking the lower of two grades. This has been a crusade for accuracy; I realized that 8a is more of a tool for bringing about grade consensus rather than for advancing one's name in the ranking. This seems like a general trend in the 8a world. Many boulder problems that stood at a certain grade for years (think Eternia @ RMNP or The Flame @ Hueco), have since settled at lower grades after more people climbed them.

Since I've been paying closer attention to such trends, I've become fascinated by why certain problems are harder than others and how this might be better understood by breaking a boulder problem's grade down into the sum of its parts. For a while now, I have had a strange inkling that a problem's V grade could be accurately pinpointed by somehow adding up the difficulty of its individual moves. Then, several weeks ago it hit me; there appears to be an actual equation for this!

But only if:

Basically, X and Y are the V grades of two parts of a sequence. So, for instance, one section of V5 and one section of V7. Z is then the resultant V grade of combining those two sequences. In this example, 5 plus 7 is 12, divided by 2 is 6, plus 2 is 8. According to this theorem, combining a section of V5 with a section of V7 results in an overall section of V8 climbing. The limit is that the two sections that are being combined cannot be more than 4 grades apart. When the two grades are 4 apart, the resultant grade turns out to be the higher of the two numbers (i.e. a section of V9 and V5 ends up being V9, which makes sense). But, if they are more than 4 apart, the resultant grade would end up being LOWER than the highest of the two numbers (i.e. a section of V11 and V5 would add up to V10, this clearly does NOT make sense), hence the limit. In essence, sections that are 5 grades apart or more will always add up to the higher of the two numbers.

Here are some simple examples of this equation breaking down well known boulder problems:

Tommy's Arete, RMNP (CO): Generally regarded as two sections of V5; no single crux, very sustained. Fairly standard long V7, maybe on the slightly easier end.

Riddles in the Park, RMNP (CO): Also, easily broken down into two sections of about V10 minus, resulting in about V12 minus.

Eckagrata, Hueco Tanks (TX): Two set up moves of V5 to a V10 jump move. Still only V10.

Let's look at some more complicated examples:

Mo' Mojo, Hueco Tanks (TX): A V9 traverse, into a powerful three move V10 minus, into a tall V5 section to top the boulder out. The V5 is left out since it will not add anything, and we are left with 11.5, showing how this boulder problem seems to be consensus V11/12. It is important to note that a solid number such as 11 indicates the standard for the grade while 11.5 indicates a slash grade.

The Book of Bitter Aspects, Bradley (CT): Two set up moves of V8 or V9, into very unique transition move crux that comes in around V12, into a 5 move sequence of V8 to finish. 8.5 and 12 add up to 12.25. Here, since 12.5 and 8 are more than 4 apart, the last section is dropped and we are left with 12.25 or hard V12. .25 indicates a boulder problem that is on the harder side of the grade, while .75 actually indicates a low end problem of the next grade (i.e. 12.75 would be low end V13). While I was reluctant to downgrade The Book two grades, perhaps subsequent ascents will bring about consensus.

Left and Right El Jorge: An intro section of V6 splits in two lines, the Left turning into a V10 lock-off/bump crux and concluding with a two move V8 finish, while the Right coincidentally exits with a V7 lock-off/bump crux as well. 6 + 10 + 8 = 11.5 for Left El Jorge and 6 + 7 = 8.5 for Right El Jorge. This seems to explain why the Left was considered V12 for years before consensus settled at hard V11, and why people are reticent to downrate what could pass for an easy V9.

Furthermore, here are two upper-end examples that SEEM to support the theory:


Terremer, Hueco Tanks (TX): Starts by climbing Diaphanous Sea using the left hand holds for the right hand and vice versa (about V13), into Terre De Seine (a V13- move, into a V10 move, into a V4 finish). The 4 is eliminated, 13 + 10 = 13.5 or V13/14, 13.5 + 13 = 15.25 or mid range to hard end V15. Paul's estimate was slightly more conservative than Fred's and seems to be right around this. The fact that the crux move comes near the end of the problem seems to put it at around V15d.

The Story of Two Worlds, Cresciano (Switzerland): In one of the aforementioned posts, Jamie quotes Dave as describing this problem as the "New 8C Standard". Dave proposes that this problem combines a V13/14 start into an existing V14. Based on the equation, 13.5 + 14 = 15.75 or bottom end V16. Wow! Is it possible that Dave over-corrected and went too much in the other direction as he has done in the past with problems like Freshly Squeezed (originally V11) and Suspension of Disbelief (originally V13)? This problem has not seen a second ascent since it was put up in 2005.

Here is where things get a little controversial:


Jade, RMNP (CO): One lock off set-up move and moving of the foot (about V7) leads to what people have labeled THE MOVE (V13), to three more moves of about V10/11, to a highball V4 finish. Here, since the 7 is dropped in conjunction with the 13, and the 4 is dropped in conjunction with the 10.5, we are left with 10.5 + 13 = 13.75, or bottom end V14. Uh oh. Perhaps fuel for the fire?

Right now you probably have several questions about the limitations of this theorem; let's examine the possible shortcomings of pigeon-holing the inexact science of bouldering grades into a single equation. First off, how do you account for the difference between a crux coming in the BEGINNING of a problem, as opposed to at the END? With all other factors being equal, the statistical difference between two such problems seems to weigh in at less than .25. To expand upon this, it appears that the key lies in the fact that pump-factor rarely comes into major play in bouldering; the vast majority of pure boulder problems do not cover more than 30 feet of climbing. Sure there are long roofs such as the Wheel of Life (Grampians, Australia) that have been given bouldering grades, but many have voiced that 5.15a seems to be a much more appropriate estimate of its difficulty than V16 (10 + 12 + 14 = 15.5 or hard V15 based on the equation). Many can attest that there are times when everything clicks and you get to the crux of your long-time project, and you execute the move as if you have not done any climbing up to that point. A personal example of this would be the Automator in RMNP (CO); while the crux move itself (V11), which comes at the end of the problem, took about 5 days to complete, when I got to it on the send I felt fresh and the move felt just like any other even though i had climbed a long V11 sequence into it.

How come adding a section that is four grades easier than another section does not increase the overall difficulty of the problem? It appears as if a four grade difference is a bit of a magic number. The reasoning is that if you are strong enough to climb a V10 section of a boulder problem, that a V6 section in the same problem will feel significantly easier and will not affect your perception of the grade. One prime example would be Ode to the Modern Man (Mt. Evans, CO); I am speculating, but it seems like this problem is one V11 move, into another V11 move, perhaps into a V10/11 move, into a V9 exit. 11 + 11 + 10.5 = 13.75 or bottom end V14. Very seldom do people fall off the V9 exit moves of Ode; if you can climb crimpy V14, crimpy V9 will not feel like much of a challenge.


What about intangibles such as a move being not terribly hard but maybe just low percentage? After much thought, it seems that examples of this are fairly hard to find and are mostly negligible. In one notable example, the crux on Something from Nothing (Great Barrington, MA) after the break is an accuracy move weighing in at around V8. While it is easy to fall on this move, the problem feels closer to V10 than V11 when dialed. Perhaps a low percentage move like the one on Eden (Joe's Valley, UT), that cannot be tried without climbing the moves leading into it is more of a floating variable, but not by much (thanks JJ).

One definite limitation is the equation's possible inaccuracy with regard to the lower end of the V scale. While V3 and V3 do seem to add up to V5, anything lower doesn't seem to quite work. For instance, V2 + V2 should be easier than V4, and V0 + V0 cannot possibly add up to V2. Or can it? I will admit that it is easier for me to tell the difference between V9 and V10 than between V0 and V1 so it is hard for me to offer convincing arguments for or against this discrepancy. Also, I was not a math major, perhaps there is a way of scaling the equation to account for this?

Before you decry me as a grade-harping charlatan out to ruin the pureness of the sport, hear me out...

This is my attempt to bring about some impartiality and perhaps some accountability to assigning grades to boulder problems. Though as a whole climbers seem to have gotten considerably more "brave and humble" to quote the indomitable Jens Larssen of 8a, brazen examples of over-grading still exist. In the end, my hope is that this idea will actually REDUCE the amount of time we spend squabbling over grades, and allow us to focus on what is really important: THE QUALITY OF THE PROBLEM.

P.S. Though I have not been able to think of examples that strongly contradict the equation in my mental repertoire of boulder problems, it certainly does not mean that they don't exist. Give it your best shot! And I initially mentioned that I had TWO points to contribute to the debate...that was the FIRST one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009



We love them. Creating them, debating them, perfecting them.

Several of my friends and colleagues have created lists of the hardest boulder problems in specific areas such as Colorado, North Carolina and even the entire US. While these lists are fascinating in their own right, they cannot functionally be appreciated by 99.9% of climbing community. After all, unless you've done these problems, debating which of five V14s is hardest is little more than moot speculation.

Without trying to sound cliche, my personal mission in climbing has always been to climb the BEST problems wherever i went. I am a self-professed rock snob. Friends have often jeered me for my extreme position:

"Come on, get on it. It's actually a pretty fun problem!"

"Lincoln Woods isn't that bad...there's lots of great boulders!"

"Does climbing get any better than European Human Being?"

Though Andre probably no longer agrees with that last sentiment, the point as that most climbers are not as discerning as me. Don't get me wrong, I've climbed my fair share of 1 and 2 star boulders (we'll get to that in a minute), but i predominantly stick to the mega classics; instead of trying to "climb an area out", I have climbed the best problems in a boulder field and then moved on to other areas.

A potential 5 star problem?

So how does one decide which problems are BEST? which deserve more "stars" than others? Earlier this year, Jaime wrote a nice article presenting his version of "the Star System". While our views on what standards should be used for deciding how many stars a problem warrants are pretty similar, I will go a little further and rank those standards as I see them, from most to least important:

  1. THE LINE - The cardinal standard by which I judge a climb is the line itself. A pure, beautiful, and not contrived line immediately stands out amongst others. I truly believe that some peoples' brains are wired to appreciate aesthetic perfection; if climbing is our ART, than the rocks we climb on are the CANVAS. Ideally, there are just enough features for your hands and feet to get you to the top, nothing more, nothing less. This explains why there seem to be a lot more difficult 4/5 star problems than easy ones; it's much more common for hard problems to have just the right amount of features than for easy problems. The difference between a gem such as Speed of Life and a turd such as this, should be obvious to even the most casual climber.
  2. ROCK QUALITY - This comes is a very close second and is measured on a lot of levels. What sort of rock is it? Sandstone and certain types of granite or gneiss are, arguably, more beautiful and lend themselves to having features that are more pleasant to climb on than, say, limestone. A great boulder problem needs to have bullet hard rock that doesn't flake or crumble; choss is UNACCEPTABLE. Sharpness of holds detracts from rock quality; the nicer the holds are, the more fun you have when you're climbing! Duh.
  3. HEIGHT - It would be hard to argue that a proud pure line of 20 feet is not superior to a similar one of 12 feet. Height adds everything: grandiosity, an intimidation factor, consequences, and you get to climb for longer (sweet!).
  4. AN OBVIOUS START - An obvious place for your hands to start, coupled with an obvious top out jug or mantle, can be compared to the dramatic action seen in a play: an obvious jug begins the exposition, a series of acts leads to the climax (the crux), and finally eases down to the dénouement (Jugs), or alternately, a dramatic finale (a spicy mantle!). This goes along with a good line; chances are a quality line has an obvious start.
  5. SETTING - Though not as important as the other factors, the setting for a boulder can certainly add or detract greatly from the overall experience of the climb itself. Few would deny that Area D in Mt. Evans, CO, one of the most tranquil, sublime, and divine bouldering locales out there, is vastly superior to Lincoln Woods, RI, a polluted park full of discarded hypodermic needles, condoms, and the occasional pickler.
  6. LANDING - Perhaps the least essential factor, though one that cannot be completely discounted, is the boulder problem's landing. More often than not, a few pads is sufficient enough to allow for a relatively safe experience. Occasionally though, things can get a little hairy.
What about MOVEMENT? Certainly, rad moves are a huge part of a problem's overall experience. But I agree with Jaime, adding movement into the mix introduces a subjective element. After all, the other 6 elements are undeniable and seldom change. On the other hand, there may be 15 different iterations of beta that get one to the top of a problem. In the end, whichever method is "most fun" cannot really be weighed when assigning stars to problem. Sure, some will say that judging a line as beautiful is also subjective; the difference is that we all see the same line, while movement can be interpreted and played out in thousands of different ways. For example, while a deep euro drop knee can be really fun for some, Adam Strong's MCL might disagree. Besides, there is a strong correlation between how good a problem looks and how well it climbs (of course there are exceptions to this).

Point/Counterpoint: Jeremy Walton on a beautiful project at LRC that unfortunately does not climb half as well as it looks...check out the weird bird like splotch that mimics the climber's body position! LARK.

These six criteria can be assigned between 0.0 and 1.0 points, and then added together to give a problem its star rating. For example, the aforementioned Speed of Life would have the following stats:

Line - 1.0; pretty much a perfect line of comfortable, positive edges five feet apart, up a 28 foot face.
Rock Quality - 0.9; close to perfect, one hold has broken and one is reinforced so not quite, but otherwise all the holds are positive and comfortable.
Height - 0.9; if not for the tiered boulder behind it, this would be perfectly terrifying at the top.
Obvious Start - 0.7; though the sit start on the arete is very obvious, some might argue that starting there is less natural than starting on the massive jug at head height.
Setting - 0.8; this is one of two boulder problems that I've ever walked up to and had my jaw drop. You literally cannot believe your eyes when you come over the hill and it's sitting in front of you. The Farley forest is a serene gneiss paradise.
Landing - 0.8; again, without the multi-tiered landing behind it, the problem would be unbelievably committing. As it sits now, your spotters can pluck you out of the air on the last move and you'd only fall about 6 feet.

This means that a 5 star problem can indeed exist (5.1 stars in Speed of Life's case) as long as it meets all 6 criteria sufficiently, but it does not necessarily have to be perfect in every sense. In my opinion there might be 6 or 7 of them in the US, and perhaps 25 worldwide (that we know of). I propose that the ambitious figure of 6 stars be assigned to the BEST PROBLEM IN THE WORLD, one that was perfect by these measures, if ever such an hypothetical consensus was to be reached.

So what's the point of all this conjecture? Just this. I'm going to create the LIST of America's best boulder problems at every grade and eventually at every area. But I need your help. Below I'm enumerating every 4 and 5 star problem that I can think of in each grade. Perhaps the list will be narrowed down to the 5 best in each grade, perhaps it will have to be expanded. You may vote for the climbs that I've listed or you can write in your own. ALL suggestions/critiques/corrections are welcome.

Why should this list exist? Simple. This will be the Holy Grail of bouldering.

Get out there, and SEND THEM ALL.

That's it. I'm sure there's a few i forgot about, and certainly some that I'm not aware of; add them! Eventually I hope to consolidate the LIST and have stats and pictures for every problem. Thanks in advance for all the input!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sea Of Czars

Friends, Climbers, Countrymen: LEND ME YOUR EARS. And your heads.

My name is Maxim Zolotukhin. For the last nine years of my life, I have dedicated myself to the arguably niche sport of ROCK CLIMBING. Through high school, college, and two years of professional route setting at the Boston Rock Gym, every major decision in my life has revolved around climbing. Including this one.

Many of you have read my report about the accident that happened to me several weeks ago in Rumney, NH. After much encouragement from friends and family, I've decided to take the time that I'll be spending on the couch down in balmy Florida, and use it to do the one thing I swore I would never do: BLOG.

Since I can't serenade you with accounts of the latest UBER-GNAR TESTPIECE I've been projecting, I will try to hold your interest with topics of a more hypothetical nature. There are several treatises that have been swirling around in my brain, and I will ask you, my friends, to help me elucidate them. This might all seem a little hazy, but I invite you to trust me, and come along for a very special ride...

As we begin this journey, take a listen to this super-jam, one that's often gotten us up during our training sessions in recent years and will be providing inspiration for the theories to come...